Eddie Rickenbacker, America’s Ace of Aces in World War I, cheated death in aerial combat many times over France. Between April 29, 1918 and October 30, 1918, with several weeks lost due to being grounded for an ear infection, he shot down 26 German planes and observation balloons and earned seven Distinguished Service Crosses, the French Croix de Guerre and the Medal of Honor. Here is the Medal of Honor citation:
Edward V. Rickenbacker, Colonel, specialist reserve, then first lieutenant, 94th Aero Squadron, Air Service, American Expeditionary Forces. For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action against the enemy near Billy, France, September 25, 1918. While on a voluntary patrol over the lines Lieutenant. Rickenbacker attacked seven enemy planes (five type Fokker protecting two type Halberstadt photographic planes). Disregarding the odds against him he dived on them and shot down one of the Fokkers out of control. He then attacked one of the Halberstadts and sent it down also.
One would have thought that with the ending of the War Rickenbacker could have said farewell to the Grim Reaper until his peaceful death in civilian life, but such was not the case with Rickenbacker. He went on to an extremely successful business career, most notably as the head of Eastern Air Lines.
On February 26, 1941, Rickenbacker was on board a Douglas DC-3 that crashed outside of Atlanta, Georgia. Rickenbacker suffered grave injuries and was trapped in the wreckage. Despite his own predicament he did his best to keep up the spirits of the other survivors who were injured, and guided the ambulatory survivors to find help. Rickenbacker’s death was erroneously reported in the press, and he spent ten days near death, an experience he reported as being one of overwhelming calm and pleasure.
Although highly critical of the New Deal policies of the Roosevelt administration which he regarded as socialistic, Rickenbacker went on missions throughout the War in support of the war effort. In October 1942 he was sent by the government on a tour of the Pacific to report on troop living conditions and military operations. Due to an error in navigation the B-17 he was a passenger on ditched in the Pacific. For 24 days, with very little food and water, Rickenbacker and the crew of the B-17 were adrift in the Pacific. Rickenbacker’s presumed death was reported in the newspapers. Rickenbacker took command, alternately browbeating and comforting his compatriots, all of whom were injured, in order to keep them functioning in what appeared to be a hopeless situation. A seagull landed on Rickenbacker’s head, and with the food it provided he kept his men alive. The military after over two weeks wanted to give up the search, but Mrs. Rickenbacker, Eddie’s wife, insisted they keep looking. On November 13, 1942 Rickenbacker and the other survivors were found and rescued by a Navy float plane.
Rickenbacker died at age 82 of natural causes, cheating death until it was his time to go.
From his obituary in the New York Times on July 24, 1973:
Mr. Rickenbacker, or Captain Eddie as he preferred to be known (he was a colonel in the reserve but insisted that the title of captain was the only one he had earned), was an individualist of the old empire-building school. In any kind of fight he neither asked for nor gave quarter. His opposition to Government “interference” was widely known, as were his outspoken objections to subsidies for industries or individuals. He was also an intransigent foe of trade unionism and liberal democratic concepts.
Mr. Rickenbacker was fond of saying that the greatest privilege this country had to offer was the “freedom to go broke,” and that “a chance” was the only “favor” needed to succeed in the United States.
In recent years, he had identified himself more and more closely with ultra-conservative and right-wing causes. In 1963, when he retired as board chairman of Eastern Air Lines he announced that he would devote himself to “awakening the American public to the grave problems facing them.”
In frequent speeches during the years that followed, Mr. Rickenbacker predicted that the American people someday would erect a monument to the memory of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, and he urged United States withdrawal from the United Nations, the severance of diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and repeal of the 16th Amendment, which authorized a personal income tax.
“I am going to expand my crusade to save the American way of life for future generations,” he wrote in his letter of resignation from Eastern Air Lines, “as I want our children, our grandchildren, and those who follow them to enjoy the American opportunities which have been mine for 73 years.”