I was intrigued by this book because Eddie Rickenbacker is one of the icons of Columbus, Ohio where I live, and where he grew up. We have an airport (former Air Force Base) which bears his name. And before I read this book I knew nothing about him except that he had some connection to flying.
John Ross’s book helped me grasp the contribution Rickenbacker made, both at the dawn of the automobile and of air power as a force in war. More than that, he illustrated in Rickenbacker the finely defined mean of courage between the extremes of foolhardiness on the one hand and mere competence on the other.
He begins with Rickenbacker’s hardscrabble youth on the south side of Columbus, the abusive father under which he developed his self-protective instincts, and his early love of automobiles and instinctive feel for all things mechanical. While Rickenbacker was most known as a flying ace in World War One, his instincts for how far you could push a machine and the laws of physics were honed first on the early race tracks, where crashes were often fatal and few in the sport lived to be old.
We also see his determination to fly as he recognizes that air power would be significant in the conflict of World War One. He visits England and is suspected of being a German spy because of his name. He eventually overcame these suspicions and worked his way into a squadron, first as a mechanic, then into flight school. Ross also gives us a good account of how social class was a barrier Rickenbacker had to overcome. Most of the early American pilots were from Ivy League backgrounds including men with names like Roosevelt and Coolidge. He also had to overcome ear infections that grounded him before taking over the 94th Air Squadron which he led to achieve the greatest number of flying hours, the most kills, with himself being America’s leading ace.
Following the war, Rickenbacker struggled for a time, including periods of heavy drinking (one wonders if he struggled with a form of PTSD, which Ross does not explore). Eventually he helps form Eastern Airlines, originally as a subsidiary of GM and becomes their CEO. The book then details two further incidents of courage in Rickenbacker’s life. First, Ross describes his courageous recovery from a near-fatal airplane crash resulting from pilot error (he was a passenger) on approach to Atlanta. Then, while still in pain and limping from his injuries, he undertakes a secret mission to the Pacific that results in a heroic three week struggle to survive on a life raft in the Pacific. His sheer determination to survive helped save the lives of the others on board.
Apart from a brief narrative of the spiritual impact of this experience (he wrote a piece where he speaks of God’s intervention on their behalf circulated to many in military service during the war) and a cursory summary of Rickenbacker’s next 30 years, the book ends here. It appears that his last years may have been marked by an increasing rigidity and reactionary quality that might have dimmed the luster of the narrative up to this point.
Overall, the book has an immediacy that makes it a riveting read, almost as if it was an “as told to” narrative. Ross gives us a portrait of what “the right stuff” looks like–an almost business-like calibration of risk and strategy that nevertheless seems to recognize the line between courage and folly. Rickenbacker, in many ways, would define for future generations of military fighter pilots, what that line was.
Note: My review of this book is based on a complimentary e-galley provided by the publisher through Netgalley.