A Great War hero: Part 5 – grand finale

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.

Gervais Raoul Lufbery - the experienced commander of 94th Aero Squadron

Gervais Raoul Lufbery – the experienced commander of the 94th Aero Squadron

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.

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

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

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.

James Norman Hall's Nieuport 28 on the field

James Norman Hall’s Nieuport 28 – in which he helped Rickenbacker get blooded

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.

Rickenbacker (left) and Kenneth Marr flank America's first official air ace: Douglas Campbell

Rickenbacker (left) and Kenneth Marr flank Douglas Campbell

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.

Complete with star-spangled wheels, Rickenbacker scored 20 kills in his Spad 'old number 1'

Complete with star-spangled wheels, Rickenbacker scored 20 kills in Spad ‘old number 1’

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.

94th veteran Reed Chambers with his completely star-spangled Spad

94th veteran Reed Chambers with his completely star-spangled Spad in peacetime

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.

'Captain Eddie' of the 94th

‘Captain Eddie’ of the 94th

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.