The Red Baron and Eddie Rickenbacker: The Lives and Legacies of World War I’s Most Famous Aces

Few participants in World War I are more famous than Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen, better known as the Red Baron. A German known for victories in a war that his country lost, a cavalry officer made famous as mounted combat disappeared, and an aristocratic hero in a century dominated by democracy; Richthofen’s celebrity stands in stark contrast to the era.
Furthermore, World War I is not remembered as a period in which the advance of technology empowered or emboldened individual human beings, and it certainly did not support the old romantic image of the lone, skilled warrior. The terrible grinding power of Europe’s first great industrial war saw advances in gunnery and factory production that chewed up millions of young men and spit them out in fragments across the anonymous mud of no man’s land. A soldier was more likely to be killed by an artillery shell flung from half a mile away than up close in combat, where his own skills might save his life, so there was little heroism and no glory to be found in the forms of violence provided by the modern war machine.
However, for the handful of men fighting in the air, it was a different matter, because World War I brought about the emergence of full-blooded aerial combat for the first time. In fact, airplanes were so foreign to past examples of warfare that few military officers were sure of how to utilize them at the start of the war. As a result, amazing new machines capable of carrying men at great speed and height were used first for reconnaissance, and it was only later that they actually became fighter planes, with each side fighting for dominance of the air and the advantage this provided. This was the era of the dogfight, in which aerial combat was effectively invented, with engineers and pilots working quickly to adapt machines and tactics to a whole new sort of warfare. In the skies above Europe, a man could once more play the role of the lone warrior, surviving or dying by skill and the power of personality.
Into this cloud-strewn battlefield came a young man from a young country, ready to prove not only his potential but that of the new form of combat at which he would excel. Indeed, there was no greater ace during the war than the Red Baron, who was credited with shooting down 80 Allied planes. However, the Red Baron’s most remarkable accomplishment was one he never wanted. On April 21, 1918, while flying over the Somme, the Red Baron spotted an Allied plane and pursued it, and while in pursuit, the Red Baron was shot by a single bullet in the chest, mortally wounding him.
A few of these fighters were young enough to fight in both wars, and Eddie Rickenbacker was one of them, one of the “best of the best.” Though he served only in a civilian capacity during World War II, he remains today a romantic hero of a bygone era, a man who flew airplanes that were little more than hang gliders with engines and guns, and survived to help design jets. His service won him the Medal of Honor, along with more awards for valor than any other person fighting in World War I.
But participating in the wars was not nearly enough time in the air for the ambitious Rickenbacker. When he was not setting new records in the air, he was setting new speed records on the ground, most notably as a first generation race car driver who not only drove cars but designed them. He also served for decades as the president of one of the world’s first major commercial passenger aviation companies, Eastern Air Lines, seeing it through the ups and downs of the financial and technological boom and bust in America between the wars.