The Mystery of Lt. Col. Elwyn Righetti
In the Beginning
Elwyn G. Righetti was born at home on April
17, 1915, in the Edna Valley, just southeast of San Luis Obispo, the area’s main ranching and agricultural center. The grandson of a Swiss immigrant and the oldest son of a large ranching family, Righetti’s growing up was typical of the time. With the rest of his family, he worked hard at making the land produce, and he loved to hunt the game—especially deer—that roamed the countryside.
He grew to be a well-proportioned, leanmuscled, and good-looking young man. A thick shock of brown hair framed a symmetrical face that featured a smile with even white teeth. Aside from work, hunting, and school, Righetti made time for girls as he matured into adulthood—and they made time for him. “He was so handsome!” remembered his sister Doris.
He was smart and energetic, graduating from high school two years early and subsequently earning a college degree at California Polytechnic School. Despite the stifling economy of the Great Depression, he scrabbled for work and found jobs as a truck driver, a used-car salesman, and a shop worker. Always anxious to try some-
thing new and exciting, and inspired by aviation heroes such as Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, and Wiley Post, Righetti scrimped and saved (when scrimping and saving was hard to do) and earned his private pilot’s license. That dogged zeal and energy that was such a part of his character later earned him the nickname “Eager El.”
The United States was readying for war when Righetti enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1939 as an aviation cadet. He was at the vanguard of a great crush of young American men that would ultimately see the service’s unprecedented expansion from fewer than 50,000 men in 1939 to nearly 2.5 million in 1944. Training was necessarily compressed, but Righetti graduated near the top of his class and was awarded his wings and a commission as a second lieutenant on
July 26, 1940.
Learning While Teaching
Righetti was immediately made a pilot instructor as there was no way that the existing cadre could create an air force big enough for the coming job. He loved the work and described—tongue in cheek—his first class of students: “I now have a full-fledged class of cadets: Cobeaga, Hayes, Stockett and Pound—two of them poor, and two of them worse. I had hoped for a little natural talent to start out with, but no such luck.”
Righetti’s hard work, pilot skills, and charming personality worked to his advantage as he not only married Cathryn Davis, a willowy south Texas beauty, but also was given assignments of increasing responsibility and the rank to go with them. By 1944, he was a lieutenant colonel and in charge of training half the fighter-pilot instructors in the entire USAAF. He also was the father of a lovely two-year-old daughter, Kyle.
Those successes notwithstanding, Righetti chafed to get overseas and into combat. Many of
his students—and students of his students—had already seen combat and returned. Or had been killed or been shot down and captured. “I’m going off to war now, Mom,” he wrote when he finally wrangled orders from his superiors. “Not because I have to from the Army’s angle—they’d prefer that I stay here—but because I have to from my angle. I’m terribly tired of this war and feel very strongly that I can do a great deal more toward ending it where the shooting’s going on.”
His effort to assuage her fear that he might be killed was not reassuring. He noted that, “You don’t get knocked off until your number comes up. And when that time comes, there’s nothing you can do.”
It wasn’t until early October 1944 that Righetti arrived in England; he had feared the war might end before he saw combat. Friends shopped him around the Eighth Air Force, and he was mightily pleased to be assigned to the 55th Fighter Group, which flew P-51 Mustangs out of Wormingford. “I am so very happy with my assignment that I gotta tell someone about it,” he wrote home. “If I had picked over all the jobs in the E.T.O. [European Theater of Operations], I’m sure that this would have been my first choice. Am flying the pilot’s dream airplane, which really means a lot. If I don’t get to the top of the heap in a few months, it won’t be because
of a bad starting break.”
Capt. Darrell Cramer was the 55th’s leading ace at that point and was assigned to introduce Righetti to combat operations. He was keen on Righetti. “True, he was older than most of us, but he did not look or act older. He had a boyish grin and a pleasing personality, and he was a pleasure to have around. He had a very good sense of humor, and he could laugh and joke with the best of them.” Cramer’s observations were typical of those who came to know Righetti. One of the group’s lieutenants declared, “I liked him. He was friendly and he listened to what you had to say.”
Righetti’s first combat mission on October 30, 1944, was aborted due to weather. On Novem- ber 2, the day of his second mission, the 55th crossed a formation of 100 German fighters southwest of Merseburg. Cramer, with Righetti on his wing, led a flight from the 55th’s 338th Fighter Squadron down through a cloud deck, where they found nothing but a locomotive, which they promptly shot up.
