A Great War hero: Part 4 – ‘Fast Eddie’ gets his wings

On 6 April 1917, the United States of America decided to join the Allies in the Great War against the empires of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey. From that moment, celebrated racer Eddie Rickenbacker was going to war – and he was determined to do so in the guise of a dashing fighter pilot.

Yet on that historic day America’s army air service numbered exactly 65 officers, of whom 26 were pilots, plus just over a thousand non-commissioned ranks and civilian support staff. To compound matters, its naval air service was a fraction of that size.

Orville Wright bestrode American aviation up to 1917

Orville Wright bestrode American aviation up to 1917

Gearing up for war would therefore be a large, costly and convoluted job – not least because aircraft manufacture in the USA was a political and litigious minefield.

Having successfully convinced the world that they were the first men to achieve powered flight, the Wright brothers had patented so many basic aircraft components in the USA that only a handful of aircraft manufacturers existed. Wilbur Wright may have died in 1912, but his brother Orville fought hard enough for the pair of them to keep their name at the forefront.

If one wished to design and build flying machines in the USA, therefore, the prerequisite was sufficient backing to pay for the inevitable legal fees resulting from Orville Wright’s patent claims. The result was a stagnant industry incapable of producing an aircraft as modern as those in action over the Western Front.

While the bureaucrats got to work on unravelling that particular nightmare, General John J. Pershing was appointed as commander of the American Expeditionary Force. Pershing began to piece together a command team to cross the Atlantic, and among their number was a staff driver put forward for the job by the American Automobile Association – and that driver was Eddie Rickenbacker.

General Pershing - with his car in the background

General Pershing – with his car in the background

A coincidence? Not entirely. For one thing, the British secret service had informed the American government of its suspicions that the former Eddie Reichenbacher was an agent of the Kaiser. Doubtless this ‘dodgy dossier’ played a small part in Pershing’s approval of Rickenbacker as one of his team – to underline that the US military’s business was nobody’s but its own.

It also cannot have escaped Pershing’s notice that Rickenbacker had enjoyed very recent access to the heart of Britain’s industrial war machine. Through his relationship with Louis Coatalen at Sunbeam and his trips to the aircraft development centres at Brooklands through the winter of 1916-17, Rickenbacker had been given extraordinary access to aeronautical developments.

The most important beneficiary of this knowledge would be America’s leading proponent of air power, Lieutenant-Colonel Billy Mitchell. He was already in France working hard to build the networks that he would need to train and equip American pilots for duty – and Pershing, who had used aircraft in his pursuit of Pancho Villa in the Mexican borders, wanted to give him every assistance.

Rickenbacker the humble chauffeur still made front page news

Rickenbacker the humble chauffeur still made front page news

The unlikely role of General Pershing’s chauffeur did not sit easily with ‘Rick’. The dour, disciplinarian career soldier and the vigorously self-promoting racing driver were an odd couple.

On one occasion, when Pershing was travelling with the commander of the French army, Marshal Pétain, Rickenbacker attempted to beat a train to a level crossing – risking two invaluable military leaders and proving that the main requirements to be a professional racer are a brain the size of a pea and an ego the size of Kansas.

Pershing palmed Rickenbacker off on Mitchell at the soonest opportunity. Together they travelled the Front, visiting both front-line squadrons and commanding officers discussing tactics, strategic requirements and supplies of aircraft.

They also encountered journalists from publications such as l’Auto, to whom Rickenbacker gave good copy as he insisted that he would soon be flying fighters and shooting down Huns. At this time Rickenbacker encountered James E. Miller, a racing fan who was establishing the first American flying schools in France, and soon Mitchell agreed to transfer Rickenbacker to the role of his engineering officer.

Billy Mitchell - the man who created America's first air force

Billy Mitchell – the man who created America’s first air force

By the summer of 1917 a total of 47 candidate pilots had arrived from the USA for basic flight training in France. In addition the Lafayette Escadrille of American volunteers was absorbed, bringing a total of 93 highly experienced airmen to bolster Mitchell’s fledgling air force.

In the autumn a fresh draft of recruits arrived for training and finally Rickenbacker was permitted to join them. It was not simply a case of granting permission – the maximum age for trainee pilots was 25, so officially two years were deducted from Rickenbacker’s age that were seldom, if ever, replaced in subsequent histories.

Despite the occasional accident he survived 17 days of intensive flight training that took him from a complete novice hopping around the airfield in a clipped-wing ‘penguin’ airframe to a licenced, brevet-wearing pilot.

All the more remarkably, Rickenbacker kept up a stream of correspondence throughout his training to influential contacts back in the USA. Indeed, he even wrote press releases, which is why the Los Angeles Examiner cheerfully reported that his progress ‘was remarkably fast because of his skill with the motor and speed-sense.’

This was not immediately followed by glorious battle, however. Instead Rickenbacker went back to his engineering officer’s job, where his unfinished education and brash manner contrasted sharply with the wealthy college boys who formed the majority of the trainees. He called them the ‘Million Dollar Guard’ and made their lives as miserable as any drill sergeant could have done.

This behaviour caught up with Rickenbacker when, in January 1918, his bosses relented and sent him to gunnery school in preparation for front line flying. Rickenbacker was stationed with and flying alongside the very same young men that he had only recently been terrorising… to mutual chagrin.

Rickenbacker stands amid some of the 'million dollar guard' for an awkward photo

Rickenbacker (centre) with the ‘million dollar guard’ in a candidly awkward photo

Two ‘pursuit’ units had been established with single-seat fighters sourced from France: the 94th and 95th Aero Squadrons. In March 1918 Rickenbacker would join the former, whose Nieuport scouts were branded with a star spangled hat sitting within a circle – letting the enemy know that Uncle Sam had truly thrown his hat into the ring.

The 94th was initially commanded by Raoul Lufbery, the veteran hero of the Lafayette Escadrille. Although he had been flying and fighting over the Front since 1915, and amassed 16 victories in combat, when Lufbery led the first American patrol over enemy lines on 6 March he did so on a level footing with the two rookies in his care: Douglas Campbell and Eddie Rickenbacker.

Gervais Raoul Lufbery - the experienced commander

Gervais Raoul Lufbery – the experienced commander

The victories accumulated by American pilots in other services were effectively annulled. This meant that there would be a race to become the first official American ace fighter pilot of the war – and Rickenbacker had his eyes on the prize.

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One thought on “A Great War hero: Part 4 – ‘Fast Eddie’ gets his wings

  1. Pingback: A Great War hero: Part 5 – grand finale | The Scarf & Goggles Social Club

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