Jay A. Stout, author of Vanished Hero, has written a thoughtful and moving guest post for us in honor of Elwyn G. Righetti’s birthday—and the day he disappeared.
Elwyn G. Righetti was perhaps the most aggressive fighter group commander to serve in World War II. Today, April 17, 2017, marks what would have been his 102nd birthday. It also marks 72 years since his 30th birthday—the last day he was seen alive. The cause of his mysterious disappearance has never been determined.
My wife and I were hosted by the Righetti family at a debut event for Vanished Hero in San Luis Obispo, California, his hometown. I was somewhat surprised that, more than seven decades later, there were tears and choked voices by many who remembered Elwyn’s spirit and love of life. It was made very clear to me as I met his family—his daughter, a sister, and various nephews, nieces and cousins—that the loss of such a warmly intelligent, dynamic and colorful man left holes and hurt that have not healed. They likely never will.
Of course, as would be natural, I considered the Righettis and wondered how their lives would have been different had he survived. Would there have been more children? What of the children that were later born to his widowed wife? Would he have returned to the family ranch? And how would his homecoming have changed the family dynamic? Is it possible that he would have gone on to do great things not only in military service, but on the national stage?
And then it occurred to me that these are the same sorts of questions with which many American families wrestled in the decades following the war. Indeed, the shock and hurt and anger at Righetti’s death, and all this same sort of wondering, was undertaken by more than four hundred thousand American families. Worldwide, the numbers were staggering. The Soviet Union alone suffered more than 26 million military and civilian deaths.
Our minds, quite frankly, are not equipped to empathize with hurt and loss on this sort of scale. But the numbers do set us to wondering, again. How would the world be different today had the more than fifty million who perished during the war survived? It is cliché to question how many Einsteins and Salks and Hemingways were killed before their time. But it is a legitimate cliché. It is also legitimate to wonder how many monsters—Hitlers and Green River Killers—were also removed from this world.
Notwithstanding the gruesome human waste it produced, there was a dirty, little, silver lining to the war that is seldom discussed. As the various belligerents raced to create more efficient ways to kill each other, they also made advances that led to a better world. Progress in medicine—penicillin chief among them—increased the survival rates of the wounded and ailing. Food production was made more efficient. Manufacturing practices were improved, and women were put into the workforce on a massive scale with effects that still reverberate across the globe. The jet engine, which effectively shrank the world, was introduced, and robotics and computers matured into useful—albeit relatively primitive—tools. And, of course, the terrific power of the atom was unlocked.
Closer to home, America’s servicemen were exposed to training, discipline and cultures that changed them forever—as did the horrors that many of them endured. Postwar and specific to the United States, access to higher education through the GI Bill was key to the nation’s dominance in the world that followed the war. “Had there been no war,” recalled one successful engineer, “I would have just stayed on the farm with Dad and Mom.” Many millions more would have done the same.
In fact, as awful as it was, the modernization of the world was accelerated by the war. This is hardly a justification, but it would be naïve and wrong to declare that good things did not come from it.
There are no lessons here beyond the obvious. I offer no tidy summations or pithy closing commentary. Righetti and the more than fifty million men, women and children that were killed during World War II are still dead. And, so many years later, the effects—bad and good—are impactful at both personal and practical levels in ways that most of us don’t even consider.
We do however consider the obvious badness of the war. Doing so is important and, as noted by Bertolt Brecht, part of our nature: “The human race tends to remember the abuses to which it has been subjected rather than the endearments. What’s left of kisses? Wounds, however, leave scars.”
A hell-bent-for-leather fighter pilot, Elwyn G. Righetti remains one of the most unknown, yet compelling, colorful and controversial commanders of World War II. Vanished Hero tells the story of this remarkable man and the air war that he and his comrades fought, while examining his possible fate.
Arriving late to the war, he led the England-based 55th Fighter Group against the Nazis during the closing months of the fight with a no-holds-barred aggressiveness that transformed the group from a middling organization into a headline-grabbing team that had to make excuses to no one. Indeed, Righetti’s boldness paid off as he quickly achieved ace status and additionally scored more strafing victories—27—than any other Eighth Air Force pilot.
However, success came at a high cost in men and machines. Some of Righetti’s pilots resented him as a Johnny-come-lately intent on winning a sack of medals at their expense. But most lauded their spirited new commander and his sledgehammer audacity. Indeed, he made his men most famous for “loco busting,” as they put more than six hundred enemy locomotives out of commission—170 in just two days!
Ultimately, Righetti’s calculated recklessness ran full speed into the odds. His aircraft was hit while strafing an enemy airfield only four days before the 55th flew its last mission. Almost farcically aggressive to the end, he coaxed his crippled fighter through one more firing pass before making a successful crash landing. Immediately, he radioed his men that he was fine and asked that they reassure his family. Righetti was never heard from again.