The Story of Col. Elwyn Righetti
Text: Richard Plos
Tens of thousands of Allied airmen were discovered at the end of the Second World War in internment camps set up to hold them. They were known as Stalag Lufts, and the airmen freed from them at the end of the war immediately began writing letters home expressing their yearning to return to their loved ones. Such a letter was eagerly anticipated from Elwyn Righetti, or at least some news about him, by his family at the family farm in San Luis Obispo, California. All they knew to that point was that he had been shot down, crash landed, and survived the event. Three weeks had passed from then and the war ended, and they were still waiting. They waited for months, and the months turned into years. No news or any hints regarding his disappearance have come to this day. Lt. Col. Elwyn Righetti, Commanding Officer of the 55th Fighter Group, disappeared not far from Riesa without a trace….
Righettis’s combat career had been short-lived but intense. His arrival in England at the beginning of September, 1944 was not easy. His rank of Lieutenant Colonel was indicated on his uniform, but no ribbons were displayed testifying to any combat commitments. He was a greenhorn with the rank of a senior officer, equivalent to at least a squadron commander. He was also 29 years of age, older than the average active fighter pilot. All of this had its reasons. He was a flight instructor, and one of the best available to the Air Corps at that. For this fact alone, his requests to be assigned to a combat unit ended up in the trash bins of his superiors. By the time he finally did go into combat, he was a seasoned pilot eager to contribute to the defeat of Germany. In fact, his was so eager that he earned the nickname “Eager El”. He got his first kill on his second combat mission. But for this quality and the associated impetuousness that he displayed, he was seriously reprimanded. But he was a quick study, too. It did not take long for him to reach ace status and not just for kills in the air. He was also extraordinarily effective in wiping out ground targets. In this regard, there was no one better far and wide….
And then came his thirtieth birthday, on April 17, 1945. This was accompanied by more heavy bomber escort missions and the search for air and ground targets of opportunity on the return flights. Righetti and his wingman, Capt. Carroll Henry, attacked an airfield at Riesa with an inviting line of enemy fighters parked on it. He was making his fourth or fifth pass and was running low on ammunition when his Mustang, adorned with artwork of an attractively slender grasshopper with the name “Katydid”, shuttered under the explosion of flak. He conducted one more pass with his Mustang losing coolant and oil pressure before looking for a place to “park it”. The forced landing was successful, and he radioed to Henry that aside from a busted nose, he was OK. That was the last anyone heard from him…
Swiss, or More Accurately, Italian Roots
The Righetti family hailed from the Italian speaking Swiss canton of Ticino. His grandfather on his father’s side, Francesco Robertino Righetti settled in San Luis Obispo, California, in 1873. At the time, this town had a little over 2,000 inhabitants, including a sizeable Swiss community. Francesco worked as a farmhand until he had saved enough money for a small ranch of his own not far from Edna Valley, where he gradually purchased property around his. He married Erminia Bonetti and she gave birth to a son Guido in 1882, and three more children subsequently. Guido helped expand the family’s dairy farm and graduated from Armstrong Business College, and after several years in the oil industry, he returned to the family farm. He married Elizabeth Mary Renkert, a woman with a French and Swiss background. Their first child, Elizabeth, was born in 1913, and a year and a half later, on April 17, 1915, Elwyn was born to them, followed by another four children after that.
