My grandfather, John Kivo, who was a pioneer regarding commercial flight was a great admirer of Eddie Rickenbacker, who made his name in racing, was the most famous American flier from WWI, who eventually ran and owned the Indianapolis Speedway, along with founding Eastern Airlines.
John Kivo was born in Yasi, Romania in the early 1884 and immigrated to the United States two years later with his family. His older brother had escaped the draft into the Russian Army during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877, when many Jews left Romania and headed to other parts of Europe and eventually America. He was young, there was a price on his head, and getting out of the country was critical.
As my grandfather prospered, he started to fly commercially and was a very early investor in Pan American Airways. Since like all Americans of that era, he admired speed and racing heroes like Barney Oldfield, who was a pioneer in the field of auto racing and exhibitions of speed racing. Because my grandfather had met Eddy Rickenbacker a number of times, I was always interested in his career.
Edward Rickenbacker, who was born in 1890, was from Ohio, like Oldfield and was the third child to Swiss German-speaking immigrants. Growing up in the little house, Eddy had the “privilege” of “working long hours before and after school. His life-long love affair with speed and machines also began in his early years. He and his Horsehead Gang buddies constructed “pushcarts” in a kind of precursor to the Soapbox Derby. About the time of the Wright Brothers first heavier-than-air flight, Eddie famously tried to “fly” a bicycle outfitted with an umbrella off his friend’s barn roof. Another time, he tried to design a perpetual motion machine. His father berated him for wasting his time on an invention that had no purpose. One today would call Rickenbacker a “dare devil” who seemed to do all sorts of things and adventures that put his life and limb at risk!
In his first automobile race Rickenbacker failed to finish after crashing through an outer fence. Nevertheless, his passion for speed was confirmed. That summer he went on to win most of the dirt track races he entered, including five of six at Omaha’s Aksarben Festival in October. When he burst onto the scene newspapers misspelled his name as “Reichenbaugh,” “Reichenbacher,” or “Reichenberger,” before settling on “Rickenbacher,” and sometimes “Richenbacher” or “Rickenbacker.
The month before, while he had been in Los Angeles, Rickenbacker had had two chance encounters with aviators. Glenn Martin, founder of Glenn L. Martin Company and more recently with Wright-Martin Aircraft, gave Rickenbacker his first ride aloft. Major Townsend F. Dodd was stranded with his plane in a field and Eddie diagnosed a magneto problem. Dodd later became General John J. Pershing‘s aviation officer and an important contact in Rickenbacker’s attempt to join air combat.
In late May, 1917, a week before he was to race in Cincinnati, Rickenbacker was invited to be chauffeur for General John J. Pershing. By mid-June, he was “somewhere in France,” driving Army officials between Paris and A.E.F. headquarters in Chaumont, between headquarters and various points on the Western Front.
Rickenbacker was given a rank of Sergeant First Class but did not drive for General Pershing. He mostly drove for Major Dodd, whom they had met in late 1916. Once again, Rickenbacker made an important connection by repairing a superior’s broken-down car, famously by fashioning a bearing of babbitt metal in a sand mold at a country mechanic’s shop for Lieutenant Colonel Billy Mitchell. Mitchell, a rising officer in the aviation section of the Army’s Signal Corps, was impressed. He was just the man Rickenbacker needed to ingratiate in order to get flight training, still his main goal. Mitchell would become famous for demonstrating the importance of air power. He created a sensation when he used “banned” tactics in a bombing exercise regarding captured German warships and obsolete American naval ships in the Chesapeake Bay, Virginia and eventually Cape Hatteras. Eventually he was the subject of a famous court-martial case held in 1925. This case was made into a movie, starring Gary Cooper as Mitchell. On the Board of Inquiry, regarding the court-martial, amongst the “jurors” was the young General MacArthur and Colonel Thomas Lanphier Sr. He was eventually convicted. Col. Lanphier’s son, Thomas Jr, was the lead pilot of a P-38 Lightning, whose group intercepted and shot down the plane carrying the Chief of the Imperial Japanese Navy, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. Mitchell, who died in 1939, at the age of 56, also was one who predicted that someday the Japanese would bomb Pearl Harbor. The B-25 Mitchell bomber was named after Brigadier General Mitchell, and 16 of those planes were used on the famous Jimmy Doolittle raid of Japan in 1942
For Rickenbacker, it was a chance encounter with Captain James Miller on the Champs-Elysees that put him on the track to become a fighter pilot. Miller asked Rickenbacker to be the chief engineer at the flight school and aerodrome he was establishing at Issoudun. Rickenbacker bargained for the chance to learn to fly at the French flight school outside Toul. He received just five weeks of training, twenty-five hours in the air, in September, 1917. Then he went to Issoudun to start constructing the US Air Service’s pursuit training facility,
American aviation cadets—college men—were just beginning to arrive for their flight training. Rickenbacker resented their cocky attitude. They scorned his rough manner and speech. During the next three months, Rickenbacker stole moments from his work to continue his flight training, standing in at the back of lectures and taking aeroplanes up on his own to practice new maneuvers. He would eventually earn the respect of the aviators, but for now he had just one ally among the cadets, Lieutenant Reed Chambers. In January, 1918, Rickenbacker finagled his way into getting released to gunnery school, the final step on his road to becoming a pursuit pilot.
