Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Enduring Courage: Ace Pilot Eddie Rickenbacker and the Dawn of the Age of Speed — Reviewed by Jim Gallen

Enduring Courage:
Ace Pilot Eddie Rickenbacker and the Dawn of the Age of Speed
by John F. Ross
Andre Deutsch, 2014

Before reading Enduring Courage I had not known much about Eddie Rickenbacker. After losing his father in a brawl over a lunch at age 13, Eddie started his career as a mechanic and a race car driver. Rubbing elbows with Henry Ford and Fred Duesenberg, Rickenbacker rode the circuit and competed as a driver at the 1911 Indy 500. It was his familiarity with engines and his trip to England to discuss racing with Sunbeam Motors in 1916–1917 that introduced Eddie to the world of flight and the war that would make his name a household word.

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This new biography of Rickenbacker is divided into four "books": "Racing," "Flying," "Fighting," and "Immortality." Through them all run the threads of machinery, speed, and courage. The second and third books will be of greatest interest to readers of Roads to the Great War. These are the pages that focus on Rickenbacker's wartime heroics as "Ace of Aces." Eddie eased into the war gradually, as did his neutral nation. While visiting London he noticed that he stood out in civilian clothes, became aware of the emerging role of aircraft as weapons, and met some of the men who flew them. Author John F. Ross introduces the reader into the brotherhood of aviators, the Royal Flying Corps and the Red Baron's Flying Circus. He even injects the humor of Richthofen, who, upon hearing that a bounty had been placed on his head, cracked that he should get the prize if he shoots down the whole British squadron.

As America became involved in the war, Rickenbacker pitched the idea of an air squadron of race car drivers, who could get the most out of their machines, to a brass who thought that anyone so familiar with engines would be overly cautious. His break came when President Wilson suggested that a well-known car racer be employed as Gen. Pershing's driver. Tipped off, Eddie enlisted and headed off to Europe where he made the acquaintance not only of Pershing but also of Billy Mitchell and other officers in the air corps. Flying lessons, a commission, and the Wild Blue Yonder followed in rapid succession. As Eddie's skill and reputation grew he advanced in rank to command of the 94th Aero Squadron. The chapters dealing with the Air Corps take the reader over the land and into the barracks, the cockpit, and the dogfights with Rickenbacker. We meet the officers he met, Patton and MacArthur, and those with whom he shared headlines such as Quentin Roosevelt and Canada's Billy Bishop.

So just what was the role of air power in those early days? We read of the romance of the knights of the air who fought a war of chivalry beyond the reach of those trapped in the trenches below. We learn of reconnaissance of enemy ground formations and counter-reconnaissance by shooting down enemy planes and observation balloons.

The Armistice found Rickenbacker with 26 kills as America's Greatest Hero of the Great War and with a name recognition exceeding that of Gen. Pershing. He earned the Medal of Honor, although it would not be bestowed until 1931. Heroes do not live on yesterday's headlines, and Rickenbacker returned home to try a series of commercial ventures with varying success: the Rickenbacker automobile not so good, the Indianapolis Speedway better, Eastern Airlines the best. Peacetime aviation had its dangers as demonstrated by a 1941 crash while on a business trip.

Capt. Rickenbacker Receiving Oak Leaf Clusters to His
Distinguished Service Cross from First Army Commander Hunter Liggett

A figure as famous as Rickenbacker could not, and would not, stay clear of controversy. His opposition to the New Deal and dabbling with America First isolationism drew the enmity of the Roosevelt White House, but his conversion to support America's entrance into World War II made him an asset that could not remain unused. Called into service as a spokesman by the Air Force's Gen. Hap Arnold, Rickenbacker made goodwill tours of airbases. His status as a military hero made him the logical messenger to Gen. MacArthur, whose public comments had become intolerable to the White House. His trip across the Pacific ended in a crash at sea after which Rickenbacker's will triumphed over the dangers of the then longest float across the open sea by downed aviators.

The title Enduring Courage reminds us of the driving theme running through the book. The theme is shown in the life of a man courageous enough to face a world after losing his father at a young age, to lead the charge into the age of mechanically produced speed both on land and in the air, and the courage to participate in another war with its own dangers. Readers will learn much about aviation in the Great War and particularly America's contribution to it. Mostly though, they will remember the enduring courage that makes this life one to study as we look back on the Great War.

Jim Gallen

1 comment:

  1. A whole hearted thank you for contributing this. So many of the contributors to this journal present such good material with their citations of further readings and study that I find it daunting in that I want to read them all, but alas they just pile up on each other where I find I just don't have the time. I do want to follow up on this. I am somewhat familiar with Rickenbacker's WWII crashing at sea in the vastness of the South Pacific, being adrift for 3 weeks before rescue. It was his will, determination, and courage that kept their spirits up, the desire to survive. If I am not mistaken, Rickenbacker is a German name; I would be interested to know if he ran into trouble because of it during the Great War. A Google search comes up with much material. A very great and honourable man...his story brings a tear to my eye.