Elwyn Righetti was then a farm child with French and Swiss blood. His childhood and young adult life centered around cows, stables, farm equipment and everything else associated with a hard farm life. As his brothers and sisters, he helped out on the farm in any way he could, though he did not see his future there, despite having earned an advanced degree in cattle breeding from the California Polytechnic College. He was a very lively, temperamental youth. The school paper “El Rodeo” from the time confirms Elwyn’s active participation in extracurricular and social activities. His two year study in the field came to an end in 1935, at the height of the Great Depression when it was very difficult to find meaningful work. He worked as a truck driver and also as a sales rep for dairy companies. He also tried his hand at selling real estate and cars at a local Buick dealership. His life almost came to an end on September 9, 1938, when the twenty-three-year-old Elwyn nearly drowned when, along with hundreds of other men, he tried to fish out of the sea free firewood that had been thrown overboard by a stranded merchant vessel. Unconscious and on the verge of hypothermia, he was rescued, but it was a very close call …
The Righetti family circa 1936. From left to right, Doris, Elwyn, father Guido, Elizabeth, mother Elizabeth, Ernie, Maurice and Lloraine. Photo: Family collection via Jay Stout
A New Passion
At that time, he had already developed a keen interest in aviation, partly fed by the frequent and well publicized establishment of records for endurance or speed flights. However, an hour of flight training at the time cost some seven dollars, and that was akin to a two day pay for a laborer. At the aforementioned Buick dealership, Elwyn was promoted to head of used car sales, and this guaranteed him a steady income from which he could divert funds to flight training. He dove in at an airfield not far from the town of San Luis Obispo, and he also flew out of the nearby Hancock Field at Santa Maria. And flying invigorated him. “He loved flying more than anything else, even more than hunting” his sister Doris would recount later1). In the summer of 1939, he got his private pilot license and took advantage of every opportunity to fly. It was clear to him that this would not, however, provide him with enough hours to make him a professional airline pilot. He also knew that another possibility lay with the military, at the time the United States Army Air Corps (USAAC). That meant four years of university level study. For Elwyn, that would have meant another two years of school, for which he did not have the funds. It looked as though he would have to abandon his dream of being a pilot, when a major twist of fate came along. The developing political climate forced the Army to lower its requirements for pilot acceptance to just two years of university level education, provided they pass entry exams. And Elwyn passed!
His family had hoped for his return to the farm, and eventual partial inheritance of it, but Elwyn, to the contrary, was happy to be able to separate himself from it altogether. According to his brother Ernie, he wanted nothing to do with farming. His head was in the clouds …
Into the Army!
At the beginning of December 1939, Elwyn Righetti recorded in his log: “Mr. Prescott told me today that if I continue to go as I have been, I’ll be at the top of my class when I get out of here.”1) It can be said that Righetti himself was satisfied with his progress.
Bob Prescott was an instructor with Ryan School of Aeronautics in San Diego, one of nine civilian flight schools that trained young cadets for the USAAC. There were some three thousand of these in the world, and Major General Henry Arnold, Chief of the Air Corps, wanted many more than that, in the light of the German invasion of Poland and it’s division with Germany’s ally, the Soviet Union. Righetti, along with his thirty-six classmates, were among the first of almost half a million men trained during the course of the war.
After basic training and with high praise from his superiors, Righetti was sent to Randolph Field in Texas in February, 1940. There, he would further train on the PT-13 Kaydet biplane and then the low wing BT-9. He fell in love with the latter. The almost two tons beast with a 400hp engine was something different than he had come in contact with till then. His flying skills, once again, served him well, including at night, though his instructor did chastise his almost too frivolous attitude. But even that wouldn’t stand in his way, and after his post-forty hour flight test, he would write home, boasting that “I did manage to get a very good grade on my forty-hour check, so I’m practically a cinch to graduate. It’s figured here that once we get by that, we are as good as through. I was the second in the class to pass it, so out of two hundred men, that’s pretty good”.1)
BT-6 aircraft at Randolph Field in Texas, a training base. Photo: National Archives
From Student to Instructor
In April 1940, Righetti completed his basic training and was assigned to Kelly Field, where advanced training awaited on the At-6 Texan. Again, he was among the best in his class, which foreshadowed his future. Plans for any significant expansion would not be viable without thousands of new instructors, who would, in turn, turn out tens of thousands new pilots. It was logical to select the best of the best from each discipline to become instructors. Group 40D, to which Righetti belonged, completed its training on July 26, 1940. Two hundred graduates received their wings and were elevated to Officer status. Righetti was pleased to learn he would be a flight instructor.
He was assigned his first group of cadets for training on BT-145s in mid-August, 1940, and he described them in a letter home thus: “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. These mugs will give me something to work on, however, and since my captain knows they’re punk, if I can do something with them, it will be very much to my credit.”1)
Perhaps, they were not as bad as all that, and later, Righetti wrote: ‘I soloed them all yesterday and today, but I’m scared every time they go out that someone will bring me back a little, old, orange piece of aluminum and say, “Sorry sir, this was all we could find.”1)
A Secret Wedding
While Righetti was settling into his role as an instructor, the Battle of Britain was revving up. On January 18, 1941, he married the small, dark-haired and intelligent Edith Cathryn Davies. The two married after a relatively short courtship, without any external pressures that would be forced on them by, for example, a pregnancy. The two married without the presence of family or with much fanfare. The name Edith was never used much by the newlywed, but her middle name did spawn several nicknames. She was known as Kate, Katie and Kakie, and also Katydid … At the time, Elwyn likely had no idea that the last of those would be the name he would have applied to his Mustang, and that it would be complemented by a rendering of a grasshopper, the connection being that the katydid is an insect that is related to the grasshopper and cricket.
