Enduring Courage: Ace Pilot Eddie Rickenbacker and the Dawn of the Age of Speed

by John F. Ross
Reviewed date: 2017 Nov 13
375 pages
cover art

Eddie Rickenbacker is the greatest American. He was born to immigrant parents, grew up dirt poor, dropped out of school to get a job to support the family. He worked unceasingly hard. Eddie became a race car driver, a good one. Became famous. He gave it all up to become a fighter pilot in World War I, where he commanded the 94th Squadron and became America's top ace. He shot down 26 enemy aircraft. Between the wars, he started a car company, bought and operated the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, bought Eastern Air Lines and built it into a major air carrier. During World War II, his plane crashed in the Pacific Ocean. His leadership and sheer force of will carried the men through 24 days of drifting through the ocean until they were rescued. He took a diplomatic trip to the USSR during the war, where he used his personal connections to gain access to valuable military information, which he memorized and provided to the Allies. (The Soviets were allies against the Nazis, but not friends to the West.) He spoke out against Communism and socialism.

There may have been Americans who had a greater impact on history. There may have been greater men who were Americans. But Eddie Rickenbacker is the greatest American qua American. The greatest American at being an American.

I learned all that from Eddie Rickenbacker's autobiography. And with a story like that, I wondered if it was all propaganda, or was Captain Eddie Rickenbacker really the man he claimed to be?

Yes. Mostly, yes. John F. Ross brings out one incident where Rickenbacker was less than truthful in his autobiography, but by and large, he is the man presented in his autobiography. That incident refers to his father, who Eddie recounts as having died in a tragic workplace accident. In truth, his father was abusive, disagreeable, argumentative, and he died in a senseless fight that he started.

I was hoping to learn more about Rickenbacker's commercial ventures after World War I, particularly how he built Eastern Air Lines into a major force. Enduring Courage focuses more on Eddie's early years as a race car drive and a fighter pilot. The theme running through the biography (and it's in the title) is "the dawn of the age of speed." Ross spends almost as much time explaining the times Eddie lived in as recounting Eddie's live itself. Eddie came of age just as horses and buggies were being replaced by automobiles, and airplanes were in their infancy, and he understood better than most the transformative power of this new technology. He was also really good at understanding these machines. Ross takes great pains to help the reader understand the impact of how cars and airplanes were reshaping the very world that Eddie lived in.

What set Rickenbacker apart from his racing and flying peers was his attitude toward risk. Eddie was no dare-devil. For him, risk was a variable to be managed. In the most intense moments of chaos, Eddie didn't respond to the thrill by giving in to the wild panic of emotions; he became intensely analytical. A deep understanding of his machine (either race car or aircraft), developed through meticulous practice and preparation, enabled him to think his way out of potential catastrophes more than once. Where other competitors would push the envelope for the sheer thrill, Eddie would plan beforehand--assessing the racetrack to determine the precise speed at which he could safely navigate each turn--and stick to that plan. He pushed himself and his machine, but always coolly, taking appropriate, managed risks.

Ross also brings out the discrimination Eddie faced, which he rarely, if ever, mentions in his autobiography. Eddie came from a poor immigrant background. He was rough-spoken, had a working education--not a fancy university degree. He was turned down multiple times in his quest to become a fighter pilot during the war, mainly because he didn't fit the mold of what people thought a pilot should be. Though he eventually became commander of the 94th Squadron, that was an unlikely turn of events--not because he wasn't qualifed, which he was, but because he wasn't high class enough.

Then there's the fact of Rickenbacker's heritage. As in, German. (German-speaking Swiss, actually, but the public is not known for its attention to detail, particularly when there's a war going on and the newspapers are out for blood.) Not exactly the most popular heritage to have during the Great War. In his autobiography, Rickenbacker recounts that he changed the spelling of his last name--from Rickenbacher to Rickenbacker--on a whim. Accidentally, almost. Ross makes it clear that Eddie was facing significant pressure due to his German heritage, and adopting a less German spelling was probably a deliberate attempt to signal that he was all-in for America.

Not everyone was convinced. The British suspected him of being a German spy, and had him investigated and followed for quite some time. But there was never any doubt. Eddie Rickenbacker was as American as they come.

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