The son of poor German-speaking Swiss immigrants, Edward Vernon Rickenbacker overcame the specter of his father’s violent death, a debilitating eye injury and accusations of being a German spy to become the American ace of aces in World War I and a Medal of Honor recipient. His extraordinary capabilities, unshakable patriotism and steadfast perseverance enabled the grade-school dropout to circumvent the college degree requirement for pilots, shoot down 26 German aircraft and take command of the 94th Aero Squadron, which under his leadership grew into America’s most successful air unit.
He went on to start a premier car company, own the Indianapolis Speedway and found Eastern Airlines. During World War II, Rickenbacker’s harrowing three-week ordeal aboard a life raft with only rainwater and the food they could catch in the central Pacific showed a weary nation by example that it had the fortitude to survive a war on two fronts.
Part daredevil, part tinkerer, cool risk manager, improviser and showman, Rickenbacker helped forge a new, and particularly American, brand of heroism that would serve as a model for following generations of explorers, adventurers and warriors, from Jimmy Doolittle and Charles Lindbergh to Chuck Yeager and John Glenn.