The young couple settled in the officer housing facility at Randolph, which Cathryn gradually improved, but Righetti’s quiet and predictable life instructing young cadets began to bore him. His thoughts increasingly turned to the idea of combat. “Two of my better friends left yesterday for China with about 100 Air Corps men who are under contract to keep the Burma Road open. They’ll clear $600 per month plus expenses and get a $500 bonus for each enemy [Japanese] aircraft shot down. Whyinell [sic] am I married and forced to be responsible? I could make $20,000 in two years if I lasted.”1)
At the time, he couldn’t have known that he was talking about the basis of the American Volunteer Group, later to become famous as the “Flying Tigers”. In any case, Cathryn’s pregnancy forced about another rearrangement of priorities … He was also promoted to the rank of Lieutenant on November 1, 1941, and he was becoming one of the most experienced instructors in the service, by then known as the United States Army Air Force (USAAF). New training facilities were quickly popping up all over the United States, and it looked likely that Righetti would be put in charge of one of them. Then, along came December 7, 1941. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor shocked the American public and Elwyn for the first time recognized the horrors of war: “The first casualty reports say I lost one of my students who was also an especial friend”.1)
The beginning of 1942 saw Righetti assigned to Moore Field and on May 30, Cathryn gave birth to their daughter Elizabeth Kyle Righetti. Soon after, they moved back to Kelly Field, not far from San Antonio. It was their third move in a year, and at the time, there was a certain degree of chaos within the training system. There was hectic movement of personnel as new training bases were put in services and the command structure attempted to optimize its use of instructors. Righetti was assigned to the 1030th Basic Flying Training Squadron and was promoted to Major. In peacetime, such an advancement would be about ten years in coming, but the war changed everything. When he entered it, the air service had some 3,500 officers. Currently, it had 140,000 and its overall strength grew from 45,000 men to 1.7 million!
On taking command of the 1030th BFTS, his responsibility was the development of instructors after basic training. He also put together a manual for instructors that would be the go-to reference at all of the training centres. He was becoming increasingly busy and in one of his letters home, he complained that “Honest, I didn’t know there was so much work in the world.”1)
He became a respected authority on flight training. He was making more money than he could dream of previously, and his family benefitted. But Elwyn couldn’t stop thinking about air combat. By now, though, he had become an important part of the USAAF’s training machine and the Air Corps couldn’t afford to lose him. He began to search out new ways to defeat the stereotype of the instruction of cadet pilots. As a senior officer, he took every advantage to travel to all the corners of the country, naturally, at the controls of an aircraft. As a result, he attended conferences, met new friends and made contacts, saw new places and he met celebrities, particularly movie stars. On occasion, he would also fly home and visit his parents. He often announced his pending arrival with a low flyby over the ranch, after which he would land at the small field where he had taken his first steps to get to where he currently was.
In the meantime, the USAAF had worked to further improve the effectiveness of its system of flight training, and the result was the concept conceived in March, 1943, leading to the activation of the CIS (Central Instructor School). It was the defining authority on standardization of instructor training. It targeted instructors of future fighter pilots (based at Randolph Field), bomber pilots, navigators, bombardiers, and other flight personnel. In essence, the goal was to train instructors to train instructors who would in turn train pilots. Righetti was given command of the 46th Squadron, which was one of two fighter training squadrons. It put the responsibility of training half of all the instructors for the USAAF. It had by then been some time since Righetti flew trainers exclusively. His duties put him in combat types as well. And he attempted to use his prestigious position for a combat assignment. Righetti’s younger brother Maurice had similar ambitions and began his training at about the time that Elwyn was assigned to the CIS. Ultimately, he too was to become an instructor and became a student of his brother’s. They even undertook several training flights together. Maurice went on to become a B-29 co-pilot with 40th Bombardment Group. He survived the war.
