Remembering the Ace of Aces

And now for some history I never knew – and a little that I actually did know too.

Eddie Rickenbacker and his World War I fighter plane

Eddie Rickenbacker was “Ace of the Aces.” A World War I fighter pilot, he shot down 26 enemy fighters.  You’re an ace if you have five kills. Rickenbacker didn’t kill 80 enemies, like Manfred von Richtofen. But unlike the Red Baron he did survive the war. Much later, he became a millionaire and president of Eastern Airlines. I remembered Eddie’s the nickname.

Back when I was in the banking business, I had to go to innumerable business organizational functions and networking activities. At one of them, a woman with the surname Rickenbacker traded business cards with me. I asked her “Are you related to the Ace of Aces?”  The way her face lighted up made that dreary had-to-do-it meeting worthwhile.

I also remembered reading, somewhere along the way that in World War II Pacific Theater, things started off very badly for the Americans. The Japanese had been preparing for war for years, and they had much better stuff, much better weapons of war. Under the sea, the long-lance torpedo gave their submarines a frightening early advantage. (Aside – there is one on display on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Academy. The damn thing seems to stretch a city block).

In the air, the Zero fighter plane was far superior – faster, more maneuverable, better weapons — to anything that America first had to offer. It remained that way until the arrival of a revolutionary new American fighter plane: the speedy, twin-fuselaged, armed-to-the-teeth Lockheed P-38 Lightning.

Another aside.  Please make a visit to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s annex at Dulles Airport a bucket-list item. It’s a fascinating place. One of the planes on display there is a P-38. I was astounded at how small this deadly weapon of war actually was. It’s about the size of a luxury SUV.

Lockheed P-38 Lightning

When the P-38s arrived in late 1942, America’s pilots needed a pep talk. Along came Eddie Rickenbacker. The man evidently knew the science of human motivation as well as he knew the science of air combat. He offered a case of Scotch to any fighter pilot who surpassed his record of 26 kills.

Within a year, the names of all the men who would surpass him became household words on the home front. The American press and radio networks eagerly followed and chronicled the exploits of Richard Bong, Gerald Johnson, Neel Kearby, Thomas Lynch, Charles MacDonald, and Tommy McGuire. They all surpassed Rickenbacker’s total of 26 aerial victories. They all earned that case of Scotch.

Bong, a farm boy from Wisconsin, shot down 40 planes. He was the Pacific war’s Ace of the Aces. McGuire, who dropped out of Georgia Tech to join the Air Corps, had 38 kills. But of the six who bested Rickenbacker, only MacDonald lived to return to civilian life after World War II.

Johnson died a month after the Japanese surrender after yet another heroic gesture. A plane that he was flying over Japan ran into bad weather and ran low on fuel. He and his co-pilot had parachutes; the two passengers with them did not. Johnson and the co-pilot gave the parachutes to the passengers, and they died trying to make an emergency landing.

Let’s raise a glass in salute to all of them, and let’s give a special shout-out to Eddie Rickenbacker. He was not only the original Ace of Aces. He was also a true champion, a man who did his utmost to see his own record broken.

And now you know the rest of the story.

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