HERITAGE SERIES: Rickenbacker Visit Highlighted Post-WWI Days at Selfridge

  • Published
  • By TSgt. Dan Heaton
  • 127th Wing Public Affairs
(Part of an ongoing series of historic profiles on key Airmen in the early history of Selfridge Air National Guard Base.)

He was America's Ace of Aces - and then served some of his final few days in uniform at Selfridge Field.

Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker became an American hero as the top U.S. ace in World War I. In the short time he remained on active duty after the war, Rickenbacker passed through Selfridge, no doubt recalling their victory in France with some of his former squadron mates in the 94th Aero Squadron - the famous "Hat in the Ring" squadron that Rickenbacker commanded during the war. The squadron was assigned to Selfridge Field after the war. An historic photo exists that shows the Ace with some of his former colleagues at Selfridge.

An ace is a pilot who scores five or more aerial combat victories. Rickenbacker's 26 topped the U.S. total, ahead of Capt. Francis W. Gillet's 20. (Though an American, Gillet flew during the war for Canada and Britain, a fairly common practice during that conflict.) While Rickenbacker's victory total was impressive, America entered the war after it had been raging for several years and U.S. totals are well behind that of many European flyers. Germany's Baron Manfred von Richtofen, the feared "Red Baron," ended the war as the top ace with 80 kills.

On the day of his promotion to command the 94th - after the previous commander had been shot down and captured -- Rickenbacker wrote this entry in his diary: "Just been promoted to command of 94th Squadron. I shall never ask any pilot to go on a mission that I won't go on. I must work now harder than I did before." On the very next day came the action for which he would receive his nation's highest honor, the Medal of Honor.

Rickenbacker was an automotive enthusiast prior to World War I. He completed an automobile mechanics correspondence course in 1905 (for reference, the first Ford Model T wasn't built until three years later). Rickenbacker then launched a career as a auto race driver, competing in the very first Indianapolis 500 in 1911. (Rickenbacker would later own the famed Speedway in the 1930s and '40s.) When World War I broke out, Rickenbacker enlisted and his driving skills were put to use when he was assigned as a driver to Gen. John J. Pershing, the commander of the American Expeditionary Force in Europe.

Serving as a driver was OK, but it was not enough for Rickenbacker. Though he was two years over the age limit to be a pilot, he badgered his bosses - and used some help from a key high-ranking friend, Major Gen. Billy Mitchell - to get assigned to an aero squadron. The rest, as they say, is history. Rickenbacker, though said to have no more than "average aim" due to an old eye injury, shot down 22 enemy airplanes and four balloons (which were considered even more dangerous than airplanes) to finish the war as the nation's top ace. In 1930, he was belatedly awarded the Medal of Honor for valor during a Sept. 25, 1918, dogfight in which he downed two enemy aircraft - the day after Rickenbacker had been named the commander of the Hat in the Ring Squadron. During that dogfight, Rickenbacker braved seven-to-one odds on the opening day of the Meuse-Argonne offensive.

Following the war, Rickenbacker toured the country for the Army (the separate Air Force was still 30 years in the future), selling bonds to help pay for the war costs and promoting air power. It was during that tour that he made his stop at Selfridge, where the 94th was then stationed. Rickenbacker left the Army in January 1919, though he was assigned as a colonel in the Officers Reserve Corps for several years in the 1930s.

Following his military service, Rickenbacker worked briefly for General Motors and then moved into the airline business, eventually running Eastern Airlines and making it the first airline to turn a profit and operate without government subsidy. In 1941, he survived a plane crash on an Eastern aircraft. In 1943, while visiting U.S. bases in the Pacific region, the B-17 he was flying on crashed into the ocean. Rickenbacker, despite being the only civilian on board, took command of the survival party. Twenty-two days later, he and six other survivors were rescued. After a two-week rest, Rickenbacker continued his tour, one of several he made to support the Army Air Forces during the war.

Rickenbacker died in 1973, aged 82. He was buried in his home town of Columbus, Ohio, where Rickenbacker Air National Guard Base is named in his honor. In addition to his Medal of Honor, Rickenbacker was awarded seven Distinguished Flying Crosses and the French Legion of Honor medal.

Though his connection with Selfridge Field was only minimal, Rickenbacker's daring accomplishments during World War I helped cement the image of a can-do Airman into the American psyche. That groundwork helped pave the way for all those who wear Air Force blue today at Selfridge and beyond.

Today, the 94th Fighter Squadron is the second-oldest active fighter squadron in the U.S. military. The unit currently flies the F-22A Raptor and is based at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia. It continues to use the famed "Hat in the Ring" image and motto.

Comprised of approximately 1,700 personnel and flying both the A-10 Thunderbolt II and the KC-135 Stratotanker, the 127th Wing supports Air Mobility Command, Air Combat Command and Air Force Special Operation Command by providing highly-skilled Airmen to missions domestically and overseas. The 127th Wing is the host unit at Selfridge Air National Guard Base, which marked its 95th year of continuous military air operations in 2012.