Elwyn Righetti was assigned overseas in June, 1944, but wouldn’t gain any combat experience until the end of October of that year. Photo: Family Collection via Jay Stout
Darrell Cramer, the man that would lead Righetti on his first missions and one who at least on one occasion severely chewed him out… Photo: USAF
In 1943, Righetti’s requests for a combat assignment were met with little support from his superiors. But a year later, his efforts would pay off. In a letter to home, he wrote: “I expect to get back from my overseas tour, but if I don’t, remember that I kept a whole bunch of other guys from getting home too, and that I was working on my interpretation of being a good American.”1)
Things were set into motion at the beginning of June 1944, when he was ordered to Aloe Army Airfield, not far from Victoria, Texas, where he would undergo conversion training on the P-40. By then, he had some two thousand flying hours under his belt, much of it on the P-40, so flying the Warhawk was second nature to him. But he did need to hone his gunnery and tactical skills. His results were phenomenal, but administrative factors kept him stateside through July. By this time, he was a Lieutenant Colonel, and as the Allies had already made their way into Europe via Normandy, he was aware of the possibility that Germany would collapse before he had a chance to get over there. This was his fear, and, understandably, his wife’s hope. Time before his departure was spent by Righetti flying the P-47 and P-51. On August 2, 1944, he embarked on his journey overseas through the Overseas Replacement Depot in Greensboro, where he spent ten days. In his orders, the destination was mentioned as being “cold, wet and windy” which was widely understood to mean England. He didn’t need to worry about his wife and daughter. They had moved to the family ranch and would be well taken care of.
Righetti arrived in England at the beginning of September 1944 and was assigned to the 8th AF, commanded by the legendary James Doolittle. At Fowlmere, he flew several familiarization flights with the P-51, and the same with the P-47 at Duxford. Britain made a positive impression on him: “British people marvelous, friendly, sincere and interested in our welfare—truly a wonderful ally.”1) he wrote home.
He also caught up with a slew of friends and contacts that he had made over his five years in the military. His friend and mentor, Fred Gray, under whom Righetti served while with the CIS, was CO of the 78th Fighter Group, subordinate to the 66th Fighter Wing. Gray showed him around the command centre of the 66th FW and Righetti could soon rejoice over his posting in it on September 24th. Immediately the following day, he reported in at Base F-159, just shy of 100km (60 miles) north of London, which was home to the 55th Fighter Group, also one of the component elements of the 66th FW.
He made his way to the 338th FS, to which he was assigned, pilots’ meeting room and discovered that he had no acquaintances there, and the same went for the entire Fighter Group. His rank of Lt. Col. corresponded to the minimum requirement for a Squadron Commander, and even for an entire Group, but something like that would also require a certain amount of experience. He lacked such experience. As an experienced and methodical instructor, he already had come up with a plan. He would start out as a wingman to an experienced fighter pilot and earn his place the right way regardless of his high rank. After he was able to carry out his duties in a satisfactory manner, he would become the lead of a pair of aircraft, followed by becoming a flight leader. Step by step, nice and steady. He had no intention of making things easy on himself and sidestep any steps within the accepted procedure. In any case, doing so would not have been advisable where combat conditions were a factor. Rank was one thing, experience an entirely other. According to the plans of the leadership, he would gain enough experience with the 55th FG to become Group Leader, but not of the 55th FG.
Elwyn got along very well with the Mustang, and quickly demonstrated his piloting skills. Photo: Family Collection via Jay Stout
Success Without Praise
Righetti took off on his first combat sortie on October 30, 1944 and recorded his first kill on his second flight on November 2. This was an escort mission for 1,100 bombers to Mersenburg, near Leipzig, targeting an oil refinery there. The ‘big boys’ were escorted by nine hundred fighters and the 55th FG was tasked with close in protection for bombers of the 3rd Air Division. Righetti was assigned to fly wing for the experienced Capt. Darrell Cramer, who had by then over four months of combat mission experience. Enemy fighters failed to materialize on the way to the target, though anti-aircraft fire was uncomfortably accurate and claimed seven of the bombers. On the way out, around a hundred German fighters attacked the formation. No one from the 55th FG ever saw such a concentration at one time and for the first time, they felt what it was like to be outnumbered.