A lone Me 109 was spotted. Righetti recalled, “The bandit was called by Captain Cramer, who immediately pulled up toward the enemy aircraft. The Me 109 started a turn to the right, and Captain Cramer fired one burst, getting strikes.” The German made a diving turn for the ground and leveled out directly in front of Righetti. “Since I had outrun Captain Cramer on
The missile worked as planned and hit just aft of the bridge; the warhead caused a serious explosion. The ship went dead in the water.
his pull-up and had turned sharply left, I became positioned in between my leader [Cramer] and the 109.”
Righetti closed in on the enemy aircraft. “I fired a three-second burst and observed numerous strikes in the vicinity of the cockpit.” The Me 109 bellied into the ground, hit a hedgerow, spun around, and came apart.
Righetti had scored during his first combat, but he was censured afterward by the more junior Capt. Cramer. “Righetti was as excited as any new lieutenant would have been after his baptism under fire. I did not want to dampen his excitement with what I had to say to him, so I waited until we were alone.”
In fact, Cramer had to hold his fire as Righetti—his wingman—flew in front of him to knock down the enemy plane. “I gave him a chewing out like he probably had not had in his military career.” Righetti took Cramer’s scolding manfully and acknowledged his mistake. “And he promised it would never happen again.” Cramer noted, “On the remaining missions, during which Righetti flew under my supervision, his performance was excellent and there was never another breach of air discipline.”
Now a Leader
Once he was introduced to combat, Righetti was as zealous as a star athlete held in reserve until the final moments of a championship matchup. He flew at every opportunity, honed his considerable flying and leadership skills, and in less than a month was made the commander of the 55th’s 338th Fighter Squadron. “By the time he became a squadron commander,” Cramer recalled, “he had already established himself as a very capable pilot and an aggressive combat leader. He was the kind of leader whose attitude was ‘come follow me,’ and we were glad to follow him.”
Righetti was especially pleased when he was assigned his own aircraft: S/N 44-14223. He named it Katydid, one of the nicknames for his wife, Cathryn. He had the nose painted with a curiously sexy caricature of a katydid sporting perky bare breasts and long legs shod with high heels. He loved it: “My ship is the Katydid with one large sexy green grasshopper painted thereon, and it’s the sweetest piece of equipment in the world.” Enemy aircraft didn’t meet the American bomber streams in the numbers they once had, and consequently Righetti led his men against whatever worthwhile ground targets he could find. Germany’s war effort was dependent on the railways, and Righetti had tallied 19 locomotives by the time the Battle of the Bulge was underway in mid-December 1944. His enthusiasm for attacking them was obvious in his letters home: “...the prettiest things when they burst. They most always see you coming, so if possible they put the steam to it. You hit them broadside, starting firing at 300–400 yards, and close in to probably 25 to 30. You’re on the deck all the way
and pull up to go over them. If you’re right, they go all to pieces—chunks of plate all over. Many, however, just break inside and all the steam goes out the stack. We try not to hit the crew, but occasionally get too eager.”
Air-to-Air Combat and Ground Pounding
Righetti scored in the air again on December 24, during a melee that took him to the deck with a handful of other 338th Mustangs. There, they spotted a formation of 20 FW 190s, which they immediately attacked. “I closed on the nearest 190, which was in a tight left turn.” Righetti fired and noted strikes on the enemy’s left wingtip. As he pursued the Germans, he “saw two FW 190s directly ahead, belly in, one heading due west and the other northwest. Both raised large dust clouds as they hit, but did not explode. Their airspeed was in excess of 150mph.”
He continued to pursue the FW when, from an altitude of 600 feet, it dove into the ground and exploded. Righetti sprayed his guns at two other aircraft and damaged them as he chased a third FW 190 that was shooting at his wingman, Ken Griffith. Righetti’s guns sent Griffith’s attacker down in flames, but his wingman did not survive a crash landing. Righetti finished the
day credited with three aerial victories.
The Luftwaffe’s scarcity in the air compelled Righetti to go after it on the ground. Because German airfields were typically heavily defended, such attacks were exceedingly dangerous. On January 6, 1945, Righetti led the 338th against Giebelstadt airdrome, where he destroyed a twin-engine
Ju 88 on his first pass. The scene quickly turned into a maelstrom of smoke and fire, laced with streams of antiaircraft fire that reached after his squadron’s silvery P-51s.
Righetti made another firing run but was forced to snatch Katydid skyward when antiaircraft fire blasted away a foot-wide section of his windscreen. Notwithstanding the breathsnatching hurricane that buffeted his cockpit, he dropped back to the deck and destroyed two more Ju 88s. Eager El indeed.
