Van­ished Hero

The Mys­tery of Lt. Col. El­wyn Righetti

Flight Journal - - CONTENTS - By Jay A. Stout

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.”

Into Com­bat

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/planepic­

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)

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