The formation quickly broke off in groups of twos and fours. A part of the German fighters tried to get to the bombers, while others tried to divert the fight off to the side. A third section of German fighters entered cloud formations and Cramer, with Righetti right behind, along with a second pair, went after them. The moment they got below the layer of clouds, Cramer went after the first enemy plane that he saw. The attacked Bf 109 went into a right-hand turn, and Cramer fired, with several rounds hitting home. In an effort to evade the fire, the German fighter dove towards the ground, directly into Righetti’s Mustang’s line of fire. “Since I had outrun Captain Cramer on his pull up, and had turned sharply left, I became positioned in between my leader and the 109” 1).
It was for him a moment of truth, where he would put all of his experience to good use for the first time under such conditions. He placed his target in his sights and fired at a range of about 180 m (600 ft). “I fired one short burst and observed several strikes back of the cockpit. The enemy aircraft attempted very little evasive action but headed for a flak nest straight ahead. Just before reaching the flak, I fired a three second burst and observed numerous strikes in the vicinity of the cockpit”.1)
The Messerschmitt went into a sharp bank and dropped even further and clipped a hedgerow with its wing, which caused him to go inverted and disintegrate on impact with the ground a fraction of a second later. The quartet of Mustangs overflew the point of impact and headed for home.
Cramer recorded the incident in a report thusly: “When I got into a good stern chase position and closed to firing range, I opened fire. Shortly thereafter I was amazed to see another P-51 converging on me from my left and he too opened fire on the Me-109. My bullets were missing his plane only by a few yards, and I immediately quit firing.”1)
It was clear to Cramer that it was Righetti, who, in the heat of battle, neglected his wingman obligations. “If I had not gained a little altitude as he attempted to get into firing position, I might not have seen him and a midair collision could have resulted,”1) continued the angered Cramer.
After the obligatory meeting with the Intelligence Officers, Cramer took Righetti to one side. He didn’t want to chew out the Lieutenant Colonel in front of lieutenants, but there was also no way he could just let this go. “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.” Cramer’s discretion indicated his considerable maturity. “Then I gave him a chewing out like he probably had not had in his regroup.”1) recounted Cramer years later.
Cramer gave a decent scolding to the higher-ranking officer, telling him that had he been a new lieutenant, he would have grounded him on the spot for at least two weeks as a reprimand, and bring about disciplinary action against Righetti because he had violated the rules of discipline and neglected his responsibilities as wingman. Righetti deserves full credit for accepting the harsh criticism from the significantly lower ranking officer: “Righetti immediately acknowledged that he had goofed up in the excitement of the moment. On the remaining missions during which Righetti flew under my supervision,” Cramer said, “his performance was excellent and there was never another breach of air discipline”1) recalled Cramer, who ended his career in 1973 as Deputy Commander of the 17th Air Force in Germany with the rank of Brigadier General. That kill from November 2nd, 1944 was ultimately credited to them both, each with a half.
Once having been assigned his own aircraft, Righetti had his wife’s Cathryn’s nickname painted on its nose, along with a somewhat provocative depiction of a katydid. Photo: Family Collection via Jay Stout
By the middle of November, there had been a change in plan. Righetti was informed that it was expected that he would assume command of the 338th Fighter Squadron, and the entire 55th Fighter Group after that, if all went according to design. The information was somewhat sensitive, because the post of 338th FS Command should’ve fallen on Cramer … On learning of this idea, Righetti immediately went to Cramer and told him that he need not fret over his position, because he would only take command of the squadron for about three weeks, after which he would take the reins of the Fighter Group. From that, it is clear that Righetti’s position within the squadron was not an easy one, despite his methods and especially ability to make decisions in combat that made him a formidable figure. After the first two missions on the scene, he flew another ten ones in November, 1944, during which he further displayed his talents. He led the 338th Fighter Squadron into battle on November 21st, three weeks after his baptism of fire, and four days later was named its CO. According to the most experienced pilot in the squadron, Darrell Cramer, there was no doubt about the capabilities of Righetti among the other pilots. “By the time he became a squadron commander,” said Cramer, “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.”1)
