Capt. "Eddie" Rickenbacker, as he has been fondly called by several generations of Americans and millions of people the world over, was a racing driver who went into World War I at America's entrance and came out of it as the leading U.S. Ace with 26 confirmations over the enemy.
He was originally turned down for enlistment for lack of education but was persistent, and on May 25, 1917, at New York City he joined the Signal Enlisted Reserve Corps, with assignment to the Aviation Section. Three days later he was on his way to Paris, France, for assignment to Aviation Headquarters American Expeditionary Forces. His rank was sergeant first class. He served as General John J. Pershing's staff driver. At his insistence he was permitted to join a fighter unit, being assigned as a student at the Aviation Training School at Tours, France.
He completed the course Oct. 10, 1917, and was commissioned a first lieutenant. He then became Engineering Officer to HQ Detachment, 3rd Aviation Instruction Center at Issoudun, serving under Maj. Carl A. Spaatz, whose own fame lay ahead in World War II. For many months Spaatz refused to allow him to become a combat pilot because he needed him on the staff but, in March 1918, Captain Rickenbacker prevailed in his repeated requests and he was assigned to the 1st Pursuit Group's 94th Aero Squadron, the famed "Hat-in-the-Ring" Squadron, as a pilot under Maj. Raoul Lufbery. Rickenbacker was in action next month, flying his Nieuport fighter over the lines against the enemy on April 25, and shooting down a German flying a Pfalz, without a single bullet hitting his own machine.
By June 1, 1918, Rickenbacker had become an ace, with five enemy kills to his credit. He was flying with Lufbery. Capt. James Norman Hall, and others who first saw combat with the Lafayette Escadrille, and the squadron was making history, which eventually led to 69 overall victories.
During that summer Rickenbacker suffered from a mastoid infection and spent two months in a hospital in Paris. Returning to duty, he was put in command of the famed 94th Squadron on Sept. 25,. 1918, and on Oct. 28, received promotion to captain. A daring, fearless, talented but never reckless flyer, Rickenbacker as CO would never assign his men to a target he wouldn't lead and he continued as "Hat in-the-Ring" Squadron leader until his return to the U.S. on Jan. 27, l9l9, when he was hailed for leading the Americans with 26 victories.
He also had been awarded major French and U.S. decorations including our nation's highest, the Medal of Honor, with the following citation: "For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action against the enemy near Billy, France, Sept. 25, 1918. While on a voluntary patrol over the lines, Lieutenant Rickenbacker attacked seven enemy planes (five type Fokker, protecting two type Halberstadt). Disregarding the odds against him, he dived on them and shot down one of the Fokkers out of control. He then attacked one of the Halberstadts and sent it down also."
Rickenbacker also received eight Distinguished Service Crosses. Between April 29 and May 22, 1918, he engaged a large number of Albatross enemy monoplanes over occupied France shooting down three of them and discouraging the others from a concerted effort. On May 28, he sighted a group of two battle planes and four monoplanes which he at once attacked vigorously, shooting down one and dispersing the others," according to the Distinguished Service Cross citation. Two days later "over Jaulny he attacked a group of five enemy planes. After a violent battle, he shot down one plane and drove the others away."
On Sept. 14: "In the region of Villecy, he attacked four Fokker enemy planes .. . after a sharp and hot action, he succeeded in shooting one down in flames and dispersing the other three."
On Sept. 15: "In the region of Bois-de-Waville, he encountered six enemy planes that were in the act of attacking four Spads, which were below them. Undeterred by their superior numbers, he unhesitatingly attacked them and succeeded in shooting down one, in flames, and completely breaking the formation of the others."
From France Rickenbacker received the Legion of Honor (chevalier) and two Croix de Guerres, with Palm, being cited as: "A pilot of extraordinary bravery, indifferent to danger, who does not hesitate to attack his adversaries regardless of their numbers. During the Marne and Aisne operations he veritably electrified his comrades. He shot down four enemy planes."
In June 1929, Rickenbacker took a colonel's commission as a Specialist in the Officers Reserve Corps, but he gave it up at the end of the five-year appointment period as he had often stated he always wanted to be remembered as Captain Eddie.
During the early part of WWII, he served as the personal observer of Secretary of War Stimson in a flight over Leningrad. On his return to Washington to report on German war damage of the Russian city, his plane was followed down in the Pacific, but he survived a long ordeal on a raft and was eventually rescued.
After WWI Rickenbacker returned to auto racing and became president of the Indianapolis Speedway. He moved back into aviation and built up Eastern Air Lines into one of the commercial giants. On the last day of 1963, Captain Eddie retired as Eastern's Board Chairman, more than 40 years after his glory days over France.
See the full citation from the Congressional Medal of Honor Society website.
For additional information, see the National Museum of the USAF.