In 1917, the United States declared war on Germany. Eddie Rickenbacker had enlisted in the U.S. Army and was training in France with some of the first American troops.
He arrived in France on June 26, 1017 as a first class sergeant, and was assigned as engineering officer at the 3rd Aviation Instruction Center, the U.S. Air Service Pursuit training facility, where he practiced flying during his free time.
He learned to fly well.
He was transferred to the U.S. Army Air Service, and on April 28, 1928, shot down his first plane and claimed his fifth to become an ace in May, 1928.
Rickenbacker’s 26 victories during World War I remained the American record until World War II. He flew a total of 300 combat hours, reportedly more than any other U.S. pilot in the war.
Between the wars, he was a defense witness in the court martial of General Billy Mitchell in 1925, and became a racing driver. He started Rickenbacker Mo- tor Company, worked with and for General Motors and managed Eastern Air Lines.
His most famous neardeath experiences occurred in Oct. 1942. He was sent to deliver a secret message to Gen. MacArthur from our President. The B-17D Flying Fortress (the type of bomber I was trained on as a radio operator in the mid-‘40s) went off course hundreds of miles in the Pacific Ocean and forced to ditch in a remote and little-traveled part of the Central Pacific.
For 24 days he and the rest of the crewmen drifted in life rafts at sea. All of them were suffering from the airplane crash, and they ran out of food after three days.
Then, on the eighth day, a seagull landed on Rickenbacker’s head. He warily and cautiously captured it and then the survivors divided it into equal parts and used part of it for fishing bait.
They lived on rainwater that fell and similar food ‘miracles.’
A Navy plane rescued them on November 13, all suffering from exposure, sunburn, dehydration, and near-starvation. They lost one B-17 crewmember.