The Many Lives of Eddie Rickenbacker is coming out in two months. Just last month I completed and approved the final changes to the manuscript. Near the end of the process I panicked about this sentence: “[Rickenbacker] visited the island of Guadalcanal where he witnessed the hellish conditions under which Americans soldiers fought.” Did he really get a flight to the island? Not even COMSOPAC Robert Ghormley, whose job it was to oversee the Guadalcanal operation, made the trip (though his replacement, Halsey, and his boss, Nimitz, did). For four months, thousands of Marines had been living on the edge of extermination; harassed by daily air raids, nightly naval bombardments, and artillery fire from the jungle any time of day. These men had been beaten down by tropical disease, insufficient calories, interrupted sleep, and a hopeless sense of abandonment.
I knew all this because I had been reading about the Pacific War throughout the entire editing process. I understood the timeline. Rickenbacker arrived on Guadalcanal in early-mid December, soon after the Japanese threat had been checked. I knew that, but it was easy to allow the mid-November date of his rescue (it took a month to recover from his ordeal) to creep into my mind as I read my own words for the penultimate time. That’s why I decided to check if he really did get to Guadalcanal.
I found the “hellholes of the Pacific” quote on the bottom of page 445 of Lewis’s biography. There it said he had visited Espiritu Santo, the Navy’s operational base, and spoke with soldiers coming out from the island. I had been wrong! I reread the passages several times to be sure. Alas, if I had only turned the page, I would have seen that he did indeed fly to Guadalcanal the next day, December 10. Both the date and the island’s name are highlighted at the top of the page. The two lengthy paragraphs that follow have no highlighting, but are full of details of Rickenbacker’s impressions of Guadalcanal, all of interest to me now. Rickenbacker met commander General Sandy Patch who was, as it happened, in just his first full day in charge. His Second Marine Corps Regiment had relieved the First Marines just the day before.
So I was right in the first instance and wrong in the second. Thankfully, the revised sentence that will be in the published book is not wrong factually, but is incomplete and would have been better left in the original. This little lead was going to be about the importance of knowing context, about how I hadn’t known much about Guadalcanal or the geography of the Southwest Pacific and almost made a mistake as a result. Instead, it is more about a little knowledge being a dangerous thing. And the unreliability of human brains, mine in particular.
But let’s let the original premise stand: broader contextual understanding is necessary for the understanding of more narrow events or narratives. It is necessary to prevent inaccuracies from creeping into your text (though perhaps not sufficient if your cognitive style is one of panicky jumpiness). As I have read about events in the Pacific War in recent months, I automatically made connections with the Rickenbacker story to help me better understand it. The connections and understandings traveled in both directions, of course. What follows is a reflection on what I discovered.
My first “Aha!” moment came as I was reading Ian Toll’s The Conquering Tide. The section started blandly enough with a description of Nimitz’s “gentleman-of-the-old-school” composure, despite the desperate situation in the late summer of 1942. Would the Navy hold Guadalcanal, or would it turn into a second Bataan? Nimitz decided to travel four thousand miles to meet with his commanders in New Caledonia. (His plane refueled uneventfully at Canton, I noted.) It is not until the end of Toll’s five-page account of the conference that the significance struck home. Here was the genesis of Rickenbacker’s mission to MacArthur in October 1942!
MacArthur didn’t deign to attend the meeting in Nouméa. (His presence in Brisbane was in dispensable, he explained in his refusal. His biographer, Walter Borneman, believed that MacArthur repeatedly shunned such conferences throughout the war, sending his aide-de-camp Richard Sutherland in his stead, in order to maintain his stature. Among all those 4-star generals and admirals he would be just one among equals. [Borneman 325] Army Air Force chief Hap Arnold was there, the same Arnold who enlisted Rickenbacker to boost pilot morale earlier in the year. As one of the most outspoken chiefs for the Europe-First policy first adopted in 1941, even before Pearl Harbor, Arnold ruffled a lot of feathers in Nouméa. Among commanders in the Pacific, engaged in an existential battle with a determined foe, Arnold must have come across as tone-deaf. He then traveled on to Australia to meet with his supreme commander. There he clashed directly with MacArthur, who felt no compunctions about speaking his mind. Arnold said he was “incredulous” at MacArthur’s insubordination. He explained that the general, like all commanders, should be “indoctrinated with the idea that there is a United States plan–An Allied plan–for winning the war, and all must conform to it.” [Toll 2015, 128-129]
I realized at that moment that Arnold would have brought his incredulity–simmering during the long plane ride across the Pacific–back to the States in early October. He would have given Secretary of War Stimson an earful of complaints, and Stimson, who would become exasperated with MacArthur only later in the war, would have mollified Arnold with an assurance of direct action. Together they might have hit upon Rickenbacker as their man. The ace and Eastern Air Lines president had served Arnold in the spring and was just then returning to the States after serving Stimson on a tour of inspection in the U.K. Stimson would send Rickenbacker east to put MacArthur in his place. Borneman speculated with some confidence that the secret message Rickenbacker learned by heart “was a sharp reprimand, demanding that MacArthur cease his personal publicity campaign, stop complaining about the Joint Chiefs and the resources allocated to his theater, and stop waging war against the United States Navy.” [Borneman 257]
Thus did the overworked, still-pained Rickenbacker get sent on a mission that would lead to a twenty-three-day ordeal in a raft in the Pacific.
