In March 1918 Rickenbacker joined the United States Air Service and over the next few months became the leading USA Flying Ace when he recorded 26 victories against German aircraft. Rickenbacker was awarded the Medal of Honor when he successfully attacked a party of seven aircraft on a photographic mission.
In October 1942, Rickenbacker, on a secret mission to New Guinea, was aboard a B-17 bomber that crashed in the Pacific Ocean. Rickenbacker and six companions survived 24 days afloat on life rafts. Edward Rickenbacker died in Zurich, Switzerland, on 27th July, 1973.
There was a scout coming towards us from north of Pont-à-Mousson. It was at about our altitude. I knew it was a Hun the moment I saw it, for it had the familiar lines of their new Pfalz. More. over, my confidence in James Norman Hall was such that I knew he couldn't make a mistake. And he was still climbing into the sun, carefully keeping his position between its glare and the oncoming fighting plane I clung as closely to Hall as I could. The Hun was steadily approaching us, unconscious of his danger, for we were full in the sun.
With the first downward dive of Jimmy's machine I was by his side. We had at least a thousand feet advantage over the enemy and we were two to one numerically. He might outdive our machines, for the Pfalz is a famous diver, while our faster climbing Nieuports had a droll little habit of shedding their fabric when plunged too furiously through the air. The Boche hadn't a chance to outfly us. His only salvation would be in a dive towards his own lines.
These thoughts passed through my mind in a flash and I instantly determined upon my tactics. While Hall went in for his attack I would keep my altitude and get a position the other side of the Pfalz, to cut off his retreat.
No sooner had I altered my line of flight than the German pilot saw me leave the sun's rays. Hall was already half-way to him when he stuck up his nose and began furiously climbing to the upper ceiling. I let him pass me and found myself on the other side just as Hall began firing. I doubt if the Boche had seen Hall's Nieuport at all.
Surprised by discovering this new antagonist, Hall, ahead of him, the Pfalz immediately abandoned all idea of a battle and banking around to the right started for home, just as I had expected him to do. In a trice I was on his tail. Down, down we sped with throttles both full open. Hall was coming on somewhere in my rear. The Boche had no heart for evolutions or maneuvers. He was running like a scared rabbit, as I had run from Campbell. I was gaining upon him every instant and had my sights trained dead upon his seat before I fired my first shot.
At 150 yards I pressed my triggers. The tracer bullets cut a streak of living fire into the rear of the Pfalz tail. Raising the nose of my aeroplane slightly the fiery streak lifted itself like the stream of water pouring from a garden hose. Gradually it settled into the pilot's seat. The swerving of the Pfalz course indicated that its rudder no longer was held by a directing hand. At 2000 feet above the enemy's lines I pulled up my headlong dive and watched the enemy machine continuing on its course. Curving slightly to the left the Pfalz circled a little to the south and the next minute crashed onto the ground just at the edge of the woods a mile inside their own lines. I had brought down my first enemy aeroplane and had not been subjected to a single shot!
At this period we began to notice that the German air tactics seemed to pin all hopes for success upon formation flying. Larger and still larger numbers of enemy aeroplanes clung together when they ventured into hostile skies. From flights of three to five machines in one formation, their offensive patrols now included whole squadrons of twenty or more machines in one group.
Certain advantages undoubtedly accrue to such formations. Mere numbers serve to scare away the more cautious air-fighters, and even the most daring find themselves confronted with such a bewildering and formidable number of antagonists that to attack one must necessarily include defending oneself against several. The Germans were limited in the territory they covered by thus combining their aeroplane strength, but while directing their attack upon one especial sector, such as the Château-Thierry sector, they could operate very successfully with these large formations, and were able to sweep away all opposition from their paths.
Squadron 94 therefore began sedulously to practice flying in similar large formations. Day after day we called together all our available machines and took the sky together, met at a designated altitude and forming a compact group we circled about, executed the various maneuvers that must attend an offensive or defensive movement, and strove always to keep all our aeroplanes in such a position that no single one could ever be cut out and subjected to an attack by an enemy formation. This was a valuable lesson to all of us, and later on we accumulated quite a respectable number of victories by reason of our familiarity with this method of squadron formation flying. Especially valuable is this formation flying to the inexperienced pilot.
At dinner that night - the night of my arrival word came to us that the Big Show was to start at five o'clock the following morning.
Precisely at five o'clock I was awakened by the thundering of thousands of colossal guns. It was September 12, 1918. The St. Mihiel Drive was on!
Leaping out of bed I put my head outside the tent. We had received orders to be over the lines at daybreak in large formations. It was an exciting moment in my life as I realized that the great American attack upon which so many hopes had been fastened was actually on. I suppose every American in the world wanted to be in that great attack. The very sound of the guns thrilled one and filled one with excitement The good reputation of America seemed bound up in the outcome of that attack.
