RICKENBACKER; Detailing the Wild Ups and Downs of a Legendary Man

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), February 5, 2006 | Go to article overview

RICKENBACKER; Detailing the Wild Ups and Downs of a Legendary Man


Byline: Ron Laurenzo, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

If Howard Hughes was worth a modern, three-hour movie, then Eddie Rickenbacker is getting ripped off.

Not to take anything away from Hughes, who was, no doubt, quite a guy: legendary movie director, eccentric genius, a man who took huge risks with his businesses and even his life. Hughes would have been perfect feature film fodder even if he hadn't been filthy rich and dated movie stars. If you've seen "The Aviator," you get the idea.

But even without the babes, Rickenbacker matches Hughes for excitement, risk and wild ups and downs. Most people who recognize Rickenbacker probably remember him as America's leading ace in World War I, when he shot down 26 German aircraft and commanded the legendary 94th "Hat in the Ring" Pursuit Squadron.

Actually he was much more: A self-taught engineer and mechanic, he was a pioneer race-car driver who competed in the first Indy 500 in 1911. The son of poor Swiss immigrants, he started life in Columbus, Ohio, with nothing but drive and talent and rose to become the head of Eastern Airlines, one of the leading companies in one of the hottest industries of its day.

With Rickenbacker calling the shots, the company did something not many airlines did: It posted record profits, year after year.

Not enough? He crossed paths with the biggest names of his day: FDR, Harry Truman, Douglas MacArthur. He carried out special missions around the globe during World War II, hobnobbing with Soviet generals and Winston Churchill and gathering intelligence on everything he saw. And he had many startlingly close calls with death: in car races, airplane crashes, combat and while lost at sea.

So attention screen writers: Capt. Eddie has to be worth at least 120 minutes on the big screen. You don't even have to kill yourself doing research: It's all been done by W. David Lewis in "Eddie Rickenbacker: An American Hero in the 20th Century." Mr. Lewis has written an encyclopedic account of Rickenbacker's life; there's enough material here to power a multi-week special on the History Channel.

Mr. Lewis' research, 15 years of it, is meticulous, showing the beauty of how fact-based reality can top fiction for excitement, irony and tragedy. The result is not just a history of Rickenbacker's life, but, in the fullest sense, of his times, beginning with his childhood before the turn of the last century, passing through the early automobile industry and auto racing, the infancy of flight, air combat and commercial air travel and their maturation during and after World War II.

Already known as a champion auto racer, Rickenbacker tried to raise a squadron of race-car drivers and mechanics for volunteer service in France before the United States entered World War I. The Army scoffed at the idea of the unrefined Rickenbacker, who had dropped out of school in the seventh grade to support his family, leading men in combat.

Rick, as he was known, enlisted in the Army and went to France as a chauffeur for U. …

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