1918: America’s Ace of Aces makes final kill
Capt. Edward Rickenbacker, America’s Ace of Aces, claimed his final kill 95 years this week. Like Frank Luke, he was also born to German-speaking immigrant parents. But, Rickenbacker’s rise to fame was much different than the Arizona Balloon Buster.
Born in Columbus, Ohio, Rickenbacker was 13 when his father died. He immediately began working to support his mother. When he went to work for an automobile company, he found he had a talent and a passion for mechanics.
While working as a car salesman, he began racing cars and worked his way up to running in the Indianapolis 500-mile race four times prior to World War I. At that time, the racecars were unreliable. Approximately half of the cars in the 500-mile race failed to finish due primarily to mechanical problems. Rickenbacker was no different, and only completed the race once in tenth place.
When World War I began, there was a lot of anti-German sentiment in the United States. Everyone handled it differently. Already famous, Eddie anglicized his last name to Rickenbacker. When the U.S. declared war in 1917, he enlisted in the Army. He arrived in France on June 26, 1917, as a sergeant first class.
Recognized for his mechanical knowledge, he let it be known that he wanted to fly. At the time, most of the American fliers had some college. Therefore, when the Army promoted him to second lieutenant, it posted him as the engineering officer at the pursuit training facility in France. There he learned to fly and practiced during his free time.
In March 1918, the Army posted him to the 1st Pursuit Group, 94th Aero Squadron, which became known as the “Hat in the Ring” squadron.
Like the racecars of the day, the mass produced aircraft could be unreliable. Used to fine tuning racecars, Rickenbacker took the same care with his aircraft, machine guns, flight maneuvers and tactics. Unlike some of the other fliers, he was not reckless; instead he hunted his prey, letting some go if the circumstances were not quite right.
Rickenbacker scored his first kill on April 29, 1918. A month and a day later, he was an ace.
Unfortunately he got an ear infection and was grounded for several weeks. His next kill came on Sept. 14 of that year, a couple of days after Frank Luke’s first.
He became the commander of the 94th AS Sept. 25, by then a captain, and later in the day dove on six enemy aircraft, shooting down two of them. Twelve years later, he received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his exploits on that day.
Rickenbacker shot down his last aircraft Oct. 30, which was credited as his 26th kill. As such, he was the leading ace in the American expeditionary force and became known as the Ace of Aces. He was America’s leading ace for the next 25 years.
Rickenbacker passed away July 23, 1973, while travelling in Switzerland. Lieutenant General Jimmy Doolittle gave the eulogy at his funeral. The Ace of Aces was buried in Columbus, Ohio.