Ace Pilot Eddie Rickenbacker and the Dawn of the Age of Speed
375 pages. 4 maps. 16 pages of black-and-white photos on glossy paper. Acknowledgments, introduction, epilogue, chapter notes, note to the reader, and index.
This is not a typical biography. The author's intention is to cover three periods in the life of Eddie Rickenbacker when he showed exceptional courage. Other parts of his life are briefly summarized.
The biography is divided into four sections, which the author calls 'books':
- Book I: Racing
- Starts with Eddie's childhood, and continuing through his career as a racing driver.
- Book II: Flying
- When the United States enters World War One, Eddie joins the war effort and becomes a pilot.
- Book III: Fighting
- Eddie finally makes it into air combat, and eventually becomes a leader and ace.
- Book IV: Immortality
- Eddie, still recovering after a commercial airliner crash, is lost in the Pacific for three weeks while on a secret WWII mission for the U.S. president.
As you can see, there's a major jump between Books II and III (with a quick summary of Eddie's years at Eastern Airlines), and then little coverage of his post-WWII life. So the focus is on Eddie as a racer, Eddie as a fighter pilot, and Eddie as a survivor (when lost at sea).
The section on Eddie's racing career brings out how this young man found his own opportunities, worked his way from success to success, used his own ingenuity to master the automotive technology of the time, and devised tactics to succeed on the racing course.
The greatest portion of the book cover's Eddie's WWI career. He volunteers for pilot duty based on his racing experience, but is turned down because of his lack of education. Nevertheless, he gets himself into the army, gets himself into an air support position, gets himself training to fly… his drive to meet his goal is amazing! (Not to mention concealing the fact that he has a defective eye.) Then he has to overcome the hostility of his fellow pilots against a 'mechanic class' pilot. Despite all this, he survives and thrives in the air war.
The book then skips forward to WWII. Eddie, as president of Eastern Airlines, survives a near-death experience when one of his airliners crashes. Not fully recovered, he is asked to handle a difficult assignment: to convey special instructions to General MacArthur. The flight from Hawaii across the Pacific is doomed by an inexperienced or incompetent navigator, and the plane crashes at sea, the crew take to the rafts, and nobody knows where they are. The rafts' survival gear is missing. Eddie's forceful, abrasive personality keeps most of them alive for three weeks, but his order not to separate almost keeps them from being rescued.
The author does a good job not just of telling Eddie's story, but also of explaining the technologies that made Eddie's career possible. Wargamers will find the racing and air-combat sections of particular interest.
My only criticism is that I don't think the author succeeded with his book plan. If he wanted to focus on Eddie's courage, then he needed more than a few pages at the end of the book discussing Eddie's courage. Otherwise, a standard biography would have made more sense, covering his entire life.
A very interesting, detailed book about a fascinating man. Recommended.
Reviewed by Editor in Chief Bill .