Thursday, March 17, 2011

Captain Eddie

Of all the people I ever interviewed in my years of broadcasting, undoubtedly, the most impressive was World War One “ace” and Medal of Honor recipient, Eddie Rickenbacker.

 Eddie Rickenbacker
It was 1967. He had just written his autobiography and was in Washington to promote the book. Rickenbacker was 77 years old, which to me at the time seemed very old. It had snowed the night before and Washington traffic was at a standstill. The chance of anyone getting to the station on time for a live, morning TV show was very slim.

But he made it.. He had walked from his hotel which was about 10 blocks away.
Autobiography (1967)


Not far into the interview I got the distinct feeling that “Captain Eddie” (which was what he preferred to be called) wasn’t there ‘just to sell books,” but to make sure that “Washington” was reminded how “wrong headed” it sometimes could be.

It certainly had been about him.

Rickenbacker was a well known race car driver prior to World War One. As it became more and more obvious that the United States would soon be drawn into the war, he convinced a group of his fellow race car drivers to join him in presenting a plan to the US Government for using airplanes for more than just observation (as it was then doing.)

His idea was to use airplanes as offensive weapons....and, in his opinion,  there were none more qualified than his group of top notch race car drivers who also knew mechanical engines as well or better than anyone. He said that his squadron of drivers, which he called the Aero Reserves of America, were all in agreement and ready to begin immediately.

The government rejected the idea because:

#1 Rickenbacker and the others did not have college degrees.

#2 They were too old........(pilot candidates had to be under 25 years old at the time)

#3 The fact that they knew engines so well meant (in the mind of the government) that the pilots would refuse to fly if they thought their engines weren't working properly.

So in May of 1917 Rickenbacker used his racing contacts to join General “Black Jack Pershing’s” expeditionary force as a “driver”...eventually becoming General Billy Mitchel’s chauffeur. It was only through Mitchell that Captain Eddie was allowed to finally fly.

Ace of Aces
Medal of Honor
Rickenbacker became America's "Ace of Aces" downing a total of 26 enemy planes.

He told of his saddest memories of seeing so many American pilots holding on to the tails of their burning planes as they went down in flames.

Other than the engine, the planes of that era were primarily made of wood and canvas. An enemy bullet to the engine would usually start a fire that would burn from the front to the back.

The Germans had parachutes, but the American government did not allow our pilots to carry them for fear they would "jump out" at the first sign of danger.

The other story that Rickenbacker told that day was about the time during WW2 when he was asked to deliver a message orally to General MacArthur in the south Pacific when the B-17 in which he was traveling became lost and ditched at sea.

He and the crew spent 21 days and nights floating in a rubber raft in the shark infested Pacific ocean before being rescued.

They had no food....and only occasional rainwater to drink.

About half way through their ordeal, an almost unbelievable event occurred.

To occupy time and to try to keep the men's spirits up, Rickenbacker suggested that they hold a prayer meeting each afternoon. Shortly after prayers were over that first day, a possibly lost and exhausted seagull landed on Rickenbacker’s head. He ever so slowly raised his right hand and captured the bird.

 After rescue
They called it their "gift from heaven."  Whatever it was, It saved their lives. They divided the bird into equal portions and ate it..

Afterward, they used the entrails as bait.....and caught enough fish to allow them to survive their ordeal.

Three weeks from the day of their crash landing in the Pacific, they were spotted by a US Navy plane and rescued. Rickenbacker and all but 2 of the 9 people on board the B-17 had survived.


Captain Eddie said that ever since that experience, never a day had gone by that he didn’t drink a very large glass of water.

Another thing he happened to mention was that in addition to never getting a college degree...

......he also never got a pilot’s license......

......nor a drivers license. -Ed