Eddie Rickenbacker: An American Hero in the Twentieth Century

  • Published

Eddie Rickenbacker: An American Hero in the Twentieth Century by W. David Lewis. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005, 720 pp.

This well-researched biography is an important addition to the library of any aerospace professional who wishes to understand the archetype of the American fighter pilot. Although a quickly moving read overall, in places the text is unnecessarily long as the author explores tangents (e.g., the early American automobile industry, the early American auto racing environment, etc.) that in my opinion could have been cut from the final edit without any ill effects on understanding the life of Eddie Rickenbacker.

The author grew up in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, which had an airport used by Rickenbacker. Lewis never met Rickenbacker, but growing up in Bellefonte in the 1930s and hearing about the many exploits in which “Captain Eddie” was involved at that time, he states in the preface, “I can’t recall a time when I didn’t know who [Rickenbacker] was.” Lewis writes this book neither out of blind hero worship nor to debunk the legend, but from the nexus of his personal memories and his chosen profession as an aviation historian.

Lewis’ coverage of Rickenbacker’s parents’ moves briskly compared to many other biographies, and he makes quick connections between their “immigration story” to America and the resulting austere conditions of Eddie’s childhood. This sets the stage for the hard-working, persevering American story that builds throughout. Lewis provides insight into Rickenbacker’s poverty-striken childhood, describing how he was awakening at 0400 by age 5 to beat out his fellow newspaper boys. The fighter pilot in all of us will smile at Rickenbacker’s competitive tactical thinking at such a young age. Lewis provides useful insight into Rickenbacker’s childhood that, while not unusual for the times, does help explain the motivations that drove Eddie into his search for adventure, danger, and fame. He was forced to become an adult after his father died when Eddie was just 13.

Most SSQ readers may find the author’s analysis a bit too “touchy-feely.” Especially in the early chapters, the reader will have to search hard for the lessons that apply to air, space, and cyberspace strategy and policy, but there are morsels. For instance: “And he had learned a valuable lesson . . . careful planning, teamwork, and taking advantage of any mechanical or psychological weaknesses an opponent had to lead to victory despite heavy odds” (pp. 51–52).

A theme that will resonate with SSQ readers is the descriptions of the leadership roles Rickenbacker held from a very young age. Especially good is the description of his role as race team manager for the Prest-O-Lite racing team in the 1915–16 time frame.

Rickenbacker’s career intersected and was influenced by other heavyweights in airpower history, such as Billy Mitchell (he became his driver in France in WWI before he was a pilot), Carl Spaatz (he was on his staff at Issoudun Air Base in France in WWI) and Hap Arnold (he did PR for Arnold early in WWII and later delivered bad news about combat tour lengths being extended). Readers will enjoy the vivid descriptions of Rickenbacker’s time in the 94th “Hat in the Ring” Pursuit Squadron during WWI and his rise from a ridiculed outcast to squadron commander—and, thereafter, lifelong cheerleader and promoter. Lewis’ brief description of Rickenbacker’s “hands-on leadership style” (pp. 196–97, 205) when he was appointed CO of the 94th will leave aerospace leaders wishing for more.

An annoying aspect of the interwar years’ discussion was the lack of pictures of aircraft described at some length yet not included in the otherwise excellent section of black and white photographs (e.g., Fokker F-32). This was a “repeat write-up” throughout this biography.

The account of Rickenbacker’s role in the early days of WWII as a “torch bearer” for Hap Arnold explored his foray into what now might be considered the realm of “information operations/strategic communications.” Professionals in the IO career fields will be aghast at some of the exploits revealed by the author. Potentially one of the most revealing treasures—Hap Arnold’s apparent request to Rickenbacker to make speeches claiming the virtues of early Army Air Force aircraft (e.g., P-40) to win the “war of public opinion” and provide Arnold needed bolstering—is poorly documented.

SSQ readers will appreciate an excerpt from Rickenbacker’s report to FDR’s secretary of war Stimson following his tour of Eighth Air Force bases in England early in WWII: “The enterprise which begins on land or sea without air superiority is foredoomed to failure. The enterprise which starts with air control is already on the high road or the sky road to success.”

The author has a troubling habit of speculating on happenings and conversations without documentation, such as his extensive text on pp.465–66 concerning whether or not Secretary of War Stimson told the State Department about Rickenbacker’s proposed visit to Moscow as his emissary.

In summary, while Eddie Rickenbacker is an enjoyable read, if looking for a book with lots of hardcore lessons for air, space, and cyberspace policy and strategy—skip this one. However, if the reader wants an inspirational true story about a self-made aviation hero and legend whose life intersected many other Air Force legends yet has been somewhat ignored by the current generation, then this is the book to read. Finally, every past, current, and future member of the USAF’s 94th Fighter Squadron should read this book.

Lt Col Wayne L. Shaw III, USAF
Joint Information Operations Warfare Command

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."