by John F. Ross
In Spring of 1918, during World War I, two American pilots entered a fierce competition to become the first ace in American service by shooting down five confirmed enemy airships. They both couldn’t have been cut from more contrasting bolts of cloth. The short, dapper Douglas Campbell had quit Harvard in his senior year when the U.S. entered the war on December 7, 1917, joining the air service along with his friend Quentin Roosevelt, son of the former president. In contrast, the tall, brashly confident Eddie Rickenbacker came from the wrong side of the tracks in Columbus, Ohio and never finished seventh grade, yet scrabbled his way into becoming one of the nation’s top race drivers. Rickenbacker came over to Europe not as a pilot but chauffeur, only his tenacity and skill landing him finally in the 94th, the famous “hat in the ring” aero squadron.
The first and second kills for both could have been chalked up to good fortune more than seasoned skill. Campbell’s first came on April 13, when two fog-blinded German aviators mistakenly flew over the Allied airfield. Campbell jumped into his aircraft, took off, and made a kill for all to see in a matter of seconds. Rickenbacker’s first came when a seasoned combat pilot let him take the kill shot. From then on, each raced ahead of others in victories. Their fellow pilots of the 94th Aero Squadron—themselves all strong fliers—began to understand they were witnessing something extraordinary, even in extraordinary times. Like two elite tennis competitors who keep pushing one another to reach beyond what either thought possible in himself, these two born competitors used courteous competition to home their already sharp competitive edges.
Campbell took more than a month for his second. Rickenbacker scored his first on April 27, then a second just before a near-fatal moment when the fabric split off his Nieuport’s upper wing. A day later, Campbell drew even, going on to a third on May 19, which he celebrated by drawing a tiny Iron Cross on the hatband of his machine’s insignia. On the May 22 sortie in which a friend died, Rickenbacker again tied the score. Campbell nailed his fourth on May 27; Eddie the following day.
The final act of the American race to ace played out in the waning days of May. At 8 a.m. on the 30th, Rickenbacker joined a formation of twelve Nieuports sent out to escort British bombers home after striking a German railhead east of Verdun. A squadron of German Albatros did not take long to attack the slow-moving bombers. Soon the cloud-like formations mingled, the clear order of only seconds before dissolved into a frightening anarchy of swooping and twisting, turning and banking. Rickenbacker watched one Nieuport spin out of control, two Albatroses hot on its tail, then, pulling out of its brilliant ruse, bank toward one of its pursuers to renew the dogfight on different terms. “With a savage sort of elation,” Rickenbacker saw his chance. Unseen by the others, he zoomed onto the tail of one Albatros, firing until it went down in flames: his fifth kill. (In fact, it would be his sixth kill. After returning from Germany after the war, another American aviator confirmed that Rickenbacker had shot down a German in the action in which he crashed, so this latest score would actually be his sixth, while Campbell only had four.)
As was customary, Eddie filed a report, ending with a request for independent confirmation of the kill, as required by the French system under which they flew. Such proof often proved difficult or even impossible to obtain when the action took place well behind enemy lines: and this time, as so often, it didn’t come that day or the next.
The day following, Campbell took off on a lone sortie, knowing full well that confirmation could crown Rickenbacker at any moment. After fruitlessly patrolling the front, he finally discovered a Rumpler two-seater returning from a photography mission near its aerodrome at Mars-la-Tour. Closing with the classic advantage of the sun at his back, he zoomed onto its tail and let loose with his single Vickers machine gun—which, however, jammed after the first few shots. The German pilot did not flee while Campbell struggled to clear the jam. The German could not hope to match the Nieuport’s speed or maneuverability, but he clearly liked his plane’s edge in firepower, an observer manning an additional machine gun that covered its tail.
Having cleared his gun, Campbell began maneuvering for a safe approach, diving, twisting, and banking like a sparrow harassing a much larger crow. But his capable foe danced with him for fifteen minutes, an eternity in a dogfight. Biding his time with the uncanny composure of the hunter, Campbell conserved ammunition by firing only the shortest possible bursts to limit his enemy’s options. Suddenly he realized that his adversary had changed tactics, maneuvering to keep his tail away and out of sight, a clear indication that the rear gunner had exhausted his ammunition; whereupon, coming in at a new angle, he saw the observer tear up his map and rise with his arms crossed, awaiting death with a grimly mocking smile. Campbell hesitated, doubt compromising his deadly determination. Was it decent to shoot an unarmed man? If he let them go, his racing brain countered, the film they took back might bring countless Allied deaths. He pressed the trigger and watched the observer slump over, then the ship itself stumble off course and spin out of control.
Over the course of the engagement, the duelists had drifted westward within sight of Gengoult airfield. Dozens of fascinated onlookers witnessed the Rumpler’s demise. With confirmation of his yesterday’s kill still outstanding, Eddie joined the others to swarm the first ace in the American air service. He had lost to the fair-haired Harvard boy, but his journal entry of that day shows no disappointment: Campbell was “certainly going some,” he noted. Elsewhere he described how “for a month the congratulations of the world came pouring in upon [Campbell].” Years later, Campbell confessed that “I think Rickenbacker may have beaten me to it”; and indeed Eddie’s earlier fifth would soon enough be confirmed.
Shortly after becoming an ace, Campbell took a bullet in the back and never flew in combat again. Rickenbacker would continue, eventually shooting down 26 enemy airships to become America’s ace of aces.
JOHN F. ROSS is the author of Enduring Courage: Ace Pilot Eddie Rickenbacker and the Dawn of the Age of Speed, War on the Run: The Epic Story of Robert Rogers and the Conquest of America’s First Frontier. Winner of the Fort Ticonderoga Prize for Contributions to American History, he has served as the Executive Editor of American Heritage and on the Board of Editors at Smithsonian magazine.