Righetti was apparently more pleased with being assigned his own aircraft than having been given the command. He was given P-51D, serial number 44-14223, onto which he immediately had the name “Katydid” painted, along with an attractive rendering of a grasshopper. Later, this Mustang was exchanged for 44-72227. Both were coded CL-M, and both were decorated in much the same fashion. But the drawing of the grasshopper differed. On the first P-51, the drawing was in green, while on the second it was a black silhouette with blue wings. Losses of pilots in terms of combat missions was around two percent, so it was generally considered that a pilot’s supply of good luck was exhausted crossing the fifty-mission threshold. Fifty missions seldom satisfied the requirement for a combat tour of 270 hours. Righetti was well-aware of the possibility of not coming home, and from his letters, it seems that he really even didn’t count on it. Sgt. Millard “Doak” Easton, his crew chief, noted that “Katydid” once returned with a 20mm round. “He told me the next one would be in the cockpit.”1)
His next kill would have to wait till Christmas Eve, on December 24th, when he downed three Fw 190s and damaged a further two. Aside from that, he flew several other combat sorties, and probably the most interesting of them involved an encounter with three Me 262s. He hit and damaged one of them. “Tangled with 3 jets and got one damaged. They’re a little too fast to destroy but I took all the fight out of him.”1)
Planning the next operational mission. Elwyn Righetti is at left. Photo: Family Collection via Jay Stout
At the beginning of 1944, when the 8th AF fell under Doolittle’s command, there was a change in the tactics of American fighters. Besides protecting bombers, it was decided that it was necessary to deprive the Luftwaffe of all ability, leading to attacking airfields and other ground targets. To this end, after the arrival of Righetti and especially after his command assignment, the 55th FG became an elite unit. Its aggressiveness and combat intensity led, for example, to the destruction of 127 locomotives during February, 1945 alone.
Ground attack action usually came about on the return trip after escorting bombers, as opportunity dictated. Some of the fighters would stick with the bombers, while others dropped down to see if there was anything that was worthy of some attention. There were frequent encounters with enemy aircraft as well. One of the most curious of these for Righetti involved a Mistel composite aircraft. This occurred on February 3rd, 1945, not far from Boizenburg. He claimed the destruction of two of three Mistels and a damaged Fw 190. This event is the basis of the boxart for our kit P-51D-10 (Catalog Number 84184) that offers markings for Righetti’s plane. These two kills elevated him to the status of “ace”, in terms of air-to-air victories. But when it comes to ground targets, he led all of the USAAF stats! He would account for 27 locomotives, several dozen trucks, destroyed aircraft on the ground, and other items. In this regard, Righetti had no equal, and his men followed him.
On February 22nd, 1945, he took command of the 55th FG, replacing Col. George Crowell, and continued to add to the legend status of his Group. He would not be able to make his mark among the most successful aces, something for which he arrived on the scene too late to do, and at a time when Luftwaffe activity was greatly declining. Nevertheless, his results and exemplary command led to many high-level awards (see table). For his promotion to Group Commander he was grateful, and he noted so in a letter from February 25: “The new job is the best by far I’ve ever had. Lots of responsibility I know, but really satisfying. Now I’m really slapping Jerry with my own outfit and knocking chunks out of him too. We got 14 enemy aircraft today—7 jets—and although I didn’t personally score, they’re all my boys now that I have the group.” 1)
One of the photos showing the first P-51s christened Katydyd, on which wear and tear is already evident. Photo: Family Collection via Jay Stout
The Fateful Day
It is not possible to describe the combat exploits of “Eager El” and his 55th FG in proper detail in the pages of a magazine type article. After many dangerous situations while escorting bombers and during ground target attacks, Righetti’s thirtieth birthday came on April 17, 1945. His plan was to crack open a bottle of bubbly on returning from the day’s flying with Frank Stitch, another pilot celebrating a birthday that day. When the bomber formation turned around to head back home, Righetti, along with pilots from the 343rd FS, dropped down as he had done many times before to search for targets of opportunity on the ground. They neared the town of Kamenz, home to a part of Schlachtgeschwader 77, equipped with Fw 190s. Lieutenants Robert Welch and Philip Erby spotted a pair of Focke Wulfs just after take-off and came at them from above and from behind. The Fw 190 pilots had no time to react and both were downed. In return, Welch and Erby were both hit by flak and both turned in the direction of American positions. Erby announced that he needed to bail out of his stricken plane and was not heard from again. Lt. Richard Gibbs and his wingman followed Welch and Erby but broke off when they spotted the flak, flew around Kamenz at a safe distance, and found another pair of enemy fighters after take-off. They waited until they were out of range of the flak, attacked the fighters and Gibbs downed them both. Besides these kills, the 343rd FS shot down another five SG 77 aircraft but paid a high price for success. Besides Erby, flak also brought down George Apple and Daniel Langelier. The bodies of Erby and Langalier were never found …
In the meantime, Righetti and his wingman Carroll Henry spotted a small airfield at Riesa. Righetti wanted to attack it first alone and ordered the rest of the squadron to stay higher up and off to the side. “He wanted me to stay up there with the other guys. But when I requested, he let me go.” Wrote Henry in his report.2)
