Wings of War: Edward "Eddie" Vernon Rickenbacker

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Eddie Rickenbacker was born in Columbus, Ohio, on October 8th, 1890. He became one of the best US fighter pilots, chalking up 27 victories, for one of which he was only credited many years after the end of the war.

Eddie left school early, following the premature death of his father, and soon became one of the most famous and best-paid racing pilots, running the Indianapolis 500-mile racing contest three times, and setting the maximum speed record of 134 miles per hour. When the US joined the war, Rickenbacker first served as a driver, and once he reached Europe he joined the Airforce at the age of 27. Thanks to his technical and mechanical knowledge he quickly rose to become Engineering Officer at the airport of Issoudun. In March 1918 he transferred to active service in the newly formed "94 Pursuit Squadron", and on April 29th of that year obtained his first victory, shooting down a Pfaltz D.III.

On September 24th Rickenbacker assumed command of the 94th Squadron, which was nicknamed the "Hat in the Ring Squadron," on account of his own personal device: a top hat bearing the US stars and stripes, inscribed in a circle. As a commander he proved his exceptional managerial and organizational skills, which would also become his hallmark later, when he engaged in different activities. He earned the "Distinguished Service Cross" medal, and twelve years after the signing of the Armistice, Rickenbacker also received the prestigious "Medal of Honor" from the US Congress.

After the Great War Rickenbacker confirmed his role as a first-rate figure in America: in the 1920s he founded Rickenbacker Motors, designing incredibly modern and well-equipped motor cars; the firm however quickly collapsed, due to the overall unfavorable economic situation. In the 1930s Rickenbacker became first General Manager of Eastern Airlines, a company which he later acquired by leading a group of investors, and then managed profitably for almost twenty years.

During the Second World War he was entrusted with a mission in New Guinea as a civil consultant. He survived a crash of a B-17, and together with other seven men, "Iron Eddie" spent 24 days on the open sea before he was rescued. In 1945, at the height of the patriotic climate of those times, Hollywood made a film about him entitled "Captain Eddie"; however, his role as a fighter ace was given very limited scope in the plot.

In 1967, aged 77, Rickenbacker wrote his memoirs. He died in 1973.

Starting from September 14th 1918 Rickenbacker obtained his last 20 victories within two months, all of which he earned while flying his SPAD XIII S4523 built by Kellner company: he shot down 13 Fokker D.VII planes, a Halberstadt and a Hannover CL and five barrage balloons. The plane Rickenbacker flew bore the number "1," and was meant for the squadron commander, but Eddie claimed it for himself: in any case, on the 24th September 1918, he received the post of squadron commander. That day his plane bore six little white patches with black crosses, namely, the device of German planes: each patch covered a bullet hole.

Next day while on volunteer patrol near Billy (France) he took on seven enemy craft, while flying solo: two Halberstadt and five escorting Fokker D.VII. Rickenbacker shot down one of each type. This exploit earned him a Medal of Honor which however he received much later, in 1931.

Examples and replicas of the SPAD XIII with the colours of Rickenbacker's planes are on show at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio (original plane c/n 16594 re-painted with the colours of the ace fighter); at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford, UK; at Tillamook Air Museum at Tillamook, Oregon.