Biographer W. David Lewis thought Rickenbacker “the ideal emissary for Stimson.” His “civilian status, self-assurance, unwillingness to take anyone’s guff insured that MacArthur’s exalted rank and imperious manner would not overawe him.” [Lewis 415] In fact, both were outspoken anti-communists and anti-New Dealers. Both spoke out forcefully for the need for American defensive preparations. Yet, while Rickenbacker was an aviation booster, MacArthur remained an aviation skeptic. During the court-martial of Brigadier General Billy Mitchell in 1925, MacArthur had sat in judgment of the internal critic, and Rickenbacker had spoken as witness for the defense.
Three weeks after his rescue, having put on twenty of the fifty-four pounds he had lost during the ordeal, Rickenbacker insisted on completing his mission. MacArthur greeted him warmly in Port Moresby, something he did not do for everyone who visited. But none of those had undergone a grueling ordeal at sea to get there. And, besides, MacArthur had become an enthusiastic convert to air power. “You know, Eddie,” he admitted, “I probably did the American Air Forces more harm than any man living when I was chief of staff by refusing to believe in the airplane as a war weapon, and I am doing everything I can to make amends for that great mistake.” [Lewis 444] This was as self-deprecating a statement as has been documented coming from the famously vain general. MacArthur welcomed Rickenbacker and heard his message, but, Borneman says, “there is little, if any, evidence that MacArthur moderated his ways.” [Borneman 257]
The still somewhat emaciated Rickenbacker continued on to Espiritu Santo and Guadalcanal. The “hollow-eyed, exhausted and emaciated young men…had grown frightfully old in four months’ time,” Rickenbacker wrote. [Lewis 446] He witnessed first-hand what would soon be called the thousand-yard stare. Rusting hulls of Japanese landing craft littered the island’s coast; mangled aircraft lined the runways of Henderson Field. Rain, mud, and mosquitoes made sleep impossible. The privations of Villeneuve and Rembercourt would have seemed trivial in comparison. By way of conclusion, I wrote in my book, “This experience, coming on the heels of his three-week ordeal, changed Rickenbacker and his approach to the war. No more would he defend a military system that was anything less than meticulous, exacting, in its preparations. No more would he temper his words or worry if he ‘stepped on tender toes.'”
I have since read widely enough in the Pacific War to appreciate the significance of Guadalcanal in the nation’s history, the war’s history, and Rickenbacker’s life story. James Hornfischer, in Neptune’s Inferno, quotes Hap Arnold summing up his trip of September 1942: “It looked to me as if everybody on the South Pacific front had a bad case of the jitters”–from the COMSOPAC on down. Vice-Admiral Ghormley whined, “The Government is not backing us up down here with what we need, why, I don’t know,” and “This is a shoestring operation, we haven’t got enough of anything. We’re just hanging on by our teeth.” [Hornfischer 129, 202] (Nimitz picked up on the complaint and used humor to blunt its sting, referring to the invasion as Operation SHOESTRING, in jest.)
The rank-and-file Marine on the island echoed Ghormley’s desperation. Lieutenant Commander John Lawrence described the sense of abandonment his fellow Marines felt: “It was the hopelessness, the feeling that nobody gave a curse whether we lived or died.” [Hornfischer 195] By the time Rickenbacker reached Guadalcanal in December 1942 the desperation had abated. Indeed, a fresh division had just arrived to garrison the island. Yet, I imagine he picked up more than a little resentfulness from those on their way out. Born again from his Pacific ordeal, Rickenbacker’s mindset would have been fertile ground for their message of abandonment by their government. Rickenbacker the prophet was ready to evangelize.