In February and March, Rickenbacker and the officers of the nascent 1st Pursuit Group completed advanced training at Villeneuve-les-Vertus Aerodrome. There the young lieutenant came under the tutelage and mentorship of Major Raoul Lufbery, whom Rickenbacker would credit for his success in the air. “All I learned, I learned from Lufbery,” he would say Lufbery took him and Douglas Campbell on their first patrol “over the line” even before their Nieuport 28s were outfitted with machine guns. By now Rickenbacker had earned the respect of the other fliers, who had begun calling him “Rick.”
Both squadrons relocated to Toul, in the St. Mihiel sector, where Rickenbacker had begun his training with the French seven months earlier. Now the American air service had its own aerodrome, Gengoult, nearby. Before beginning their patrols each of the two squadrons chose an insignia to paint on its planes. The 95th chose a kicking mule. The 94th chose an Uncle Sam stovepipe hat, tipped inside a surrounding circle. One officer remarked, “Well, I guess our hat is in the ring now!” And the squadron became known as “The Hat-in-the-Ring Gang.”
Rickenbacker made his first sortie with Reed Chambers on April 13, which almost ended in disaster when both became lost and Chambers had to make a forced landing. Flight commander David Peterson called Rick a “bloody fool for flying off in a fog.” Two weeks later, on April 29, 1918, Rickenbacker shot down his first enemy plane. On May 28, he claimed his fifth victory to become an ace. Rickenbacker was awarded the French Croix de Guerre that month for his five victories. This success did not mean the end of difficulties, however. Several times he almost fired on friendly planes. He nearly crashed when the fabric on his Nieuport’s wing tore off in a dive. He mourned the death of Lufbery. And his guns kept jamming whenever he went in for the kill.
Rickenbacker did get in the air in time for the St. Mihiel offensive based out of Rembercourt Aerodrome, beginning Sept. 12. By this time, the 94th and the others squadrons of the 1st Pursuit had converted from their agile but temperamental Nieuports to the more rugged, higher-powered Spad XIII. The new machine fit Rickenbacker’s style of attack to a tee. He made his first kill on September 14 against a Fokker D-VII, and another the day after that. As Rickenbacker’s performance was rising, the 94th Squadron’s was still disappointing after a sluggish summer at Chateau Thierry. Major Harold Hartney, commander of the 1st Pursuit Group since late August, wanted new leadership to spark the Hat-in-the-Ring Gang (later an early symbol of the NY Yankees) to its former greatness. He chose Lieutenant Rickenbacker over several other captains to become the new commander of the 94th Squadron.
Rickenbacker went to right work turning his men “back into a team.” He gathered his pilots and exhorted them to stay focused on their mission: shooting down enemy planes. Reminding the mechanics that he was one of them, he stressed the crucial importance of their work. Above all, to underscore his point, the next morning Rickenbacker took a solo patrol over the line and shot down two enemy planes.
Building on the leadership skills he had first developed with Maxwell in 1915–1916, Rickenbacker turned the 94th Squadron into a winning team. Rickenbacker was determined to “blind the eyes of the enemy” by taking out his observation balloons. The giant gas bags appeared so temptingly easy to bring down but were in fact heavily guarded and extremely dangerous to attack. He led planning sessions for multi-squadron raids of as many as fourteen planes. One reporter likened him to a big time football coach, “boning up for the season ahead” with “conferences on methods, blackboard talks, and ideas for air battle tactics.” All the planning didn’t guarantee success.
