Review of Jay A. Stout's “Vanished Hero: The Life, War, and Mysterious Disappearance of America's World War II Strafing King”

tags: book review, Jay A. Stout, Vanished Hero

Robert Huddleston is a semi-retired writer and book critic. He is the author of "Edmundo from Chiapas, Mexico to Park Avenue: A True Story of a Mexican-American who became a World War II spy and married a German Princess."

Cowards die many times before their death,

The valient never taste of death but once


IN THE “INTRODUCTION” WE LEARN THE ENDING: On April 17, 1945, Lieutenant Colonel Elwyn G. Righetti, Commanding Officer of the 55th Fighter Group revved up his P-51 Mustang fighter and roared down the runway at the American 8th Air Force base at Wormingford, England. A few hours later with his aircraft damaged by ground fire while strafing a Luftwaffe airfield, he bellied in. His last words radioed to the flight, “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.” And then he vanished, eventually declared as Killed in Action (KIA).

VANISHED HERO is a collaborative effort between two writers. Anthony C. “Tony” Meldahl began the biography in the 1990s but learned he was dying of cancer. Determined the story would be told he sought out an appropriate person to continue. That person was a former Marine fighter pilot turned writer, Jay A. Stout. It was an excellent choice.

Meldahl/Stout had an excellent base for the biography: a large cache of letters from and to Righetti covering in detail his all stages of his military experience. He was a talented writer dedicated to keeping his family informed; and they keeping him informed. But beyond the personal details, Stout placed the events in the context of the times, thus providing an abbreviated history of Army Air Corps pilot training, and later, fighter combat in the European air war.

Elwyn G. Righetti was born on April 17, 1915 of Swiss parentage with a taint of Italian. His paternal grandparent, Robarto, immigrated in 1873 and from hard work and savings he managed to buy a small ranch near San Luis Obisbo, California, some hundred miles above Santa Barbara and near the ocean. By the Second World War the Righetti family ranch/farm was enlarged to one thousand acres.

Hard work was installed in all members of the family that included Elizabeth “Betty,” the oldest, Elwyn came next followed by Ernest “Ernie,” then Lorraine,, Doris and the “baby,” Maurice known as “Morris.” (When Elwyn signed on the the Army Air Corps, his older sister accused him of going to avoid the hard work on the farm.) Young Morris, influenced by his older brother, received his silver wings late in the war and became a B-29 pilot.) By the time Elwyn signed-on as a flying cadet in 1939, he had two years of college (he had graduated from San Luis Obisbo High School at sixteen), was an excellent marksman and hunter and possessed a private pilot's license; all to his advantage in mastering his new craft as a fighter pilot.

Cadet Righetti's civilian flying experience and talent for mastering the craft did not spare him worrying about being “washed out.” He wrote home early in primary training: “Six fellows have been eliminated and more are expected daily.” Stout adds to the narrative, “In fact, it wasn't unusual for anyone [his emphasis] to wash out. Throughout the war. . . more than half of the carefully screened and selected men who started flight training successfully completed all three phases: primary, basic and advanced.”

The basis for being “washed out” varied but the most prevalent were: A cadet so inept as to place himself, and often the instructor, in danger.; simply being a slow learner. (An instructor in civilian life might stretch out the training, but not the military ; the war wouldn't wait). And beyond flying, cadets could be eliminated for “poor academic performance” or “disciplinary breaches.” In mid-March Righetti wrote home obviously worried: “They tell me I'm dumb and I don't like it so I try too hard to prove otherwise. . .” Later he wrote: The flight check lieutenant said, in part, 'Righetti, I feel you're the best flyer we've got in the outfit, but damn your hide, you don't use your head. . . .” The lieutenant soon accepted Elwyn “judgment” and his worries subsided.

While the training days were full,“Wednesday and Saturday were free as was Sunday.” And the cadet's social life was not ignored. “We're starting to get excited about our next weekend guests, the five hundred Stephens College gals...They come here every three years (the other years they go to Annapolis and West Point). The school is a 'Rich Gal's College' where they go to learn beauty and grace.”

Well, not exactly. Stephens is next to the Missouri University campus where I attended on the GI-bill. I dated Stephen's “gals” and all were not rich and one was a true intellectual, later awarded a masters degree from the University of Chicago. Finally, Elwyn Righetti graduated with Class 40-D on July 26, 1940, received the coveted silver wings and a commission as 2nd Lieutenant. He was immediately ordered to duty as a flight instructor. It was an assignment he desired but soon found boring. Rising in rank, “Major Righetti . . . is in charge of one-half of the pursuit pilot instructions at the 'War College of the Air.' ” And author Stout noted that “when Righetti graduated from flight training he was one of 1,849 student pilots under instruction. By mid-1943, the USAAF had 114,448 student pilots under instruction.”