Righetti conducted the first strafing run himself, missing the target. He adjusted his gunsight, turned around, and peppered the aircraft on the ground. He repeated the attack two more times. And then, it happened. Katydid shuttered and it was clear that she had been hit. Righetti radioed Henry and told him that he was quickly losing oil pressure. Henry also advised Righetti that he had been losing glycol. It was only a matter of a minute before the P-51’s engine would critically overheat, and Righetti knew this. It is difficult to understand why, with about a minute of engine life left that could have given him some 10 km (six miles) of coverage, Righetti chose to come around for another attack rather than get as close to friendly positions as possible. American positions were about 20km away, and with a little extra luck, it was possible for Righetti to reach them. But instead, he opted to spend the remainder of his ammunition in another attack, and then head out to find a field to crash-land. Henry tried to follow: “I called him, telling him that I was tacking on. He acknowledged, saying that he was heading out on 270 degrees. I was about 3,000 feet and overran him due to excess speed gained while letting down. He was at six o’clock to me and I rolled out on 270 degrees,” wrote Henry later in his report.2)
He was unable to locate his commander and due to haze, none of the squadron that was higher up was able to do so either. Then, the radio announced: “Tell the family I’m okay. Broke my nose on landing. It’s been a hell of a lot of fun working with you, gang. Be seeing you a little later.”2)
Ray Sharp, one of the pilots circling above, broke radio silence and he could be heard saying: “Good luck, Colonel!”
Due to a lack of fuel, practically the entire 55th FG had to land at fields in continental Europe. Frank Stitch had to open the bottle of champagne himself, and under a shroud of a somber mood that corresponded to the day’s loss. This was reflected in the day’s summary report, that read: “We’re going to miss you Colonel, all twenty-nine years of your bursting energy and vitality, your eagerness and courage, your initiative and leadership that moulded us into a deadly fightin’ machine, whipping the Nazis at every turn. We’re going to miss your cheerfulness, your decisiveness, and your understanding of human nature. You spelled aggressiveness wherever and whenever you flew and made us into one of the eagerest gangs of eager beavers. Your record speaks for itself – 34.5 destroyed German aircraft to your credit – 27 on the ground and 7.5 in the air, and enemy ground installations too numerous to add up. All of us of ole Five and Five salute you, Eager El”.3)
Virtually all believed that they would again see the CO soon. Germany was breathing its last, and by the sounds of the last broadcast by Righetti, he would be headed for an interrogation and a detention camp for airmen.
A copy of the sketch on which Carroll Henry marked the position of Righetti’s crash-landing. It does not correspond to the information that he headed 270° from the airfield, which was located southwest of Riesa. Source: MACR
The War Department sent a telegram to Cathryn Righetti on May 3, over two weeks after her husband was shot down, where the situation as it stood was outlined. The telegram held out hope that the two would meet again. She waited with Elwyn’s parents and siblings for another telegram or phone call that would add some information, but no such thing came. For more than a month, they sent letters as though Elwyn was still a member of his unit. They waited for him. And they continued to wait for some good news. The days turned into months, but they still believed in his return. This was understandable. Europe was in the midst of post-war chaos, and there were constantly stories of the discovery of soldiers and airmen who, for various reasons, were turning up outside of the POW camps. There was hope. Major Tom Welch, who was Elwyn’s good friend and still in Europe, searched for him and held out hope for Righetti’s family, but that hope was slowly but surely fading. Apparently, the first to come to grips with the worst was Cathryn, while Righetti’s parents and siblings continued to reject the notion. Righetti’s mother wrote a letter to the military governor of the American occupation zone in Europe, General Dwight Eisenhower, and later to President Truman. She pleaded for help in the search for her son. But this yielded no results. At the end of 1946, she received a letter from another one of Elwyn’s friends, Fred Gray, who claimed to have conducted his search along other than official channels. His own description of the events of April 17 compared very well to the official report, except on one point. Allegedly, about ten minutes after setting down, Righetti’s voice came on the radio describing the approach of farmers … But, if this were true, Henry wouldn’t have kept such information to himself and there would be no reason to not include it in his report. The lynching of downed Allied pilots was not uncommon and quite a few Germans were tried and convicted of the practice. Gray, in his aforementioned letter, said that he had received unofficial information from the Pentagon that one of the interrogated Nazis confirmed that Righetti was murdered by civilians, five of which were already hung and two were awaiting their verdicts. Even that is unlikely, as the area was occupied by the Soviets, so if anyone was carrying out sentences for the murder of an American pilot, it would be them.