Rickenbacker himself was credited with bringing down five balloons, far fewer than the air service’s most prolific balloon-buster, Frank Luke of the 27th Aero Squadron. Rickenbacker inculcated the squadron with his new principles of engagement, first germinated while confined in a Parisian hospital. Never attack unless there is at least 50–50 chance of success; always break off an engagement that seems hopeless; know the difference between cowardice and common sense. He continued to fly aggressively, but with a calculated caution. What the sportswriter had written about Rickenbacker the race car driver still applied: “the most daring and withal the most cautious”[ fighter pilot in the 1st Pursuit Group. He also flew more patrols, more hours in the air, than any other pilot in the service, a total of 300 combat hours. He brought down 15 aircraft in the final six weeks of the war, bringing his total victories to 26 and making him The United States. “Ace of aces,” for the war.
The military determined ace status by verifying combat claims by a pilot, but confirmation, too, was needed from ground witnesses, affirmations of other pilots, or observation of the wreckage of the opposing enemy aircraft. If no witnesses could be found, a reported kill was not counted. It was an imperfect system, dependent on the frailties of human observation, as well as vagaries of weather and terrain. Most aces’ records are thus ‘best estimates’, not ‘exact counts’. Nevertheless, Rickenbacker’s 26 victories remained the American record until Richard Bong‘s 40 kills in World War II.
Rickenbacker was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross a record eight times. One of these awards, regarding his victories in the air above Billy, France, was converted in 1930 to the Medal of Honor. It was awarded to him in 1931 by President Herbert Hoover. He was also awarded the Legion of Honor and the Croix de Guerre by France. (See Honors and Awards below.) In 1919, Rickenbacker was discharged from the Army Air Service with the rank of captain, which he had obtained sometime in October.
Rickenbacker was received home as a war hero. At the Waldorf-Astoria, six hundred “friends and admirers, including Secretary of War Newton Baker and his mother, shuttled in from Columbus, Ohio cheered him and toasted him and shouted and sang to him. On the streets, he described getting mobbed by souvenir seekers, tearing buttons and ribbons off his uniform.
After the Liberty Bond tour, Rickenbacker was released from the army with the rank of Major, which he never used. He felt the rank of captain was the only one that was “earned and deserved.” He was often referred to as “Captain Eddie” or just “the Captain” for the rest of his life.
Rickenbacker had a name he could capitalize on in any business he chose. He had already told a reporter, “There is no comparison between the auto and the air. I am through with the automobile and I stand ready to place my skill and talents in flying.” As early as December 1919, Rickenbacker had begun discussing with Reed Chambers the possibility of a joint venture in aircraft manufacturing. But the way forward was not apparent. Airlines did not yet exist. Performance and safety were still a concern. “Aeroplane” was still the preferred spelling. Rickenbacker resorted to his promotional abilities to spur public and governmental enthusiasm, but his efforts did not always pay off. In 1920 and 1921 he made four transcontinental crossings, twice in Junkers-Larsen JL-6s and twice in De Haviland DH-4s. In the course of these four trips, he underwent seven crack-ups, nine near misses, and eight forced landings in cornfields and the like.
Rickenbacker spent the first eight months of 1921 traveling the Golden State, promoting the Sheridan and opening new dealerships there. He often traveled between cities by plane, a leased Bellanca.
Rickenbacker Motor Company marketed its vehicle as “A Car Worthy of Its Name.” It was a high-quality mid-priced car, “up to the minute in every detail,” with models ranging from about $1500 to $2000. The Rickenbacker was selected to make the first transcontinental radio tour in June 1922, because it “offers the least resistance to radio because of vibration.”
Rickenbacker met Adelaide Frost Durant in Los Angeles before the war. She was married to Clifford Durant, hard-partying son of Billy Durant of General Motors fame and racing competitor of Eddie Rickenbacker. Cliff was also an abusive husband. Adelaide chose to get a hysterectomy to ensure she would bear him no children. Her father-in-law stepped in to allow her to live independently, buying her a comfortable home and giving her $220,000 in equities (half of the value in GM stock). Eventually Rickenbacker married Adelaide Durant.
