LEGACIES OF WWII: Near-centenarian flew in World War II, Korea War
About the event that happened to him on January 14, 1952, Fort Wayne’s Ralph Reighter wrote in his journal: “Left a.m. Crashed.”
Born in 1918, Reighter had developed a fascination with aviation, which was then in its early stages, as a young boy, making models from kits. Later, he paid for lessons at Baer Field (later renamed Smith Field) on Fort Wayne’s north side, while working as a carpenter and in a factory for 35 cents an hour.
In April 1942, the 1936 North Side High School graduate enlisted in the Army. With his affinity for flying, he was assigned to the Army Air Corps, graduating as a pilot in February 1943. Reighter attended Rankin Aeronautical Academy in California and was assigned as an instructor at Luke Field in Arizona.
By the time World War II ended, Reighter had recorded 2,050 hours of flight time.
After the war, he worked in the family’s carpentry business and as a flight Instructor at Smith Field, earning $7 an hour.
He joined the Air Force Reserves and when the Korean War began, was called back for duty in 1952. P-51s had been Reighter’s favorite planes to fly during World War II. In Korea, he was assigned reconnaissance duties in the same plane which had been re-designated as F51s. The single-pilot aircrafts were equipped with cameras. “We wanted our pilots to be familiar with landmarks like drones to help pilots know the terrain and surroundings,” he said. “The F51s were not designed as observation planes, but they worked well for that in Korea.”
During his 74th flight on that fateful day in January 1952, Reighter had flown approximately 15 miles into enemy territory when he detected a convoy of North Koreans. “I had to make a decision,” he said. “I chose to take pictures instead of calling an air strike. I was hunting for trouble.”
That decision led to Reighter’s plane being detected by the enemy which proceeded to shoot at him with antiaircraft fire. One of the plane’s wheels was pierced and Reighter turned the plane toward the base. He was then forced to make another decision — should he try to land the plane or bail? “I didn’t think bailing was a good option,” he said.
He managed to control the plane until it reached the base. It was flying 140 miles per hour when it hit the ground and the plane bounced wildly, jamming into a bunker full of artillery shells before coming to a stop in front of a crowd of witnesses. The interference with the bunker kept Reighter and his aircraft from striking a nearby Red Cross tent.
When helped out of the plane, which was heavily damaged by area personnel, Reighter walked away, happy for a safe landing. “If I had landed in North Korea, I would have been taken prisoner,” he said.
Reighter resumed flying the next day in a different plane, not suffering from flashbacks or fear of a similar disaster occurring. After 100 missions, he was released from duty and discharged.
Back in the U.S., Reighter joined an Air National Guard squadron. By the time he was discharged in 1957, he had logged 3,500 flight hours.
“When I went on Honor Flight of Northeast Indiana in 2014, it was the first time I had flown in a jet,” he said.
In 1943 Ralph married Thelma Johnson of Fort Wayne. They became parents to two sons, one of whom served in Vietnam.
“When I made those model airplanes as a child, I had flying on my mind,” said Reighter. “I always felt lucky.”
Ralph Reighter was not the only one in his family to serve in the military. His brother Robert, who lives in Fort Wayne, was in the Air Force during Korea and later in the Air National Guard in Fort Wayne. Other brothers were involved in various branches. Photo displays of the Reighter family in their uniforms, along with other troops from the Fort Wayne area, are posted at Kari’s Cozy Nook on Dupont Road. “I think our parents were proud of us,” said Robert Reighter.
Note: A video of Reighter’s crash in Korea became available to him a decade ago.