In March 1918, three Nieuport 28 scouts of the 94th Aero Squadron became the first American aircraft to fly over the enemy lines on the Western Front. Leading them was Major Raoul Lufbery, with 16 confirmed victories in air combat. In formation with him were two rookie pilots: Doug Campbell and Eddie Rickenbacker.
In fact seven American volunteers flying with the French and the British had already achieved the five victories required to ‘make ace’ – but all previous scores were annulled upon the creation of America’s own air arm.
As commander of the 94th Aero Squadron, Lufbery – whose parents emigrated from France when he was six years old – found himself in command of a bunch of raw recruits. The majority of them were fresh-faced college boys… but then there was Rickenbacker. The square peg in a round hole.
‘Rick’ detested the privileged backgrounds and sense of superiority exuded by his fellow pilots – most of whom he had given hell to in training, when he was detailed to manage the logistics and maintenance of the flying school. He named them the ‘million dollar guard’ and – out of his hearing – they joked that he was a German agent.
For all their wealth and privilege, the other pilots resented Rickenbacker’s pre-war fame and his clear enjoyment of celebrity status. He was regarded as uncouth, domineering and profane – and undoubtedly for good reason.
Rickenbacker approached the job of being a fighter pilot like a tradesman. While the collegiate around him would often indulge in horseplay, the off-duty Rickenbacker spent his time on the ground working on his aircraft, checking its guns and obsessively scrutinising his ammunition for faulty rounds.
By doing so his aim was not only to survive, but also to create the best chance of shooting down enemy machines. As a racing driver he had not won a major prize but as an airman he could yet join the ranks of Guynemer, Richthofen and Ball as a hero – and all the wealth and privilege it might bring him in peacetime.
Although Lufbery scored a victory on 12 April it remained unconfirmed, thus the first enemy aircraft to officially fall to American guns was claimed by Douglas Campbell two days later. It would be another 15 days before Rickenbacker managed to get a claim recognized – a Pfalz D.III shared with another 94th Aero Squadron pilot, the Harvard-educated writer James Norman Hall, who would later write the swashbuckling classic, Mutiny on the Bounty.
Rickenbacker later admitted that he was spraying bullets all around the vicinity of the doomed machine and, perhaps, the more experienced Hall – a Lafayette Escadrille veteran – had done the lion’s share. Nevertheless, Rickenbacker’s relentless approach meant that soon he was scoring regularly and in contention to become America’s first ‘ace’.
One man who was out of the running for that title was Raoul Lufbery who, like so many of the old hands, was to fall in the final months of the war. The legend went that on 19 May Lufbery’s aircraft caught fire during low-level combat over his own airfield and, having climbed onto the wing in desperation, he fell, wreathed in flame, to his death. That’s certainly the version that Rickenbacker’s memoirs preferred.
In fact, Lufbery’s aircraft is believed to have hit turbulence after he had undone his straps to fix a jammed machine gun and he was simply thrown out of the cockpit. Not an uncommon fate, as it turns out – although perhaps too ignominious for so great a warrior.
Lufbery’s demise meant that Harvard-educated Douglas Campbell was the only man standing between Rickenbacker and the title of ‘ace’. On 28 May the two men patrolled together and brought down an Albatros two-seater, which, through a clerical error, was credited to Rickenbacker alone.
Much to Campbell’s chagrin, ‘Rick’ never attempted to correct the mistake. Nevertheless it was Campbell who, on 31 May, was officially credited with being the first American to reach five victories. He would score only one more before a bullet wound in the back saw him miss all but the few final days of the war.
In his book Fighting the Flying Circus, Rickenbacker was generous in his praise of Campbell’s contribution. No doubt there were wry smiles all round when, in conclusion, Rickenbacker wrote: “In reality Douglas Campbell’s victories total seven, but for one which was downed to my certain knowledge he never received any official confirmation.”
Rickenbacker had himself ‘made ace’ by the time that Campbell was invalided back to the USA – but his own score would also remain at six until September. A chronic ear infection took ‘Rick’ off the squadron strength for almost three months and, when he returned to action, the 94th was a very different unit – not least because the Nieuports had been traded in for Spad S.XIII machines.
Rickenbacker adored the fast, strong V8-engined fighter. In the space of six weeks, he was credited with destroying five observation balloons and 15 aircraft at the helm of his Spad – of which 13 were the superb Fokker D.VII fighter.
The other pilots who had previously detested him at first begrudgingly indulged him and then even began to warm to him, while he rose to become first flight commander and, later, Captain and commanding officer. He could be insufferable, profane and egocentric – but he got results.
During this period another American pilot, Merian C. Cooper, entered the fray. Cooper was a cinematographer who would later create the ‘creature feature’ genre with Chang (1927) and, most famously, King Kong (1933). But in 1918 he helped create Eddie Rickenbacker’s star appeal by filming from the rear seat while Jimmy Meissner flew an Airco DH4 bomber as a camera plane (its cockpit rigged up to look like a Spad from the camera’s viewpoint).
Completing the formation was a captured Hanover two-seater that was usually employed for air-to-air practice. Two 94th Squadron stalwarts, Reed Chambers and Thorn Taylor, piled gleefully aboard the Hanover to play the roles of a devilish Hun crew for Cooper’s camera.
The trio then staged a fight and successfully filmed it – although the formation drifted over the lines, attracting plenty of unwanted attention! A segment of the film can be seen below, with Rickenbacker looping and wheeling his Spad, dubbed ‘Old Number 1’, around the ‘Huns’.
While building his legend, ‘Captain Eddie’ was determined to lead by example: he ordered incessant practice and instruction for his men and did his level best to ensure that the 94th Aero Squadron would go down in history as one of the elite fighting units of the war. He was hard on the men, but insisted that nothing he asked was a job he would not willingly do himself – and proved this time and again.
At the end of the war, Rickenbacker returned to the USA as the people’s champion with 26 confirmed victories and the Medal of Honor, seven Distinguished Service Crosses, the Légion d’honneur and Croix de Guerre glittering on his breast. He would go on to live a life of extraordinary success, crushing failure and superhuman courage – but always in the guise of ‘Captain Eddie – Ace of Aces’.
The 94th Aero Squadron returned as the embodiment of Yankee-Doodle brilliance; with its fleet of Spad fighters resplendent in an array of star-spangled, candy-striped and lightning-flashed personal liveries that made Richthofen’s Flying Circus appear positively frumpy.
Today when we look at photos of Captain Edward Vernon Rickenbacker, we see the splay-legged stance, flashing grin and devilish eyebrows. He is the embodiment of the great action hero – primarily because it was this image that he sought to portray.
There are tens of millions of extraordinary stories from that conflict. What’s truly remarkable is that Eddie Rickenbacker himself so successfully stage managed his own story to reach out to millions. Rickenbacker wanted to be an icon: the embodiment of a unique ‘up-and-at-‘em’ attitude that he believed should be the cornerstone of society.
By any measure he succeeded.
The commemorations to mark 100 years since the start of World War 1 have now passed. Each centenary that follows over the next four years at Ypres, Gallipoli, Verdun, the Somme and elsewhere – will have its fair share of myth and reality to choose from as we continue to honour those stories.
As ‘Captain Eddie’ has long shown: there is value in both.