On November 1, 1927, Rickenbacker bought the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which he operated for nearly a decade and a half, overseeing many improvements to the facility. Once the Speedway operations were under control, Rickenbacker looked for additional opportunities for entrepreneurship, including in sales for the Cadillac division of General Motors, and for various aircraft manufacturers and airlines. After the 500-mile (800 km) race in 1941, Rickenbacker closed the Speedway due to World War II. Among other things, holding the race would have been a waste of valuable gasoline, rubber, and other resources. In 1945, Rickenbacker sold the racetrack to the businessman Anton (Tony) Hulman, Jr.
Rickenbacker kept his fingers in the automotive pot and capitalized on his General Motors connections through his wife, former daughter-in-law of Billy Durant. On November 1, 1927, Rickenbacker purchased the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from Carl Fisher for $700,000. He deemed the income (he gave himself a salary of $5,000 a year) and public relations opportunities more valuable than the $700,000 in additional debt he incurred. In January, 1928, Rickenbacker became assistant general manager for sales at GM its Cadillac and LaSalle models. Later in the year, he took out another loan, this time for $90,000 to buy the Allison Engine Company, and earned a significant amount on the resale to GM. Rickenbacker did much the same thing with Bendix Corporation soon after. Lewis believes Rickenbacker kept some aspects of the transaction secret, saving him taxes and allowing him to pay back his debt.
By mid-1929, Rickenbacker had returned his focus to aviation. He convinced General Motors to purchase Fokker Aircraft Corporation of America, the designer of fighter planes he once faced on the Western Front. As compensation for his advice, Rickenbacker was made FACA’s vice president for sales. Rickenbacker chose not to follow the aviation company when it relocated its headquarters to Baltimore in 1932. He was quickly hired as vice president for governmental relations at American Airways (of American Air Transport), an essential function as at a time when all airlines were both subsidized and heavily regulated by the government. Ten months later, Rickenbacker separated from AAT and returned his attention to GM, prodding the auto maker to purchase North American Aviation, a company he had previously convinced American Air Transport to purchase. The deal went through and Rickenbacker was made vice president for public affairs in GM’s latest aviation venture, starting in June 1933. NAA was the parent company for Eastern Air Lines, Curtiss-Wright Corporation, and Trans World Airlines. Rickenbacker positioned himself to become general manager of Eastern Air Lines when the position opened up at the start of 1935.
Rickenbacker was adamantly opposed to President Franklin Roosevelt‘s New Deal policies, seeing them as little better than socialism. For this, he drew criticism and ire from the press and the Roosevelt administration, which ordered NBC Radio not to allow him to broadcast opinions critical of Roosevelt’s policies after Rickenbacker had harshly denounced the president’s decision to rescind existing mail contracts in 1934 and have U.S. Army Air Corps pilots carry the air mail. At the time, Rickenbacker was vice president of one of the companies affected, Eastern Air Transport. When a number of inexperienced, undertrained Army pilots were killed in crashes soon afterward, Rickenbacker stated, “That’s legalized murder!”
Rickenbacker’s most lasting business endeavor was his longtime leadership of Eastern Air Lines. Through the 1920s, he had worked with and for General Motors (GM): first as the California distributor for its new car, the short-lived Sheridan, then later as a marketer for the LaSalle, and finally as vice president of sales for their affiliate, Fokker Aircraft Company. He persuaded GM to purchase North American Aviation, a conglomerate whose assets included Eastern Air Transport. GM asked him to manage Eastern, beginning in 1935. With the help of some friends, Rickenbacker merged Eastern Air Transport and Florida Airways to form Eastern Air Lines, an airline that eventually grew from a company flying a few thousand miles per week into a major airline. In April 1938, after learning that GM was considering selling Eastern to John D. Hertz, Rickenbacker met with GM’s Chairman of the Board, Alfred P. Sloan, and bought the company for $3.5 million.
