Later this year, the 100th anniversary of the start of World War 1 will occur and, for the next four years, be remembered and written about through fiction, history, and biography as well video. Names of battles such as Belleau Wood, Ypres, and Verdun; warriors such as Pershing, Richthofen, and Foch; machines such as Fokker, SPAD, and Sopwith; and terms such as dogfight, ace, and fuselage will again come to life as stories of battles, politics, strategy, and personalities from a century ago will again be remembered. Among those who will certainly be remembered is Eddie Rickenbacker, the leading American ace of the war and a key figure in the development of both American automobile racing before and after the war as well as a leader in the development of the American airline industry. John F. Ross’ has again brought the Rickenbacker story to life with a soon to be published biography titled Enduring Courage: Ace Pilot Eddie Rickenbacker and the Dawn of the Age of Speed. (St Martin’s Press)
Divided into four sections – Racing, Flying, Fighting, and Immortality, Ross opens the book with a 14 year old Rickenbacker taking a ride in a 1905 Ford Model C and immediately becoming enamored and obsessed with what it could do and what it meant. As a result, Rickenbacker begins an earnest pursuit of learning what made automobiles go and how they could go faster. Such a pursuit leads him in pursuit of speed and success on the crude tracks and race courses of early 20th Century America and onto a new specially designed course called the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Ross’ description of Rickenbacker as a calculating driver who learned how to drive not “over the edge” but “to the edge” of disaster and death is a theme than runs throughout the rest of the book in his piloting, business life, and on the 24 day experience during World War Two adrift at sea where his detached perspective helped him and others to survive.
But his auto racing travels also bring him into contact with the earliest airplanes and his passionate obsession for speed leaves the ground. And while the majority of the book focuses on Rickenbacker’s trials and exploits in the air as a combat pilot, what Ross lays out in the opening section – the dogged pursuit of Rickenbacker to excel and survive- are shown in the skies over and on the ground of The Western Front as both a pilot who used the same detached attitude to push his planes to the limit and a leader of men who had to deal with both suspicion due to his German name (he came from Swiss ancestry) and his lack of formal education brought by the other officers he flew with.
Ross’ treatment of Rickenbacker is fair even while he seeks to bring clarity to certain points of Rickenbacker’s life – such as the circumstances surrounding his father’s death. But a serendipitous angle of this book is also a clear description of the De-romanticized life of a first generation fighter pilot, who dealt with oxygen deprivation, nausea from the fumes and lubricants of the engine sitting just in front of them, while flying an aircraft that could (and sometimes did) explode from its own engine sparks and with the always certain reality of facing a quick death from outside the open air cockpit.
What I liked about this book, though it was long on Rickenbacker’s life through his combat days, and shorter on his work as an airline executive, was the clear assertion made in the title, Enduring Courage, of a man who fought mentally and emotionally with a detached clarity and courage as he sought to master two developing technologies which today are common place. This book is a fair and reasonable introduction to a man, still living in my early years, who I remembered from my history lessons and from my own fascination with flight.
I give this book a ‘very good’ rating.
Note: I was given an advance readers’ copy of this book from the Amazon Vine program in exchange for a review. I was not required to write a positive review