Times Past

Letters home a glimpse into WWII experiences of SLO’s ‘vanishing hero’ fighter pilot

Elwyn Righetti and his P-51 Mustang named “KATYDID” in honor of his wife, Cathryn (Khaki), February 1945.
Elwyn Righetti and his P-51 Mustang named “KATYDID” in honor of his wife, Cathryn (Khaki), February 1945.

“I’m going off to war now, Mom...”

In last week’s Times Past column, we looked at San Luis Obispo native and World War II flying ace Elwyn Righetti’s early life and what led him to join the fighting.

The following is a snapshot of his life in the war leading up to going missing in action as detailed in Jay Stout’s recently published book “Vanished Hero: The Life, War and Mysterious Disappearance of America’s WWII Strafing King,”

Under the leadership of Righetti, the 55th Fighter Group became the most prolific “railroad busters” in the history of aerial warfare. The 55th destroyed some 600 locomotives between January and April 1945, paralyzing Germany’s transportation infrastructure.

Righetti got into the actual fighting at a late date. He enlisted as a cadet in the Army Air Corps in 1939. Within a year, he was a flight instructor.

The Air Corps needed flight instructors to turn out the thousands of pilots that would be needed for the war, and Righetti was a superb instructor at Kelly and Randolph Fields in Texas. He eventually oversaw the whole training operation. In 1944, he requested overseas duty.

It meant leaving his wife, Cathryn, and daughter, Kyle, behind. Righetti wrote his mom, Elizabeth, in May 1944:

“I never have quite been able to see this ‘Mother’s Day’ business, but have felt that there are some 364 or 365 other 24 hour periods in the year that are rightfully yours, too. Perhaps this is because I have always felt that I made a wonderful choice in picking you for a mother.

“I’ve enjoyed a million trials and tribulations in my Army struggle, (and even before that) but somehow I’ve always felt that your unwavering loyalty and pride in your kids would help me through any jackpot I might blunder into.

“I’m going off to war now, mom, 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.

“You’ll probably fret a bit over me, but you needn’t, Mom. If you had played this game even just the 2,000 hours that I have, you’d know that you don’t get knocked off until your number comes up, and when that time comes, there’s nothing you can do about it.

“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.”

Arriving in England, Righetti led his 55th Fighter Group over Germany.

On Jan. 3, 1945, he wrote: “Lots of war and not much time for anything else — but here’s a short one — Happy New Year to all. Maybe this one will finish things over here.”

Feb. 3: “Got a special commendation from Gen. Doolittle and my pictures will make national newsreels on account of the targets were pick-a-back jobs. No one had ever nailed any before.”

In a hopeful letter March 26, Righetti said, “Will be home around June 1st for sure, if I’m still on deck. Depends a bit on the war. Want to be here for the final blows and kinda feel that they’re not too far off over here.”

On April 9: “Want to come home so very badly now, but sure don’t want to leave till we get this little chore wound up right. Thought you all might be pleased to know that word from very high headquarters gives my group credit for being the largest single factor responsible for [Gen.] Patton’s successful drive” deep into Germany.”

On his 30th birthday, April 17 , in a strafing run over an airfield near Dresden, Righetti was lost. His single seat P-51 Mustang, named in honor of his wife Cathryn (Khaki), “Katydid,” was hit and he crash landed.

Several members of his group last saw him get out of his aircraft where a crowd of civilians surrounded him.

Stout’s book goes on to explain the conditions under which Elwyn remains “Missing in Action.”

Liz Krieger is a retired children’s librarian, and 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 slohistory@gmail.com.