Rickenbacker also scripted a popular comic strip called Ace Drummond from 1935 to 1940. He worked with aviation artist and author Clayton Knight, who illustrated the series. The strip followed the adventures of aviator Drummond. It was later adapted into a film serial and radio program. Between 1935 and 1940, Knight and Rickenbacker also did another King Features comic strip, The Hall of Fame of the Air, depicting airplanes and air battles in a fact-based series about famous and little-known aviators. This strip was adapted into a Big Little Book, Hall of Fame of the Air (Whitman Publishing, 1936)
He oversaw many radical changes in the field of commercial aviation. He negotiated with the U.S. government to acquire air mail routes, a great advantage to companies in need of business. He helped develop and support new aircraft designs. Rickenbacker bought the new, large, faster airliners for Eastern Air Lines, including the four-engine Lockheed Constellation and Douglas DC-4. Rickenbacker personally collaborated with many of the pioneers of aviation, including Donald W. Douglas, the founder of the Douglas Aircraft Company, and the designer and builder of the large, four-engine airliners, the DC-4, DC-6, DC-7, and DC-8 (its first jet airliner).
Rickenbacker promoted flying to the American public, but, always aware of the possibility of accidents, he wrote in his autobiography, “I have never liked to use the word ‘safe’ in connection with either Eastern Air Lines or the entire transportation field; I prefer the word ‘reliable’.” Rickenbacker often traveled for business on Eastern Air Lines flights. On February 26, 1941, he was a passenger on a Douglas DC-3 airliner that crashed just outside Atlanta, Georgia. Rickenbacker suffered grave injuries, being soaked in fuel, immobile, and trapped in the wreckage. In spite of his own critical wounds, Rickenbacker encouraged the other passengers, offered what consolation he could to those around him who were injured or dying, and guided the survivors who were still ambulatory to attempt to find help. The survivors were rescued after spending the night at the crash site. Rickenbacker barely survived. This was just the first time that the press announced his death while he was still alive.
In a dramatic retelling of the incident, Rickenbacker’s autobiography relates his astonishing experiences. While he was still conscious but in terrible pain, Rickenbacker was left behind while some ambulances carried away bodies of the dead. When Rickenbacker arrived at a hospital, his injuries appeared so grotesque that the emergency surgeons and physicians left him for dead for some time. They instructed their assistants to “take care of the live ones.” Rickenbacker’s injuries included a fractured skull, other head injuries, a shattered left elbow with a crushed nerve, a paralyzed left hand, several broken ribs, a crushed hip socket, a pelvis broken in two places, a severed nerve in his left hip, and a broken left knee. Rickenbacker’s left eyeball was also blown out of its socket.
It took many months in the hospital, followed by a long time at home, for Rickenbacker to heal from this multitude of injuries and to regain his full eyesight. Rickenbacker described his terrible experience with vivid accounts of his mental state as he approached death—emphasizing the supreme act of will that it took to stave off dying. Rickenbacker’s autobiography reports that he spent ten days at the door of death, which he illustrated as “having an overwhelming sensation of calm and pleasure”.
Rickenbacker supported the war effort as a civilian. While initially supporting the isolationist movement, Rickenbacker officially left the America First organization in 1940, having only been a nominal member of it for a few months. From this point on he took an outspokenly pro-British stance. He was inspired by “England’s heroic resistance to relentless air attacks” from the Luftwaffe‘s campaign against the island of Great Britain in 1940 during the Battle of Britain, and wrote at that time: “Should these gallant British withstand the terrific onslaught of the totalitarian states until the summer of 1941, it is my sincere conviction that by that time this nation will have declared war.” Rickenbacker was one of a few celebrities who took part in campaigns to rally his fellow World War I veterans to the British cause before the attack on Pearl Harbor. In 1942, he toured training bases in the southwestern United States and in England. He encouraged the American public to contribute time and resources, and pledged Eastern Air Lines equipment and personnel for use in military activities. Under Rickenbacker’s direction Eastern Air Lines, along with other air lines such as Pan American Airlines, provided the means of war to British forces and flew munitions and supplies across the North Atlantic Ocean to the British.
Rickenbacker inspected troops, operations, and equipment, and served in a publicity function to increase support from civilians and soldiers. In 1942, with a sweeping letter of authorization from Henry L. Stimson, U.S. Secretary of War, Rickenbacker visited England on an official war mission and made ground-breaking recommendations for better war operations. He worked with both the Royal Air Force and the United States Army Air Forces on bombing strategy, including work with Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris and General Carl Andrew Spaatz.
