The dawn of the 20th century saw the advent of two world-changing technologies: automobiles and airplanes. With these came new breeds of risk takers and heroes—the racecar driver and the fighter pilot.
Eddie Rickenbacker was both.
He became famous in the nascent sport of auto racing, driving in sanctioned events across the country, including the earliest Indianapolis 500s. He became even more famous in World War I as America's ace of aces, downing more enemy airplanes than any other U.S. pilot.
Rickenbacker clearly had the "right stuff" for this brave new world. But what was the right stuff circa 1918? Biographer John F. Ross grapples with this and other questions in his new book, Enduring Courage: Ace Pilot Eddie Rickenbacker and the Dawn of the Age of Speed.
"When Eddie Rickenbacker's brand of courage intersected with the new frontiers of speed brought by car and airplane, extraordinary things started to happen," Ross writes.
Many books have been written about Rickenbacker, including two autobiographies that were ghostwritten and dramatized for effect. Ross writes about many of the exploits described in those works, but he also mines primary sources, including thousands of pages of transcribed interviews with Rickenbacker, to get beneath what he calls "the veneer of untouchable hero."
National Geographic spoke to Ross about what he learned.
You've had a lifelong interest in Eddie Rickenbacker. How did your interest blossom into a book?
I was hooked at age 10 or 12 when I read his first autobiography, Fighting the Flying Circus. I was just stunned by the incredible stories of aerial dogfights in rickety biplanes over France in World War I, and how Eddie Rickenbacker was the hero at the center of it.
As I got older I began to wonder: Who was this guy? How did he stay alive and what drove him? What was his nature and how did he look at life? Where did his courage come from?
I believe it's important for us to revisit figures of the past like Eddie who did so much to build this country. It's beneficial to see how they handled the challenges and opportunities at the beginning of major technological innovations and changes. I hear a lot of dithering and whining in this country, and I think it behooves us to go back and look at another time and see the stuff we Americans are made of.
You wrote that "ultimately, Rickenbacker's story boils down to courage." How so?
Halfway through the research for the book, I realized that the core of this book—and the key to understanding Eddie—was the character trait of courage. Not the white-hot courage that makes people do heroic things in a moment of desperation, but the kind of day-to-day courage that enables a seventh-grade dropout to become the ace of aces and the head of Eastern Air Lines.
How would you characterize Rickenbacker's courage in relation to the new dangers posed by cars and airplanes?
Well, it's interesting when you think about courage in terms of daredevils who just say "to hell with it" and take any risk—and often end up dying. That includes many early aviators and racecar drivers.
Then there were others who were too cautious.
Somewhere in between was a fine line that Eddie found by asking himself questions like, How fast can I take this car? Neither too fast nor too slow. It came through an understanding of risk and an understanding of himself, along with a deep grittiness, the will to survive, and bringing his talents to bear. For him, it was calculated; not a daredevil type of risk. He could toe that fine line.
How did you discern between what Rickenbacker and his ghostwriters dramatized or exaggerated, and what Rickenbacker actually did and said?
I knew I needed to push back into the primary source material upon which the [early] books were based. Take, for instance, Rickenbacker: An Autobiography. Eddie sat down several times a week for a year with his ghostwriter Bootes Herndon. The transcripts of those recorded interviews come to some 7,000 typewritten pages.
Most of us as we age come up with the narrative of our life—this was especially important for Eddie, who was a big national hero. But it was hard to keep that narrative straight when he and Herndon kept coming back to the same incidents from different perspectives over the course of many interviews.
What results is a wonderful document of contradictions and humor, acerbic side comments, anger, and wishful thinking. It's not a clean narrative, but like real life, it's all over the place, good and bad. Of course, all this stuff got sanitized, because Eddie wanted to keep his hero status intact. So in several prominent cases, Eddie basically makes things up to suit himself. Maintaining his reputation became a key part of his survival.
What episode in your book do you feel best defines the man?
The one I chose for the introduction, an experience in World War I. In a dogfight, an abrupt maneuver tore the wing of his fragile Nieuport aircraft. In desperation, while in a spin and plummeting toward Earth, he was forced to think and act quickly.
I picked out that incident to show how his brain worked—what moved him to be creative in a dire situation. Only a few seconds remained for him, and no emergency procedures had yet been devised for such a situation. In that instant, he overcame fear and innovated a solution that freed him from the spin.
Again and again in his life, he came up with unorthodox solutions to problems. He was an unorthodox thinker who did not just take what people gave him on face value, but went beyond.
Any "aha" moments when you uncovered something that had not been revealed before about Rickenbacker?
One of the aha moments, though written about in an academic biography earlier, was that he willfully glossed over his father's death. He claimed that his father was a construction foreman who was killed by an errant crane-load of wood. In reality, he was a common laborer who attacked an African-American laborer without provocation. The man killed him in self-defense. There was a trial and everything—something a boy would have a hard time forgetting. But Eddie adopted a new story and began to believe it himself.
I note in my book that he buried humiliation and guilt by brushing the facts away [in his best-selling autobiography]. He would survive with dignity, even if that meant falsifying the record.
I began to understand that taking control of the narrative of his life and changing inconvenient details was all about the survival of a man only inches away from being a nobody—a poor immigrant's son desperate to make it in the New World.
Rickenbacker catapulted to fame a hundred years ago, but would you say his brand of courage is timeless?
I think he showed us that with the raft incident during World War II. He had been sent at the president's request to the South Pacific, but the aircraft he was riding in crashed at sea. He and six other survivors spent 23 days on rafts with no provisions. The upshot is that Eddie was the one who enabled them to get through that and survive. You might say he did it by getting the others to hate him more than death itself!
At a very critical tim—when America was in the midst of World War II—Eddie, through a personal demonstration of courage, lost in the Pacific Ocean for 23 days, showed how Americans could get through anything. The story was told in Life magazine and other publications. It's hard to quantify, but it was a powerful influence on the country in a hard time.
A question often asked of a biographer: Do you like the person?
It's a tricky one with Rickenbacker. He was a pretty rough, gritty kind of guy. He didn't suffer fools. And frankly, he was all elbows in a lot of situations. Certainly I came to have a deep, abiding respect for him and what he went through. But do I like him? I don't know.
What elements of Rickenbacker's life haven't gotten as much attention as they ought to?
I decided to spend most of my time on the first two decades of the 20th century. I go through his later life, like the Eastern Air Lines years, very quickly. There's certainly more material in that time period to explore.
I think that every generation should take a new look at people like this, the same way we've looked at George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and other pivotal people in our history, and bring fresh ideas to why they did what they did and what it means to us today.
For those who are not interested in World War I aviation or early car racing, why should they read Enduring Courage?
The book is ostensibly about World War I aviation and car racing, but those are the vehicles—excuse the pun—that I use to talk about deeper things in American culture.
This all happened at the dawn of the age of speed—when human culture first experienced mechanical speed, and it became available to everybody. It began to change the nature of American society. We've never looked back. Eddie Rickenbacker's extraordinary life gave me an opportunity to explore some fascinating themes in American history and reflect on who we are as Americans.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.