U.S. Air Force
Air Force Cross
April 20, 1967
By the time 1st Lieutenant Karl Wendell Richter lifted off in his F-105 Thunderchief from the runway at Khorat Royal Thai Air Force Base on April 20, 1967, he was already a bona fide hero. Holder of several decorations for bravery, youngest pilot to shoot down a MiG over Southeast Asia and veteran of some 175 combat missions, Richter was widely considered by his peers to be among the most experienced, capable and aggressive fighter pilots in the U.S. Air Force. And he was just 24.
Born in Holly, Mich., on Oct. 4, 1942, Richter only discovered his passion for flying after graduating from high school. A self-confessed mediocre student, he was casting about for some sort of career when his sister, Betty May—a flying enthusiast—recommended he apply to the U.S. Air Force Academy. Richter did so and, much to his own surprise, was accepted. Though he didn’t excel at academics, he came to love the academy and the Air Force and was determined to become a fighter pilot. Upon his graduation in June 1964 he started on the road to that goal by winning assignment to flight school, where he proved a natural pilot. He polished his skills during advanced training in the F-105 and put those skills to the test within days of arriving in Southeast Asia in early April 1966.
Flying with the 421st Tactical Fighter Squadron of the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing out of Khorat, Richter quickly showed himself to be an exceptional combat pilot. Within a few months he was named an element leader, and thereafter was routinely tapped to introduce far more senior officers to the rigors of flying “Downtown”—to Hanoi, Haiphong and other heavily defended targets in North Vietnam. Though normally tasked with defense-suppression and ground-attack missions, on Sept. 21, 1966, Richter used his “Thud’s” internal 20mm cannon to down one of two MiG-17s that had attacked the lead pair in his four-plane element.
But the greatest achievement of his career was yet to come.
Richter’s mission that April day in 1967 was to lead his flight of F-105s against anti-aircraft artillery and surface-to-air missile sites protecting an important North Vietnamese railroad facility. Once they had suppressed the defenses, successive waves of U.S. fighter bombers would pound the rail hub. But when Richter and his flight arrived in the designated target area, they found it shrouded by clouds that completely hid both ground reference points and, more important, the enemy defenses.
Demonstrating what his commander later called “great professional skill and undaunted determination,” Richter led his flight in repeated attacks on the enemy defenses. Braving concentrated heavy-caliber gunfire and multiple SAMs, the F-105 pilots used 750-pound bombs and 20mm cannon fire to destroy several of the sites and heavily damage others. When the aircraft of the main strike group arrived, they encountered only light enemy fire and were able to completely destroy the target.
Richter’s commander recommended the young pilot for the Air Force Cross —the service’s second highest award for valor in combat—for his actions that day. Sadly, by the time higher headquarters had approved the decoration, Richter was dead. On July 28, 1967, during a relatively easy mission—Richter’s 198th, by most counts —enemy anti-aircraft fire struck his F-105. Though the young pilot successfully ejected from his crippled aircraft, the wind dragged his parachute across a ridge of jagged karst outcrops. When a rescue helicopter arrived, its crew found Richter severely injured and unconscious; he died en route to a hospital.
In addition to the Air Force Cross, Richter also held the Silver Star, four Distinguished Flying Crosses, the Bronze Star, 21 Air Medals and the Purple Heart. In 1969 the Air Force Academy posthumously awarded him the Jabara Award for Airmanship, and in tribute to his professionalism and dedication, both the academy and Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., home of the USAF Air University, erected statues of Richter in full flight gear.
Originally published in the July 2011 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.