April 17, 1945. With Hitler’s mighty Third Reich on the brink of collapse, Allied air forces attack relentlessly at the heart of Germany. The Germans, desperate to halt the advancing Red Army on the eastern front, muster together what resources they can to protect the few remaining operational Luftwaffe units they had left. As massive American bomber formations filled the sky in the area around Dresden, their P-51D Mustang fighter escorts dropped down to locate and attack targets of opportunity.
In the skies northeast of Dresden, pilots from the 343rd Fighter Squadron of the 55th Fighter Group destroyed nine FW-190 aircraft on the ground and in the air from the Luftwaffe airdrome at Kamenz, despite extremely heavy anti-aircraft defenses encircling the target. The losses at Kamenz were not exclusive to the Germans; three American fighters were shot down by ground defenses during the attack, resulting in the deaths of the pilots.
With all possible targets at Kamenz destroyed, Lieutenant Colonel Elwyn Righetti, Commanding Officer (CO) of the 55th Fighter Group and his wingman, Lieutenant Carroll Henry, headed west. Over Riesa they spotted another Luftwaffe airdrome with numerous aircraft parked on the ground. Leaving P-51s of the 338th Fighter Squadron orbiting overhead, Lt. Col. Righetti and his wingman Lt. Henry dove down to engage the enemy as bursts of anti-aircraft fire enveloped their fighters. As they hurtled towards their targets, Lt. Col. Righetti spotted a FW-190 on approach for landing. He ordered Lt. Henry to take on the approaching Focke-Wulf while he strafed aircraft parked on the ground.
Lt. Col. Righetti made numerous strafing runs over the airfield, blasting parked aircraft with the six Browning .50 caliber machine guns of his P-51D, leaving eight German airplanes in flames. As he pulled out of his fifth or sixth pass his aircraft, named Katydid, shuddered and shook violently. He had been hit by flak, causing extensive damage. Lt. Henry, who had by this time dispatched the approaching FW-190 into flames, radioed Lt. Col. Righetti to let him know that Katydid was steadily leaking engine coolant. As the Packard Rolls-Royce Merlin engine that powered the Mustang was liquid cooled, this meant he only had precious minutes before the engine seized and quit from excessive heat.
Lt. Col. Righetti acknowledged his aircraft was in trouble, radioing “Windsor here, gang. Hit bad, oil pressure dropping fast, can’t make it out of enemy territory, just enough ammo left for one more pass.”
“Eager El” then put his Mustang into a series of steep turns to line up for another strafing run, nursing his struggling aircraft as best he could. After destroying an additional German airplane on the ground, he headed west towards Allied front lines. A few tense minutes later he made another radio call, “I’ve got to set it down.”
Lt. Henry stayed with Lt. Col. Righetti as long as he could. Overshooting the damaged Katydid, he banked hard to try and catch sight of him again, to no avail. However, much to his relief the voice of Lt. Col. Righetti crackled once again over the radio. “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.” Somewhere west of Riesa, he had managed a forced landing and was alive and well, with the exception of a minor broken nose. It was his 30th birthday. The Germans surrendered on May 7, twenty days later.
Lt. Col. Elwyn Righetti with his P-51D Katydid
In the weeks and months that followed the end of the war in Europe, the Righetti family fully expected a telegram from Elwyn or the War Department announcing that he had been liberated, and was on his way home to their ranch in San Luis Obispo, California. After all, they knew for a fact he had survived the crash landing which was only forty miles from Allied front lines. Unfortunately, that telegram never came. In fact, no word of him ever came. It was as if he vanished off the face of the earth. The months turned into years, and eventually into decades. Numerous inquiries were made, searches were conducted, and people interviewed. To this day, no trace of Col. Righetti or his aircraft Katydid have ever been found.
Elwyn Guido Righetti enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps (USAAC) in December of 1939, three months after the start of the war in Europe. At the time he enlisted he was already a
certified private pilot with two years of college, which helped him stay in the top tier of his classes while many other cadets were “washing out” on a daily basis. By the time he completed flight training and received his commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in July of 1940 he was considered one of the most talented pilots in the USAAC, and a very capable officer. These two factors contributed to him being selected as a flight instructor to train new pilots at various USAAC airfields around San Antonio, Texas.
In January of 1941 Elwyn announced to his family in a letter home that he had gotten married. Her name was Edith Cathryn (Katy) Davis, a local San Antonio girl who was several years his junior. In late summer of that year, Katy became pregnant. It was also at this time he was promoted to 1st Lieutenant. Within months of these events Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, marking the inevitable. America was at war, and tens of thousands of new pilots would need to be trained to fight it.
In May of 1942 a daughter was born to the young couple, who they named Elizabeth Kyle. Like her mother, her middle name became her monicker. Another promotion, this time to Major, quickly followed.
Over the next two years Major Righetti trained untold dozens of pilots to fight the wars raging in Europe and the Pacific. During this time he repeatedly requested combat duty, only to be denied time and time again. As one of the most talented instructors in what had become the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF), the need for his skills stateside were greater than the chances of losing him in combat overseas. However, in June of 1944, with the need for new pilots subsiding and the final push into Germany and Japan near, he received notice that he would finally be shipping out. The gold oak leafs signifying his rank of Major were replaced with silver oak leafs. He was now a Lieutenant Colonel, a senior officer.