Busy as he was, Elwyn found time to court and wed. Her name was Edith Cathryn Davis and she went by the name of “Cathryn” or “Kakie” or “Kaki.” It's unclear who offered this assessment: [She] was beautiful. Large , bright eyes dominated a symetrical, heart-shaped face. Her smile was lively and ready, and it showed pretty, white teeth. It was all framed by thick brown hair, streaked through with flashes of auburn.” He was 25, she was 18.

In due course, an equally beautiful daughter came into their lives. They named her 'Kyne.” The love within the family was echoed in their correspondence. (Among the excellent photographs in VANISHED HEROis one of Cathryn and, when assign his own aircraft, KATYDID was painted on the sid.” Lieutenant Colonel Righetti was determined to be posted for combat duty and managed some flight time in both the P-47 Thunderbolt and the P-51 Mustang.

In preparation for the Normandy invasion, the Ninth (Tactical) Fighter Command was reassigned from North Africa. The leader, Brigadier General Elwood “Pete' Quesada, had developed tactical air support for ground forces in the North African campaign. On arriving in England, Quesada was amazed to learn that of the fighters flowing into England, The P-51s were assigned to the Ninth for tactical operations and the P-47s to the Eighth for escourt duty.

“That's plain stupid,” General Quesada is reported to have declared and a switch was made for a reason noted by Stout:””The P-51 was especially susceptible to gunfire [as were all liquid cooled engines.]” “That the P-51 had such a poor reputation as a ground strafer was in due part to the fact that it was so often compared to its contemporary, the P-47. The big and heavily gunned {eight 50s] 'Jug' was powered by the air-cooled Pratt & Whitney R-2800 radial engine that was spectacularly rugged, and capable of absorbing extreme levels of punishment.”

When directed to withdraw from escort duty and engage in strafing attacks, many Mustang pilots proved reluctant noting the vulnerability of their liquid-cooled engines. The Eighth Air Force Fighter command offered an inducement by declaring aircraft destroyed on the ground were given equal credit as those destroyed in aerial combat. “This is not to say,'” Strout explains, “that these official credits counted towards qualification as an 'ace,' as this was not an official designation. . .an ace was a pilot that had been credited with five or more aerial victories.”

Lieutenant Colonel Righetti finally achieved combat duty in October 1944 . By the end of October 1944, he had been assigned to the 55th Fighter Group of the Eighth Air Force flying P-51 Mustangs. A Lieutenant Colonel with no combat experience coming into a squadron of the 55th created a problem. The path to integrate Righetti into the 55th was largely his own and was methodical and practical. Initially, he wanted to fly combat as a wingman. 'If I am to make a good fighter [group] commanding officer,' he wrote, 'I do want to know how my boys operate.'”

Righetti was a quick learner. He was given command of the 338th Squadron on November 25, 1944 and in mid-February 1945 he wrote home, “This afternoon word came that our group CO was being taken off operations and that in a week or ten days I would start functioning permanently as C.O.” (He officially took command on February 22nd.) Later he would write, This will be the largest job I've had in the Army thus far.” And indeed it was; in charge—and responsible-- for all aspects of the 55th, “units numbering just less than two thousand men.” “He was a good leader,” wrote one pilot, “and had our deepest respect.” Another later declared,” I think the 55th [under Righetti] was the most aggressive and successful outfit the last three months of the war.” (Following being reported as “Missing in Action (MIA) Righetti was promoted to full colonel and awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, both a testament to his talent as fighter pilot and Group leader.)

In addition to producing an excellent biography of a true American hero, historian Jay Stout had added details of related facts that should be appreciated by readers new to the history of air power evolving during World War II. Such as:

● German leaders, not expecting a long war, experienced a dearth of trained pilots;

● The poor performance of the P-38 fighter attributed to engine failures;

● The importance of efficient mail service from and to service men and women;

● The development of the K-14 gyroscope gunsight that gave American fighter pilots an edge in aerial combat.

VANISHED HEROthe biography of an American hero is well-researched, well-written, very informative and often very touching. It is a worthy contribution to an understanding of the application of air power in the Second World War.

Don't miss it.

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