One of Rickenbacker’s most famous near-death experiences occurred in October 1942. Stimson sent him on a tour of air bases in the Pacific Theater of Operations to review both living conditions and operations, but also to deliver personally a secret message of rebuke to General Douglas MacArthur from the President for negative public comments MacArthur had made about the administration and disparaging cables sent to Marshall. After visiting several air and sea bases in Hawaii, Rickenbacker was provided an older B-17D Flying Fortress (AAF Ser. No. 40-3089) as transportation to the South Pacific. The bomber, (with a crew of eight) strayed hundreds of miles off course while on its way to a refueling stop on Canton Island and was forced to ditch in a remote and little-traveled part of the Central Pacific Ocean.
The failure in navigation has been ascribed to an out-of-adjustment celestial navigation instrument, a bubble octant that gave a systematic bias to all of its readings. That octant reportedly had suffered a severe shock in a pre-takeoff mishap. The pre-takeoff mishap occurred during the first attempt to take off in a different bomber, but the landing gear’s brakes seized mid-takeoff. They kept the same damaged bubble octant on a different plane, which caused the navigational failure. This unnecessary ditching spurred on the development of improved navigational instruments and also better survival gear for the air crewmen. The B-17’s aircraft commander, former American Airlines pilot Captain William T. Cherry, Jr., was forced to ditch close to Japanese-held islands but the Americans were never spotted by Japanese patrol planes, and were adrift on the ocean for thousands of miles.
For 24 days, Rickenbacker, Army Captain Hans C. Adamson, his friend and business partner, and the rest of the 8 crewmen drifted in life rafts at sea. Rickenbacker was still suffering somewhat from his earlier airplane crash, and Capt. Adamson sustained serious injuries during the ditching. The other crewmen who were in the B-17, named Bartek, Reynolds, Whittaker, Cherry, Kaczmarczyk, and De Angelis, were hurt to varying degrees. The crewmen’s food supply ran out after three days. Then, on the eighth day, a seagull landed on Rickenbacker’s head. He warily and cautiously captured it, and then the survivors meticulously divided it into equal parts and used part of it for fishing bait. They lived on sporadic rain water that fell and similar food “miracles”, like fingerlings that they caught with their bare hands.
Rickenbacker assumed leadership, encouraging and browbeating the others to keep their spirits up. One crewman, Alexander Kaczmarczyk, was suffering from dehydration. He drank sea water, knowing it was a bad idea. He died and was buried at sea. The U.S. Army Air Forces and the U.S. Navy‘s patrol planes planned to abandon the search for the lost B-17 crewmen after just over two weeks, but Rickenbacker’s wife persuaded them to extend it another week. The services agreed to do so. Once again, the newspapers and radio broadcasts reported that Rickenbacker was dead.
The seven split up. Cherry rowed off in the small raft and was rescued on day 23. Reynolds, De Angelis, and Whittwaker found a small island, close to another, inhabited one. The natives of the second one were hosting an allied radio station, so all was good for the men. Reynolds was extremely close to death. A U.S. Navy patrol OS2U-3 Kingfisher float-plane spotted and rescued the 3 survivors on November 13, off the coast of Nukufetau in Tuvalu. All were suffering from hyperthermia, sunburn, dehydration, and near-starvation. Rickenbacker completed his assignment and delivered his message, which has never been made public, to General MacArthur.
Rickenbacker had thought that he had been lost for 21 days and wrote a book about this experience titled Seven Came Through, published by Doubleday, Doran. It was not until later that he recalculated the number of days, and he corrected himself in his autobiography in 1967. The pilot of the plane that rescued the survivors, Lieutenant William F. Eadie, USN, was awarded the Navy’s Air Medal for his actions during the rescue. The story was also recounted in Lt. James Whittaker’s book We Thought We Heard the Angels Sing, published in 1943. The story of Rickenbacker’s ordeal has been used as an example for Alcoholics Anonymous when the first of their Twelve Traditions was formulated: “Our common welfare should come first. Personal recovery depends upon AA unity.”
Still determined to support the U.S. war effort, Rickenbacker suggested a fact-finding mission in the Soviet Union to provide the Soviets with needed technical assistance for their American aircraft. Rickenbacker approached Soviet diplomats, and avoided requesting help from President Franklin Roosevelt, due to their prior disagreements. He scheduled resumption of his tour of American air operations in the Far East, interrupted by his ordeal in 1942, while he awaited approval of his visit from the Soviets. With Stimson’s help and by trading favors with the Soviet ambassador, Rickenbacker secured unlikely permission to travel to the Soviet Union. The War Department provided everything Rickenbacker needed, including a highly unusual letter stating that the bearer was authorized to “visit … any … areas he may deem necessary for such purposes as he will explain to you in person”, signed by the Secretary of War.