Arriving in England in October of 1944, Lt. Col. Righetti was assigned to the 55th Fighter Group of the USAAF 8th Air Force based in Wormingford. Though he had been in the service for nearly five years and racked up over 2,000 flight hours, he had never flown in combat, where a fighter pilot is both hunter and prey. His first priority was to learn from the other pilots with combat experience as much as he possibly could. It was an odd undertaking, as he had trained many of the same men he was now wanting to learn from. His impetuous and feverish quest for knowledge of combat flying earned him a nickname from the other pilots in the group, “Eager El”. Over the next month, primarily flying as wingman to the squadron leader, he proved himself eager enough to earn command of his own fighter squadron, the 338th.
Once given command Lt. Col. Righetti reaffirmed his reputation as an aggressive and bold pilot, and showcased his ability as a fearless, daring yet caring and conscientious leader. There was not as much aerial dogfighting compared to earlier years in the war, as by late 1944 the Allies enjoyed unchallenged air superiority over much of Germany. However, ground targets abounded, many of them protected by heavy concentrations of Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA). Attacking these ground targets is where Elwyn truly excelled, and the combat performance numbers of the 55th Fighter Group began to reflect that.
Before the arrival of Lt. Col. Righetti, the 55th Fighter Group had been indistinguishable in their performance amongst other fighter groups in the 8th Air Force. However, that quickly began to change after Elwyn’s arrival. In January of 1945 the group was credited with destroying 157 locomotives, as well as destroying a record number of Luftwaffe aircraft on the ground, including numerous jet aircraft.
In the middle of February then CO of the 55th Fighter Group, Colonel George Crowell, reached the end of his tour. Although there were other highly qualified officers in line to proceed him, it was Elwyn who was chosen to assume command. Already a Lt. Col. at such a young age, he was now responsible for a unit of approximately 2,000 personnel including pilots, maintenance, intelligence, security and logistics. As recalled by those who served under him, his indelible qualities of leadership proved infectious. Soon the entire unit had a level of confidence and morale that it never had before.
On February 25, three days after taking command of the 55th, the unit destroyed 14 Luftwaffe aircraft, including seven Me-262 jet fighters. On a mission in March the 55th was credited with an incredible (and ironic) 55 aircraft aircraft destroyed, including six by Lt. Col. Righetti, three of them Me-262s.
The 55th became so well known that their reputation as fierce fighters grew quickly within the USAAF. The CO of the 8th Air Force, General Jimmy Doolittle, remarked to Elwyn at a conference in England “Righetti. I’ve heard of you!” General Henry “Hap” Arnold cited Elwyn by name in a press release about the group’s success in destroying ground targets, specifically trains. It seemed as if nothing could stop the 55th. Their successes continued, unabated, until that fateful day of April 17, 1945.
To say the 55th was shattered by the loss of their commanding officer would be a colossal understatement. Those under his command had respect, admiration and a certain amount of affection for Elwyn, despite his short tenure with the unit. Perhaps their feelings were stated best in the group Mission Summary Report for that day:
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”.
The War Department declared Elwyn Killed in Action (KIA) in 1946. He was posthumously promoted to Colonel and in November of 1947, at a ceremony at Fort Ord, Elwyn’s family received his decorations including a Silver Star, Distinguished Service Cross, Distinguished Flying Cross with oak leaf cluster and Air Medal.
His wife Katy remarried, and remained in the San Luis Obispo area along with Kyle, their daughter and only child together. The 1,000 acre ranch that Elwyn grew up on is still in the Righetti family, much of it the same as when he grew up there milking cows, feeding chickens and hunting small game in the surrounding countryside.
The Righetti family never gave up believing that one day Elwyn would return. His parents and all five of his siblings lived into old age, and as each one passed the light was always kept lit for him on the Righetti ranch, a hope that perhaps one day he would finally come home.
In all likelihood Elwyn was murdered by German civilians, angry at the perpetual strafing and bombing of their homeland and the toll it had taken on the populace. It certainly would
not have been the first time - numerous Allied airmen were murdered by German civilians, particularly in the waning months of the war, when a complete breakdown of civil order allowed such lawless actions to take place. However, in one way or another many of these cases were solved, sometimes with justice being served on those guilty. Elwyn’s case remains unsolved, a vexing plethora of questions with few answers.
Lieutenant Paul Reeves was also flying a P-51D fighter on that fateful mission in April of 1945. However, he was not witness to the fierce fighting at Kamenz and Riesa. When interviewed years later he recalled that after briefing that morning, Elwyn took him aside. He told Reeves that as soon as they were over enemy territory (when it would count as a combat mission), he was to turn around and head back to England. It was his last mission before fulfilling his combat requirement and heading home, and Lt. Col. Righetti was concerned they had lost too many men on their last mission, and he did not want that to happen to Reeves. It was a thoughtful and selfless act. That was the kind of leader, and man, that Elwyn Righetti was.
Somewhere in the Saxon countryside of Germany, not unlike the golden meadows and pastures of his youth, lies the remains of Col. Elwyn Righetti. Gone, but never forgotten in the heart and soul of our nation.
Colonel Elwyn Guido Righetti
April 17, 1915 - April 17, 1945
Article Written By Dan Heller
Former fighter pilot Lieutenant Colonel Jay A. Stout, United States Marine Corps (Ret.) for his assistance in the writing of this article. His book on Colonel Righetti, Vanished Hero, is excellent and highly recommended.
Historical Researcher Tony Meldahl (March 6, 1954 - June 21, 2015).
David Middlecamp of The Telegram Newspaper San Luis Obispo.