Those types of seemingly reckless attacks brought notoriety to Righetti. A few pilots thought he was too careless with not only himself but also his men. Still, his mandate was not to keep his squadron out of harm’s way but to kill the Nazi war machine. Many of his pilots loved him for it. One lieutenant recalled, “You could bet you were going to be shooting at something somewhere. He was always looking for targets of opportunity—and finding them.” He further described Righetti as “a good leader who had our deepest respect—he led us! He didn’t tell you how to do it—he showed you by doing it.”
In fact, Righetti’s aggressiveness percolated through the group. Following his arrival, the 55th’s reputation grew from that of a middling organization into a headlinegrabbing team, most famous for shooting up Germany’s rolling stock. Indeed, the unit received special recognition from Carl Spaatz, the commander of U.S. Strategic Air Forces, as “one of the hottest train-busting units in the Eighth Air Force.” One of the 55th’s squadron commanders recalled, “Righetti was an inspiration from the time he arrived. He was a go-getter. And when he took over, the attitude changed even more—he really fired the group up.”
Enter the Mistel
Righetti shot down a lone Me 109 on January 13, but aerial encounters through the rest of the month were virtually nonexistent. On February 3, he led his men across the German countryside at low level, eager for any sort of action. He spotted a locomotive and positioned his flight for a firing pass when he caught sight of a formation of six strange-looking “pick-a-back” aircraft: Me 109s mounted atop Ju 88s. The Ju 88s were converted into flying bombs, which the fighter pilot was charged with guiding to a target. Known as
Mistel (German for “mistletoe”), the concept was unwieldy and achieved little during the closing months of the war.
Righetti had no idea what they were but quickly gave chase. He missed one of them with two short deflection shots but continued his pursuit. “As I swung into trail and closed to point-blank range firing a long burst, I saw many excellent strikes on the fuselage and empennage of the large aircraft and scattered strikes and a small fire on the fighter.” The odd contraption fell to the ground and exploded.
Banking slightly left, Righetti latched onto another one of the combinations. “As I was closing to fire, the heavy aircraft seemed to be jettisoned, went into a shallow diving turn to the left, and crashed and burned in a small hamlet.” Righetti chased after the newly freed fighter and set it afire with a couple of bursts. Meanwhile, his flight knocked down the rest of the enemy formation.
Righetti and his men were excited about the encounter. “Got a special commendation from General Doolittle,” he wrote home, “and my pictures [gun camera film] will make national newsreels on account of targets were pick-a-back jobs—no one [in the Eighth Air Force] had nailed any before.” Righetti was ultimately credited with three aerial victories for his work that day.
“Tell the Family I’m OK”
Command of the 55th passed to Righetti on February 22, 1945; he was only 29 and now led a combat organization that included nearly 2,000 men and more than 70 aircraft. Although his new duties restricted his ability to fly as much as he would have liked, his fame as a strafer of enemy airfields grew. Notwithstanding the extreme danger, he racked up a score of 18 aircraft destroyed on the ground. Moreover, he was credited
Righetti stands by his P-51D-10 s/n 44-14223 CL+M Katydid at Wormingford in February 1945. The wear and tear evident on Katydid underscored the fact that Righetti flew whenever he could. (Photo courtesy of Jack Cook)
After V-E Day, the 55th moved to Station Kaufbeuren in Germany and later received P-80s while in occupation. Its surviving P-51Ds were returned to RAF Wormingford for disposition, as seen here. (Photo courtesy of Stan Piet)
The flight deck of a P-51D. The cylindrical throttle handle twisted and altered the circle of diamonds displayed in the K-14A computing gunsight, giving ranging information to the pilot. (Photo by John Dibbs/planepicture.com)
Righetti included one of the Huckepack (Piggyback) composite aircraft in his tally. It is unknown whether he was given one or two victories. The forward compartment of the Ju 88, dubbed Mistel (German for “mistletoe”) in this use, was converted into a...
Lt. Col. Elwyn “Eager El” Righetti of the 55th FG in his P-51D Mustang at Wormingford in October 1944. (Photo courtesy of Jack Cook)
Pilots and mechanics alike struggled through the brutal European winter of 1944-45. (Photo courtesy of Jay Stout)
Katydid’s crew chief, Millard “Doak” Easton, recalled that Elwyn Righetti was easy to satisfy. (Photo courtesy of Jay Stout)
Righetti shot down an Me 109 on January 13, 1945; it was his first, fully credited shootdown. He eventually scored 7.5 aerial victories. (Photo courtesy of Jay Stout)
Despite his beautiful wife and child, Righetti was keen to get into combat. (Photo courtesy of Jay Stout)