Rickenbacker’s trip in the spring and summer of 1943 took him along the South Atlantic air route that Eastern Air Lines had helped pioneer in 1941, traveling to Cairo in an AAF C-54 provided him by Gen. Henry H. Arnold, commanding general of the United States Army Air Forces. He made observations about conditions at every stop and reviewed American operations with a critical eye, forwarding reports to authorities. From Cairo he traveled by C-87 to India to experience the Hump airlift into China, on which he reported unfavorably to Arnold after his return to the United States. Continuing over the Hump to China himself, Rickenbacker was impressed by the determination of the Chinese people but disgusted with the corruption of the Kuomintang government. Reaching Iran, he offered to bring along an American officer to the Soviet Union, although approval of the request delayed Rickenbacker’s party several days.
In the Soviet Union, Rickenbacker observed wartime conditions, the extraordinary dedication and patriotism of the populace, and the ruthless denial of food to those deemed unproductive to the war effort. He befriended many Soviet officials and shared his knowledge of the aircraft they had received from the United States. He was lavishly entertained and recalled attempts by NKVD agents and officials to get him intoxicated enough to disclose sensitive information.
Rickenbacker’s mission was successful. He discovered that a commander of Moscow‘s defense had stayed at Rickenbacker’s home in 1937, and personal connections like this and the respect the Soviet military personnel had for him greatly aided his information-gathering. He learned about Soviet defense strategies and capabilities. In the distraction resulting from the outbreak of the Battle of Kursk, he saw a map of the front line showing the locations of all major Soviet military units, which he did his best to memorize. He also persuaded his hosts to give him an unprecedented tour of the Shturmovik aircraft factory. However, comments made by Rickenbacker during his trip alerted the Soviets to the existence of the secret B-29 Superfortress program.
Rickenbacker observed some traces of capitalism (for example, people were allowed to grow food and sell their surplus) and predicted that the Soviet Union would eventually become a capitalist nation. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill interviewed Rickenbacker about his mission. In the U.S., Rickenbacker’s information resulted in some diplomatic and military action, but President Roosevelt did not meet with Rickenbacker. For his service in support of the war effort, Eddy Rickenbacker received the Medal for Merit, a decoration for civilians in service to the United States government equivalent to the military Legion of Merit. For his service in support of the war effort, Rickenbacker received the Medal for Merit, a decoration for civilians in service to the United States government equivalent to the military Legion of Merit.
Rickenbacker’s main home was outside New York City. Rickenbacker was also an avid golfer, often playing at the Siwanoy Country Club course near his home in Bronxville. He is one of a very select few Club members who were granted honorary lifetime membership at Siwanoy. (By the way, I passed Siwanoy CC hundreds of times while I lived in Mount Vernon, NY.)
Rickenbacker owned a winter home in Coconut Grove, Florida, near Eastern Air Lines’ major maintenance and administrative headquarters at Miami International Airport. For a time, Eastern was the most profitable airline in the postwar era. During the late 1950s, however, Eastern Air Lines’ fortunes declined, and Rickenbacker was forced out of his position as CEO on October 1, 1959. Rickenbacker also resigned as the Chairman of the Board on December 31, 1963, at the age of 73. After that, Captain and Mrs. Rickenbacker traveled extensively for a number of years.
In the 1960s, Rickenbacker became a well-known speaker. He shared his vision for the future of technology and commerce, exhorted Americans to respect the adversary, the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but still uphold American values. Rickenbacker endorsed many conservative ideas, which put him at odds with many regarding the current and future needs of all Americans.
Captain Rickenbacker suffered from a stroke while he was in Switzerland seeking special medical treatment for Mrs. Rickenbacker, and he then contracted pneumonia. Rickenbacker died on July 23, 1973, (age 83) in Zürich, Switzerland. A memorial service was held at the Key Biscayne Presbyterian Church with the eulogy given by Lt. General Jimmy Doolittle, and then his body was interred in Columbus, Ohio, at the Green Lawn Cemetery. At the time of his death, he was the last living Medal of Honor recipient of the Air Service, United States Army.