Dressing with great haste I ran over through the rain to the mess hall. There I found groups of the fellows all standing about impatiently awaiting the chance to get away. But the weather was certainly too bad to attempt any flight to the lines. We were compelled to wait until daylight to see the true state of the heavens.
About noon word came to us that the attack was progressing quite favorably. None of our machines had been able to get up. It was still raining but the visibility was getting better. We could see that the clouds were nearly a thousand feet above the ground.
Taking Reed Chambers one side, I proposed to him that despite the rain we try a short flip over the lines to see for ourselves what it was like. He agreed and while the others were at lunch we climbed into our machines and made off. At 60 feet above ground we found that we were just under the clouds and still had quite a long view of the landscape.
Flying straight east to St. Mihiel, we crossed the Meuse River and turned down its valley towards Verdun. Many fires were burning under us as we flew, most of them well on the German side of the river. Villages, haystacks, ammunition dumps and supplies were being set ablaze by the retreating Huns.
We proceeded as far as Verdun. Then turning east we continued flying at our low altitude and passed over Fresnes and Vigneulles.
Vigneulles was the objective point of the American forces. It lies east of Verdun some fifteen miles and about the same distance north of St. Mihiel. One American army was pushing towards it from a point just south of Verdun while the other attack was made from the opposite side of the salient. Like irresistible pincers, the two forces were drawing nearer and nearer to this objective point. The German troops who were still inside the salient would soon be caught inside the pincers.
As Reed and I turned south from Vigneulles we saw that the main highway running north to Metz was black with hurrying men and vehicles. Guns, stores and ammunition were being hauled away to safety with all possible speed. We continued on south through the very heart of the St. Mihiel salient, flying always low above the roadway which connected Vigneulles with St. Mihiel. Here, likewise, we found the Germans in full cry to the rear.
One especially attractive target presented itself to us as we flew along this road. A whole battery of Boche three-inch guns was coming towards us on the double. They covered fully half a mile of the roadway.
Dipping down at the head of the column I sprinkled a few bullets over the leading teams. Horses fell right and left. One driver leaped from his seat and started running for the ditch. Half-way across the road he threw up his arms and rolled over, upon his face. He had stepped full in front of my stream of machine-gun bullets!
All down the line we continued our fire - now tilting our aeroplanes down for a short burst, then zooming back up for a little altitude in which to repeat the performance. The whole column was thrown into the wildest confusion. Horses plunged and broke away. Some were killed and fell in their tracks. Most of the drivers and gunners had taken to the trees before we reached them. Our little visit must have cost them an hour's delay.
Passing over St. Mihiel, we hastened on to our aerodrome. There we immediately telephoned headquarters information of what we had seen and particularly of the last column of artillery we had shot up in its retreat from St. Mihiel. This was evidently splendid news and exactly what GHQ had been anxious to know, for they questioned us closely upon this subject, inquiring whether or not we were convinced that the Germans were actually quitting St. Mihiel.
Upon the tragic death of Major Lufbery, who at that time was the leading American Ace, with 18 victories, the title of American Ace of Aces fell to Lieutenant Paul Frank Baer of Fort Wayne, Ind., a member of the Lafayette Escadrille 103. Baer then had 9 victories and had never been wounded.
Baer is a particularly modest and lovable boy, and curiously enough he is one of the few fighting pilots I have met who felt a real repugnance in his task of shooting down enemy aviators.
When Lufbery fell, Baer's Commanding Officer, Major William Thaw, called him into the office and talked seriously with him regarding the opportunity before him as America's leading Ace. He advised Baer to be cautious and he would go far. Two days later Baer was shot down and slightly wounded behind the German lines.
Thereafter, Lieutenant Frank Bayliss of New Bedford, Mass., a member of the crack French Escadrille of the Cigognes, Spad 3, held the American title until he was killed in action on June 12th, 1918. Bayliss had 13 victories to his credit.
Then David Putnam, another Massachusetts boy, took the lead with 12 victories over enemy aeroplanes. Putnam, as I have said, was, like Lufbery, shot down in flames but a day or two before my last victory.
Lieutenant Tobin of San Antonio, Texas, and a member of the Third Pursuit Group (of which Major William Thaw was the Commanding Officer), now had six official victories. He led the list. I for my part had five victories confirmed. But upon receiving confirmation for the two Fokkers I had vanquished yesterday and to-day, I would have my seven and would lead Tobin by one. So it was with some little interest and impatience that I set off to try to find ground witnesses of my last two battles above St. Mihiel.
Mingled with this natural desire to become the leading fighting Ace of America was a haunting superstition that did not leave my mind until the very end of the war. It was that the very possession of this title - Ace of Aces - brought with it the unavoidable doom that had overtaken all its previous holders. I wanted it and yet I feared to learn that it was mine! In later days I began to feel that this superstition was almost the heaviest burden that I carried with me into the air. Perhaps it served to redouble my caution and sharpened my fighting senses. But never was I able to forget that the life of a title-holder is short.