He said he was not afraid to “step on tender toes.” I wrote next, “He criticized the nation’s war effort publicly and did step on toes— even those of President Franklin Roosevelt.” With this in my manuscript, my ears pricked up distinctly when, a few weeks ago while listening to a podcast on the Depression, I heard Roosevelt speak those very words: “In the working out of a great national program that seeks the primary good of the greater number, it is true that the toes of some people are being stepped on and are going to be stepped on. But these toes belong to the comparative few who seek to retain or to gain position or riches or both by some shortcut that is harmful to the greater good.” [“Lives of the Great Depression,” Throughline, July 23, 2020.] Was Rickenbacker using Roosevelt’s words back at him? The thought is intriguing, even if unlikely.
If Rickenbacker had been a gadfly in the twenties and thirties, buzzing on about the need for America to keep pace in the field of aviation, he became a Jeremiah after the Pacific Ordeal, as 1942 turned to 1943. He goaded and browbeat his countrymen to do more for the war effort and to do it gladly. “You…should be grateful for the privilege of offering everything you know how…. For none of us are doing so much that we cannot do more.” [New York Times, January 23, 1943] He earned a reputation for labor baiting, chastising workers for slowdowns and stoppages. He could not understand workers putting their personal needs and those of their families above those of their country. I did discover in my reading that Rickenbacker’s concerns were real. There was not as much domestic unity of purpose as the popular understanding of the Good War leads us to believe.
George Roeder’s The Censored War supplies numerous examples of propaganda promoting the very message Rickenbacker was delivering in more strident tones. One poster of a dead GI was titled, “This Happens Every Three Minutes.” The take-away written below: “Stay on the job and get it over.” Later in the war the Treasury Department produced a film, Two and One-Half Minutes, for viewing in industrial plants engaged in war production (the death rate had picked up speed). It was released to the general public in the final months of the war. Thinking back on his years directing the Office of War Information (OWI), Elmer Davis averred: “There was much more domestic political bitterness in the country than there was in 1917.” [Roeder 33, 36, 122] In this light, my words at the end of chapter 9 take on a slightly different resonance: “Rickenbacker had played his part [in the war], but he was not the unifying hero he had been after the last war. He was a polarizing figure now—loved by some, despised by others.”
Rickenbacker’s tune had changed significantly from the early years of the war, 1939-1940. The last thing he wanted was for his country to get sucked into another total war in Europe. He had seen the destruction of men and property in 1918. He foresaw no virtue in having American boys and girls “regimented into uniforms” and taught to shoulder guns when they should be free to play with marbles, and baseball, and model airplanes. [Broadcasts I, September 26, 1939.] He was recruited to represent America First Committee, but he was never actively involved. He steadfastly preserved his independence: “I represent no person or persons–group or groups….” [Farr 254] And as conditions changed, he changed his mind. On his way out of a four-month stay in the hospital post-Atlanta crash and six months before Pearl Harbor, he told a reporter, leaving no shade of doubt where he stood, “We are in [the war] and we have been in it for a year. …The sooner everyone knows we are in the better it will be. …The sooner we crush Hitler the better.” [New York Times, June 26, 1941.]
Rickenbacker was no pacifist. He advocated a strong military as a deterrent. As an airline executive he proposed a plan for building 50,000 commercial planes for transport so that if the country were drawn into war it could quickly retool them for military purposes. (Using the same reasoning, he emphasized the importance of training of pilots.) Officials in power did not pay enough attention to this sensible idea, despite Rickenbacker’s persistence. I thought of Rickenbacker when I came across a Walter Lippmann column in Life magazine. “This war cannot be won unless we realize why we failed to prevent it,” wrote the great liberal journalist. “We are now paying for and are now repairing the greatest failure of popular government in America.” He sounded a lot like Rickenbacker to me, or perhaps vice versa. The policies of the interwar years, Lippmann said, had moved the country from “a state of perfect security to a state of deadly danger.” [Lippmann, “America’s Great Mistake,” Life, July 21, 1941, 74.]
Rickenbacker lost some of his independence and also his gadfly role when Army Air Forces chief Hap Arnold asked him to give his pilots pep talks. “Put some fire in them,” he said. [Rickenbacker 1967, 272] Morale was low, preparedness had not kept pace, as Rickenbacker had forewarned. Now his job was to be a booster, and he took to the task with energy (as much as he could muster considering the physical ailments that still plagued him post-Atlanta crash). Rickenbacker’s public pronouncements of 1942 clearly show a determination to put a positive spin on AAF preparedness, personnel, and planes.
