Veteran Spotlight – Eddie Rickenbacker

Veteran Spotlight - Eddie Rickenbacker

Eddie Rickenbaker was born to German-speaking Swiss immigrants on October 8th, 1890, and died on July 23rd, 1973. In his eighty-two years, Rickenbaker witnessed a changing world and always kept up. In the span of his lifetime, he would become one of the foremost engineers in the field of automobiles and aeronautics, a top-class race car driver, a World War I  Ace, a chairman on the boards of numerous automobile companies, lost at sea, and a military advisor to the Soviet Union during World War II. In this Veteran Spotlight, we’re taking a deep dive into the life of Eddie Rickenbaker, one of the most memorable veterans in U.S. history.

Eddie Rickenbacker: Early Life

Rickenbacker was raised in Columbus, Ohio. When he was fourteen, his father died suddenly in a brawl, causing Rickenbacker to leave high school and lie about his age so he could work to support his family. Rickenbaker had a wild streak and would hang out with a youth gang known as the Horsehead Gang. They were often rowdy and were known to cause various pranks and disturbances in their hometown. However, despite their reputation, they would go on to invent the modern soapbox derby. Always daring and somewhat accident-prone, Eddie pulled stunts like attempting to fly a bike with an umbrella attached to it, after being inspired by the Wright brother’s success.

Rickenbaker always had an interest in engineering. He once attempted to build a perpetual motion machine. Bouncing between jobs, he eventually landed a role at the Oscar Lear Automobile Company and, after taking classes in engineering, he quickly gained more responsibility in the workplace. Rickenbaker later worked for Harvey S. Firestone, who could see Rickenbaker’s potential in engineering. Firestone often sent him on specific assignments to fix problems in design and production, knowing that he could count on Eddie to find a solution.

Eddie Rickenbacker Becomes a Race Car Driver

Rickenbacker entered his first race while still a salesman for The Columbus Buggy Company. He comported himself well, but was involved in a collision and unable to finish the race. In 1911, he raced in the first Indianapolis 500 as a relief driver. He quickly became a popular driver, racing for Peugeot, Maxwell, and the “Flying Squadron” racing teams. In the years before WWI, he would change the spelling of his name from Rickenbacher to the English version of Rickenbaker due to anti-German sentiment in the U.S.

Rickenbaker came close to winning a championship when, in a final must-win race, his car broke down on the second to last lap. The challenger who passed him was driving on only three wheels. Rickenbacker called it “one of the grandest free-for-alls I was ever in.” His racing career would later come to an end when he enlisted in the army in 1917 and went to war. 

Veteran Spotlight - Eddie Rickenbacker

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World War 1

Rickenbaker had a deep interest in aviation. On a visit to England in 1916, he happened to meet Major Townsend F. Dodd who would become an aviation officer for General John “Blackjack” Pershing, commander of the U.S. forces on the Western Front. The meeting happened when Rickenbaker found Dodd stranded in a field with a broken down plane. Eddie was able to fix the engine for Dodd, and this newfound friendship would help him throughout his career.

Rickenbaker would go on to be trained by experienced French Aces, and help to advance aviation training on the Western Front for American pilots. In combat, Rickenbaker was fearless and, at times, almost too fearless. He almost crashed his plane several times executing wild maneuvers. He spent months recovering from an ear infection, during which time he reflected on his cavalier approach to flying and decided to adjust his tactics. As Commander of the 94th Aero Squadron, he would help create innovations in how American pilots engaged the enemy.

Being both aggressive and cautious, Eddie advocated going after heavily guarded observation balloons with coordinated tactics, as well as fleeing from the enemy if the engagement seemed to be going badly. He went on to become the number one Ace in the United States military. On the day of the armistice, he flew above no man’s land and watched the soldiers exit the trenches. He later wrote, “I was the only audience for the greatest show ever presented. On both sides of no man’s land, the trenches erupted. Brown-uniformed men poured out of the American trenches, gray-green uniforms out of the German. From my observer’s seat overhead, I watched them throw their helmets in the air, discard their guns, wave their hands.”  

Veteran Spotlight - Eddie Rickenbacker

Post WWI 

Rickenbaker returned to the United States as a war hero. After embarking on speaking tours for the government and selling Liberty Bonds, he jumped back into the auto industry when he created the tandem flywheel, an innovation that reduced vibrations in race cars and made them more stable. He found his true calling in aviation, starting a number of airline ventures, and working closely with Donald W. Douglas and his new models of planes in the Douglas line. From 1927 to 1945, Eddie was the owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and leveraged his personal fame to promote auto-racing. 

World War 2

Rickenbaker was one of the few people advocating for entry into WWII before the bombing at Pearl Harbor. He worked closely with the army by helping to develop aviation tactics and training. While on a tour of the Pacific Theater air bases in 1942, his B-17 lost its way and was forced to ditch in the ocean. He and seven others were adrift in the Pacific for twenty-four days. They survived by capturing birds and small fish and collecting rainwater. Rickenbaker would continue to help the war effort by traveling to the U.S.S.R on a fact-finding mission. There he recounted that Soviet officials would unsuccessfully attempt to get him drunk enough to reveal United States military secrets. 

The Legacy of Eddie Rickenbacker

Rickenbaker was honored to receive the Medal of Honor for his actions in World War I, as well as several Distinguished Service Crosses and the Legion of Honor from France. He is also an inductee to several racing halls of fame and won many awards for helping to foster commercial aviation. Eddie has had a number of military installations named after him, and his family home in Columbus, Ohio, is a designated historical sight. In 1972, Rickenbaker fell ill with pneumonia while traveling in Switzerland and passed away at the age of 82.

At Popular Patch we honor Americans like Rickenbaker, whose hard-working entrepreneurial spirit and innovative character led him to be at the forefront of the vehicular industry. His contributions to early aviation helped to bring the Great War to a close and establish a pattern of military aviation doctrine for years to come.

Whether you’re an aviation enthusiast like Rickenbacker or are just looking for a way to honor those who have served, you can check out some of our aviation patches, such as the 165th Aviation Group Patch and the 78th Aviation Patch Battalion OD, or browse our entire inventory by clicking here.

165th Aviation Group Patch
165th Aviation Group Patch
78th Aviation Battalion Patch OD
78th Aviation Battalion Patch OD


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