Of course, the possibility that Righetti was murdered by civilians, as were others, is the most likely reason for his disappearance. It could have happened shortly after his forced landing, or even after several days of hiding. He could also have been killed because someone wanted his boots and gun, and he could’ve been shot after falling in the hands of the SS, which also happened.
Over the years, many questions, hypotheses and speculations cropped up. More light couldn’t be shed on the mystery even by an investigation by JPAC (Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command), or statements by Germans. To confuse things, there were even doubts raised as to the exact location of the crash landing. Although he spoke of a course of 270°, due west, Henry pointed out a spot on the map where Righetti landed his aircraft, northeast of Riesa. This threw into question even which airfield he and Righetti attacked.
A little out there, but with that, a little more distressing, is a hypothesis that suggests he was taken prisoner by the Russians who didn’t believe his identity (he could have been on the run dressed as a civilian). They may have executed him or taken him to one of their gulags where he remained until his death. The American embassy requested the Soviets to look into the whereabouts of the son of Elizabeth Righetti in 1945. In November of that year, they responded that no Elwyn Righetti was found in the territory of the Soviet Union. Whether or not they actually looked …
The truth will probably never be known. None of those directly involved or any witnesses are likely still with us. Perhaps someone somewhere may locate someone’s log or journal that may shed some light on the matter, but in all likelihood the remains of Colonel Elwyn Righetti lie in the ground somewhere near Riesa…
Elwyn Righetti christened his first Mustang Katydid and used it from December 1944 to March 1945.
1) STOUT Jay, Vanished Hero: The Life, War and Mysterious Disappearance of America’s WWII Strafing King, Casemate Publishers, 2016
2) MACR (Missing Air Crew Report) 13916
3) 55th FG Mission Summary Report, April 17th, 1955
A Few Words By the Author Regarding the Book by Jay A. Stout
I have read a good number of books mapping out the fates of Second World War pilots. The book by Jay A. Stout, who himself until relatively recently was a combat pilot in the Marine Corps, in many ways is unique. The author took the baton from Tony Meldahl, a historian who devoted a lot of energy to mapping out the life of Elwyn Righetti and the circumstances surrounding his disappearance. The very ill Meldahl turned to the renowned author of aviation themed books, Jay A. Stout, about the prospect of bringing his efforts to completion and to ensure the release of the book. Jay accepted this challenge, and despite hurdles that he encountered, succeeded in completing the book and enlisting the services of a publisher. It is one of the most intense set of circumstances brought by the war and the work is among the best in the genre. I strongly recommend the book to all interested in aviation, and it can be bought, including in electronic form, here.
The author sincerely thanks Jay A. Stout, author of Vanished Hero: The Life, War and Mysterious Disappearance of America’s Strafing King for his kind permission to use quotes from his book for the purposes of this article, and for help in sourcing photographs from the Righetti Family.
STOUT Jay, Vanished Hero: The Life, War and Mysterious Disappearance of America’s WWII Strafing King, Casemate Publishers, 2016
OLYNYK Frank, STARS AND BARS: A tribute to the American Fighter Ace 1920–1973, Grub Street Publishing, 1995
HESS William: Down to Earth, Strafing Aces of Eighth
Air Force, Osprey Publishing, 2003
MACR (Missing Air Crew Report) 13916/ NARA (National Archives and Records Administration) M1380