Awkward Hero

In 2005, Auburn University Professor W. David Lewis finished Eddie Rickenbacker: An American Hero in the Twentieth Century. A labor of love and personal obsession, the biography took Lewis decades of research. Rickenbacker - A LifeIt is a magisterial tome, the definitive work on one of the major celebrities of early twentieth century America. Accomplished in multiple arenas and a larger than life figure, Rickenbacker’s star has faded in the forty years since his death. Lewis’s focus is Rickenbacker, not his celebrity, but the question of why Rickenbacker’s fame has diminished haunts the history of this amazing and complicated man.

Born in the 1890 to a poor Swiss immigrant family, Rickenbacker clawed his way out of Ohio poverty through hard work, mechanical intelligence, and a willingness to take great risks. Finding employment in the nascent automobile industry, he built, repaired, sold, and eventually raced cars. Early automobile races were effective sales tools. “Fast Eddie” Rickenbacker was an accomplished speedster when World War I broke out. He enlisted, traveled to England, and parlayed his mechanical and engineering abilities into an opportunity to fly airplanes. Obsessed and extraordinarily brave, Rickenbacker rose to the rank of Captain and was a commanding presence and leader. By the war’s end, Rickenbacker was America’s leading ace, credited with shooting down 26 enemy planes. He toured the nation after the war and co-wrote an autobiography. He was constantly in the press and very much the nation’s best-known aviator until Lindbergh was fly across the Atlantic.

Rickenbacker partnered in an automobile company bearing his name in the 1920s. Rickenbacker Automobiles was known for mechanical innovations, most importantly four-wheel brakes. Despite promising sales and reviews, the corporation went under in 1927. Rickenbacker made good on all the debt, thanks in part to his work with General Motors, which at that time had an air division. Rickenbacker maintained his relationship with GM through the Great Depression, eventually managing Eastern Airlines, which originally was a division of GM. When General Motors decided to sell Eastern, Rickenbacker found investors and became CEO of the airline, a position he would hold until 1959. He made Eastern a major air carrier. Rickenbacker was a tireless innovator in commercial aviation.

Among other adventures along the way Rickenbacker owned the Indianapolis Speedway, fought with President Roosevelt (Rickenbacker hated the New Deal – he thought that it undermined personal responsibility), and scripted a comic book. In World War II, he handled several high-profile tours for Secretary of War Stimson, including visits to England, the Soviet Union, and the Pacific Theater.

Rickenbacker - WWI AceRounding out this full life was Rickenbacker’s repeated brushes with death. Involved in several risky accidents as a young man and as a race car driver, Rickenbacker was a fortunate fighter pilot in a war that was extraordinarily deadly for aviators. In 1941 he survived an Eastern Airlines crash that killed eight passengers and crew. Rickenbacker’s injuries were so severe that doctors expected his death. A few years later on a mission to the South Pacific for President Roosevelt, delivering a message to General Douglas MacArthur, Rickenbacker was aboard a bomber that lost its way and crashed in the Pacific Ocean. His forceful personality was credited for the crew’s survival. All but one man lived through a harrowing twenty-four day ordeal on tiny rafts in the open seas. Rickenbacker’s wife insisted that the military continue to search for him long after the press – and many in the army – assumed that Rickenbacker perished.

I first heard of Rickenbacker from my maternal grandfather, another Ohio native. He was born about twenty-five years after Rickenbacker and thought of him as a hero. As I learned from Lewis’s book, many aspects Rickenbacker’s life was similar to my grandfather’s. Both men grew up in poverty in the Midwest, suffering because of the financial failures of their fathers. Rickenbacker dropped out of middle school after his father died. He provided for his family and never had any further formal education. My grandfather delayed high school and worked his way through college. Both men were very good with their hands, possessing a highly valued mechanical intelligence and craft skill. Both men achieved success. Rickenbacker was in many ways a model for my grandfather. Both men lived by a code of hyper-masculinity that made emotional connections with friends and family very difficult. They were not unusual in this, either. The characteristics and story are familiar to many Americans.

Unfortunately, as Lewis’s biography makes clear, Rickenbacker was also mean and cruel to friends, family, acquaintances and strangers. He was racist, misogynistic, and struggled with alcohol. Notoriously difficult to work with, Rickenbacker’s management style can best described as patronizing. At its worse, it was abusive. Despite his exploits and his greatness, Rickenbacker was far from being a great human being. Rickenbacker’s code was a factor in his interpersonal difficulties.

What, then, do we make of this flawed American hero and his tremendous success an influence? The question is beyond the scope of Lewis’s biography. It is a challenge that academia has been uninterested or unwilling to take up. A Google search with “syllabus” and “Rickenbacker” is woefully thin. Higher education tends to study success and leadership through the lens of business management or student development. At the service academies, military leadership is regularly examined. A life of ambition like Rickenbacker’s does not fit these disciplines or their respective methodologies.

Rickenbacker was a phenomenon, a force of a nature. Tremendous admiration has to go with any serious look at the man and his life. From a cultural and social perspective, he embodied an American ideal of self-made success, masculinity, courage and patriotism. And these issues, interesting enough, are not the focus of many courses in higher education. We are critical and skeptical in the academy. It is our nature.

Academic study of Rickenbacker is challenged by another complication. The man’s exploits and influence cut across departments and areas. He could be mentioned in an aviation history course, in a business history course, in a course about World War I, or even a writing course. Rickenbacker’s autobiographical work is compelling. I can think of very few college courses that could present and digest Eddie Rickenbacker. His absence from college courses is a telling shortcoming, highlighting what higher education does not do well.

What remains, then, is a complicated and challenging American hero whose life history is interesting, important, and ill-suited to higher education today. What I cannot figure out is why the almost comically anti-PC history of Eddie Rickenbacker has not been revitalized and trumpeted by conservative America historians and pundits. He would be a hard act not to follow.

David Potash

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