Ken Harbaugh tells the stories of service members who have distinguished themselves through an act of valor. These stories feature recipients from the Civil War to present day, including a few who were originally overlooked for the medal.
Captain Eddie Rickenbacker served as a pilot in WWI. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for destroying two enemy aircraft in a one-versus-seven dogfight behind enemy lines. He also was awarded eight Distinguished Service Crosses for his other aerial victories.
Welcome to the Medal of Honor podcast, brought to you in partnership with the National Medal of Honor Museum. I’m Ken Harbaugh. In each episode, we’ll learn about a different service member who has distinguished him or herself through an act of valor.
Captain Eddie Vernon Rickenbacker was born on October 8th, 1890 in Columbus, Ohio. Rickenbacker’s parents were German-speaking Swiss immigrants, and his father died before he turned fourteen. Rickenbacker spent the rest of his childhood working for different car companies to provide for his family. It was there that he gained a love for machines and engineering.
Rickenbacker had a need for speed. He was a relief driver in the first Indianapolis 500 and received national acclaim for his racing performances.
As Rickenbacker’s acclaim grew, World War I broke out in Europe. When Rickenbacker traveled to Britain to design a car, British agents arrested him on suspicion that he was a spy for the Central Powers. Though their source was a sensationalist story claiming he was the son of a Prussian noble, Rickenbacker’s interest jumped from the track to the sky.
In May 1917, Rickenbacker entered the service as a driver in the American Expeditionary Forces, driving for General Pershing’s aviation officer, Major Dodd. In France, he was able to get a taste of flight training and served as an engineer at the flight school, though he secretly yearned to be a pilot himself.
Rickenbacker finally got his wish in January 1918, attending aerial gunnery school and joining the 1st Pursuit Group. The 1st Pursuit Group was the AEF’s first aerial combat group in World War I. As the AEF fought in France, Rickenbacker began flying sorties against the Germans.
On April 29th, 1918, he earned his first victory in aerial combat. Within a month, he had shot down five enemy planes, becoming an ace and earning a French Croix de Guerre.
During the St. Mihiel Offensive, Lt. Rickenbacker became the commanding officer of the 94th Squadron. On the 25th of September 1918, Rickenbacker voluntarily flew alone over enemy lines on a patrol mission. Upon spotting seven enemy aircraft, he attacked, destroying two, and then escaped back into friendly airspace.
Rickenbacker was originally awarded eight Distinguished Service Crosses for his aerial victories, including this one, which was eventually upgraded to the Medal of Honor by President Hoover. When the armistice was declared, Rickenbacker was the top American ace of the war, with 26 kills to his credit.
Upon returning to the United States, Rickenbacker was known as Captain Eddie or “the Captain”. He continued flying and designing cars. He even bought the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1927, where he had raced 14 years earlier.
Rickenbacker’s later life was anything but calm. In 1941, he barely survived a plane crash near Atlanta. A year later, Rickenbacker was visiting American bases in the Pacific, when the plane he was on flew off course and ditched in the middle of the ocean. Rickenbacker and the crew survived for 24 days on life rafts before the US Navy found them. He died of pneumonia following a stroke in 1973 in Switzerland.
The Medal of Honor podcast is a production of Evergreen Podcasts.
Declan Rohrs is our producer, León Pescador is our associate producer, Nathan Corson is our engineer, and I’m Ken Harbaugh.
We are proud to support the National Medal of Honor Museum. To learn more, and to support their mission, go to mohmuseum.org. Thanks for listening.