By Steven Martinovich
"There is no failure except in no longer trying," once wrote American philosopher Elbert Hubbard. Though pithy it perhaps most accurately captures what was once the American ethos – an upstart nation populated by upstarts, millions united by a common cause to prove to the world that they too could compete and succeed at the highest levels. Amongst those striving masses was Eddie Rickenbacker, a man so wrapped in a self-created myth that to this day the incredible truth of his life isn't commonly known.
John F. Ross peels back the layers of myth in an attempt to reveal the real Rickenbacker – even his name is somewhat of an invention -- in Enduring Courage: Ace Pilot Eddie Rickenbacker and the Dawn of the Age of Speed. His Rickenbacker was a taciturn driver of both himself and others, one who was a dare devil of popular lore but believed in risk management. Famous for his fearlessness, Rickenbacker could admit those few closest to him that it was actually fear that drove him to his spectacular feats.
As Ross chronicles, Rickenbacker – actually named Richenbacher – was born in 1890 in Columbus to immigrant parents. Although the Rickenbacker approved origin story told of a pleasant middle-class childhood, his family life was an unhappy one that was mired in poverty and the early death of his father. Forced to provide for the family from a young age, Rickenbacker's apparently natural affinity for machines eventually brought him in the service of a race team as a mechanic. From there he eventually became an elite race car driver which brought him his first taste of fame in the country.
It was his service as a combat pilot in the First World War, however, that truly put Rickenbacker into the American consciousness. Although suspected as a German spy by some – hence the name change during his youth – Rickenbacker went on to win the Medal of Honor and the most successful American pilot of the war. Constantly pushing the rickety primitive aircraft to their failure point allowed Rickenbacker to develop new theories and tactics, some of whom in modified form are used by fighter pilots today. Eventually commanding his own squadron allowed Rickenbacker to transfer that knowledge to others, though his style earned him much respect but few friends.
For most men that would be resume enough but after the war Rickenbacker designed automobiles, pioneered civilian use of air travel, consulted with the U.S. military and survived being lost and adrift at sea for 24 days in 1942 during a secret mission after the B-17D bomber he was in went down due to mechanical issues. By any measure Rickenbacker's life was a series of incredible stories that didn't need to be burnished by any tall tales – surviving multiple plane crashes, WWI air combat and suicidal racing hardly require it – and yet Rickenbacker did precisely that.
Ross argues that Rickenbacker's embellishment of the truth – never the raw facts of an episode but more about Rickenbacker himself – weren't designed to promote himself as the ends, but rather the means of forgetting his horrible childhood and serving as a rallying point and example to others. By portraying himself as an exemplar of American values, he hoped to inspire others to greater heights – and prove his early doubters wrong. In some sense Rickenbacker is like a retired superstar athlete who can't understand why his team is unable to perform the same feats he was able to – except Rickenbacker often managed to get that performance from others.
Enduring Courage labors under the challenge to reveal the truth of a man who by his own admission was unable to open that door during his life. Many who knew Rickenbacker for decades admitted to not knowing what he really felt and thought. Even Rickenbacker's own journals from the First World War seemed to have been written with future audiences in mind – factual and concise but not offering much in the way of private thoughts outside of occasional grief over fellow pilots lost in combat.
Despite that, or perhaps in spite of that, Enduring Courage is a revealing look at the type of person for whom failure could never be an option. Perhaps he was aware of Hubbard's thoughts on failure or came to the same conclusion after a grinding childhood overcoming obstacles that poor, uneducated son of immigrants typically faced in the first decades of the 20th Century. The account that Ross has penned allowed the reader an insight into a man who is rarer today but who can still serve as an example to his nation of what is possible when once simply decides to keep trying.
Steven Martinovich is the founder and editor of Enter Stage Right.
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