General Boyd, a former F-105 pilot, recipient of the Air Force Cross, and for nearly seven years a POW in North Vietnam, could have elected to memorialize one of the many distinguished generals whose careers are associated with Maxwell AFB. Instead he chose twenty-four-year old 1st Lt. Karl W. Richter, whose extraordinary courage, commitment, and determination to excel would be an inspiration to the thousands of young Air Force people who pass through the Air University each year.
Why Lieutenant Richter?
During his years at the Air Force Academy, Karl Richter's overarching goal was to become a fighter pilot in Southeast Asia. After graduating in 1964, he completed pilot school and operational training in the F-105 "Thud." Declining leave, he flew his fighter-bomber directly to Thailand to join the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing and then-Captain Boyd at Korat RTAFB in April 1966.
F-105 pilots who flew "Downtown" into North Vietnam's Route Package One to attack the most heavily defended targets in the history of air warfare were judged by their contemporaries against four standards: courage, skill, aggressiveness, and eagerness for combat. Lieutenant Richter entered this deadly game with enthusiasm and disregard for his own safety. He soon became a flight leader, volunteering for the most hazardous missions. He believed his most important contribution, next to destroying enemy targets, was to pass along his growing knowledge of tactics to newly assigned pilots.
The F-105 was designed in the 1950s for low-level delivery of nuclear weapons, not for air-to-air combat with the enemy's maneuverable MiGs. Nevertheless, Thud pilots often had to defend themselves against attacking fighters. On Sept. 21, 1966, Lieutenant Richter used the tremendous firepower and speed of his F-105 to become one of the first Thud pilots--and the youngest--to shoot down a MiG-17.
At the time of his tour with the 388th, 43 percent of F-105 pilots were either killed or declared missing in action before completing 100 missions in the North. As he approached the 100-mission mark, Lieutenant Richter asked permission to fly a second 100 missions. He believed his combat experience should be used to advance the war effort.
That experience paid off handsomely on April 20, 1967. Richter led a defense-suppression flight of F-105s through weather that obscured navigation references and into intense enemy fire. His flight destroyed or pinned down enemy AAA and SAM crews, enabling the strike force to eliminate an important railroad target. Lieutenant Richter, who had already won the Silver Star, was awarded the Air Force Cross for his skill and heroism that day.
Karl Richter's total commitment was reflected in the goals he set. After completing his second F-105 tour in the North, he hoped to fly F-100s on in-country missions, then serve as a forward air controller, covering the spectrum of tactical air combat. He doubtless would have fulfilled his plan if fate had not intervened.
On July 28, 1967, after completing his second 100 missions, Lieutenant Richter was checking out a newly assigned pilot. He took his aircraft down on a bridge, instructing the new wingman to stay aloft and observe. His aircraft disabled by flak, he had to punch out over very rough country studded with sharp pinnacles of karst (uneven limestone). The wingman saw a good chute, and an Air Rescue Service force heard Richter's beeper, but when they located him, he was near death from multiple injuries probably caused by striking a karst formation. He died aboard the rescue helicopter.
A history of the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing notes that among those who did not come back from the North was the wing's commander, Col. Edward Burdett. Significantly, his name is followed by that of 1st Lt. Karl W. Richter, "a name that has become an inspiration to those who fly 'Downtown.' "
The statue of Karl Richter was unveiled at Maxwell AFB on June 13, 1992. An inscription from the prophet Isaiah at its base reads: "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Here am I. Send me." These words epitomize Karl Richter's spirit of commitment--a spirit that underlies the Air Force tradition of valor in the service of this nation. It will inspire those who follow him, as it did his comrades who flew Downtown.
Published December 1992. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.
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Memorial Day is a time to remember all those who died fighting for their country, just like A1C William Pitsenbarger, an Air Force pararescueman who took part in more than 250 rescue missions before he was killed at the age of 21. His selflessness and valor in the Vietnam War earned him an Air Force Cross and, eventually, a Medal of Honor.
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