‘Vanished Hero’: SLO native and WWII fighter pilot Elwyn Righetti
“Want to come home so very badly now, but sure don’t want to leave till we get this little chore wound up right.”
World War II in Europe was ending 72 years ago this month. Still, the Hitler Reich fought on with astonishing fury.
In three weeks, Hitler would take his life and Germany surrendered unconditionally.
Many Allied soldiers and airman died in this final assault on the monstrosity of Nazism.
Lt. Col. Elwyn Guido Righetti from rural San Luis Obispo was one of those decisive heroes. Roger A. Freeman’s classic account of the air campaign, “The Mighty Eighth,” reported that “Righetti had 27 enemy aircraft credits from strafing. … Under his leadership, the 55th had become the most prolific ‘railroad busters’ in the Eighth and by this date had destroyed some 600 locomotives since the beginning of the year.”
We’ve written about Righetti before, knowing that we didn’t have all the answers about what happened in Europe. Around 1990, I spoke about Righetti with the amazing researcher, Anthony Meldahl, who told me that he was preparing a thorough account of Righetti’s life. Meldahl was stricken with cancer but bequeathed his research library and papers to Jay A. Stout, a prolific author of well-researched books dealing with the air war in Europe.
Stout’s “Vanished Hero: The Life, War and Mysterious Disappearance of America’s WWII Strafing King,” published last fall, gives Righetti’s life in the Army Air Corps its full due. He employs a treasure trove of letters between Righetti and his San Luis Obispo family to tell the story of an amazing pilot who remains missing in action.
Righetti was born in San Luis Obispo in a small farm house off Orcutt Road, 3 miles east of town.
His parents, Elizabeth and Guido Righetti, were born in San Luis Obispo in the 1880s and farmed in the upper Edna Valley for 50 years. Elwyn Righetti attended the single room Independence School, now a wine tasting room on Orcutt Road.
He went to San Luis High School, which was then on Marsh Street (the site of the present Rite Aid and Smart and Final stores). In 1932, he attended Cal Poly and earned a technical degree in agriculture.
He wasn’t particularly interested in ranching or farming, working instead as a salesman for an auto dealer. Later, working as a salesman for Swift and Company, which had a business on the southwest corner of Higuera and Nipomo streets, he could put his knowledge of agriculture to some use.
Righetti caught “the flying bug” in late 1938 when William “Chris” and David Hoover and Earl Thomson began operation of a new airport, renting the site of San Luis Obispo’s present-day airport from the county for $600 a year.
Righetti said he would “rather fly than eat.” He also found out that a second lieutenant in the Army Air Corps made more than $1,800 a year when the average late-Depression era income was just more than $900.
Righetti enlisted as a cadet in 1939. His civilian flying experience and talent for flying didn’t alleviate his fear of being “washed out.” Early in training, he wrote his parents: “Six fellows have been eliminated and more are expected daily.”
After being commissioned, he taught flying at Randolph and Kelly Fields in Texas but didn’t like being an instructor. Like so many Army Air Corps pilots in training, he wanted to see some action. But America wasn’t in the war that had broken out in Europe and China.
Meanwhile, he met 18-year-old Edith Cathryn Davis, who went by the names “Cathryn,” “Kakie” or “Khaki.” They were married in January 1941, and within the year, a beautiful daughter, Elizabeth “Kylie,” was born.
Righetti requested overseas duty in 1944. A variant of Kathryn’s name, “Katydid,” would soon be painted on the fuselage of his P-51 “Mustang.”
Within a year, Elwyn was encountering the newly launched Messerschmitt Me 262s, the first jet aircraft used over the skies of Germany.
To be continued.
Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at email@example.com.