All the descriptions of American fighters and bombers I have since read accord with Rickenbacker’s assessments. But where Rickenbacker maintained the political tact required of his role, others in the field could speak more candidly. This gem came from a pilot as recorded by journalist Clark Lee: “It’s high damn’ time our plane manufacturers stopped wasting advertising space trying to prove to our people that we have the world’s best planes and started producing them instead.” [Lee 154] But my favorite was uttered earlier in Bataan, the paragon for American unpreparedness. The irony is so artfully spare, it could have been published in a 1940s version of The Onion: Dear Mr. Roosevelt; our P-40 is full of holes. Please send us a new one.” [Lascher 271]
In his 1967 autobiography, Rickenbacker contended that he promoted Black American pilots in defiance of the policies that kept most Negro cadets grounded. “They are a grand bunch of kids and great pilots,” Rickenbacker has himself arguing. “But something should be done immediately to commission them, they are deserving of it.” [Rickenbacker 1967, 315] This might well have been revisionist history and public relations for a new era. Chicago Defender newspaperman Enoch Waters remembered Rickenbacker–and Charles Lindbergh, too–for actively discouraging Black American from entering aviation. He said they questioned Negroes’ the ability, despite counter-evidence from the likes of Bessie Coleman and Hubert Julian, the Black Eagle. [Waters 202-203] Waters was in a position to know about such things. He helped bring the National Airmen’s Association of America to Chicago’s Harlem Airport. He, along with Willa Brown, Cornelius Coffey, and financial support from Waters’s Defender boss, Robert Abbott, founded the Association and the Coffey School of Aeronautics.
Rickenbacker had put a positive spin on his past, but in an unguarded moment on the occasion of his eightieth birthday, he gave a disturbingly candid response. After observing that his childhood home was “in a colored section now,” he was asked if that bothered him. Captain Eddie responded, “Of course it does. Why wouldn’t it. Get to the point.” [Columbus Citizen-Journal, November 18, 1970.] His words speak for themselves. Heroes are men and women. Look hard enough and they will disappoint you. But, considered another way, their imperfect humanity endears them to us as much as their exceptionality.
I was able to write my book without knowing much about the War in the Pacific. His life had only briefly intersected with it, after all. On the other hand, it had a big impact on the final decades of his life. By continuing my research into the Second World War, I made my understanding of Rickenbacker’s life that much more solid. I learned, first of all, the origin of his Pacific mission of 1942, birthed in a meeting between Hap Arnold and Douglas MacArthur just a few weeks before. I learned, too, the reasons General MacArthur merited the message of rebuke that Rickenbacker delivered. Hearsay was replaced by evidence in my mind.
I have followed the development of the Air Forces and their planes during 1942-1944, as American military aviation gradually superseded its Japanese counterpart. Especially in the Philippines in late 1941 I saw how right Rickenbacker had been in clamoring for preparedness.
I learned that Rickenbacker’s jeremiads against labor during the war, while largely tone deaf, were not unfounded. There were real concerns about production capacity and civilian Americans pulling their weight. However, I still wonder if he didn’t retain more of the pessimistic outlook absorbed during his visit to Guadalcanal than was warranted. A form of availability bias took hold, nourished by a convert’s religious fervor.
Perhaps most of all I have learned enough to appreciate Rickenbacker’s comments on fighter pilot aviation in this second iteration of world war. “Air fighting over the Pacific is just about the hardest kind of fighting there is,” he wrote in his Pacific Ordeal memoir, Seven Came Through: ten-to-twelve hours at a stretch under nerve-wracking strain. “It wasn’t that way on the western front twenty-five years ago. A pilot went out to battle like a knight. He was pampered and rested; his every whim was indulged. I can remember patrol after patrol in which I never saw an enemy plane.” [Rickenbacker 1943, 89] Times had changed and so had combat aviation. Rickenbacker had the perspicacity and the humility to recognize it.
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Farr, Finis. Rickenbacker’s Luck: An American Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1979.
Garrett, Betty. “‘Capt. Eddie’ Admits Time Was Better Flyer.” Columbus Citizen-Journal. November 18, 1970.
Hornfischer, James D. Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal, New York: Random House, 2011.
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“Rickenbacker, 4 Months in Hospital, Back; He Will Resume His Airline Post on Monday,” New York Times, June 26, 1941, 24.
“Rickenbacker Sets Detroit Goals in Blunt Talk to War Workers, New York Times, January 23, 1943, 8.
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