Kenneth Schechter, Navy pilot who made blind landing during Korean War, dies at 83

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Howard Thayer’s rank was lieutenant colonel. He was a lieutenant commander.

December 25, 2013

The stunned Navy pilot was gripped in pain, blood was pouring down his face, and a good part of his warplane was destroyed.

But worst of all, Ensign Kenneth Schechter couldn’t see. An enemy shell had smashed into his Skyraider, and fragments pierced his eyes. Hurtling over the Korean coast at 200 mph, Mr. Schechter was suddenly enveloped in blackness.

“I’m blind! For God’s sake, help me!” he cried into his radio. “I’m blind!”

Even before the anguished call, another Navy pilot, Howard Thayer, knew something was wrong. One of the planes in his formation was inexplicably climbing toward a thick cloud bank at 10,000 feet, where it could easily disappear.

Thayer called out: “Plane in trouble, rock your wings. Plane in trouble, rock your wings.”


Kenneth Schechter, who received belated military honors after Korean War heroics, in 1995. (Casey, Kevin P./Los Angeles Times)

Mr. Schechter, snapping out of semi-consciousness, did just that.

Over the next 45 minutes, the temporarily blinded Mr. Schechter followed one calm instruction after another from Thayer, who flew beside him, just feet away. Severely wounded, Mr. Schechter finally managed a safe landing on a remote Army dirt strip.

Mr. Schechter, who permanently lost the use of his right eye and whose skills and courage during the Korean War were finally recognized by the Navy with a Distinguished Flying Cross in 1995, died Dec. 11 in Fairfield, Calif. He was 83.

He had prostate cancer, his son Rob Schechter said.

After his military service, Mr. Schechter became an insurance agent in the Los Angeles area. He also was active in Republican politics and a leader in various local causes.

But the event that defined much of his life occurred when he was 22 years old and on his 27th combat mission over Korea.

It was March 22, 1952, and Mr. Schechter was in a group of pilots ordered to bomb rail and truck lines. Flying at 1,200 feet, his plane was hit.

“Instinctively, I pulled back on the stick to gain altitude,” he wrote in an account for the 2001 book “Chicken Soup for the Veteran’s Soul.” “When I came to, sometime later, I couldn’t see a thing. . . . I felt for my upper lip. It was almost severed from the rest of my face.”

As Thayer gave step-by-step instructions, Mr. Schechter leveled his plane. He dumped his canteen over his head and, for a moment, saw his controls through a red-rimmed veil. Then nothing.

Thayer guided his stricken friend toward the waters off Wonsan, where, he hoped, U.S. destroyers would pick him up.

But Mr. Schechter refused to bail out. On his second mission in Korea, he had seen his wingman, Tom Pugh, leap into the same waters. Pugh drowned before help reached him.

“Jump out in that icy water blind? You’d have to be insane,” Mr. Schechter said in a 1995 Los Angeles Times interview.

Thayer didn’t argue. But the nearest air base was 30 miles away, and he didn’t think Mr. Schechter would make it.

Thayer, close enough to see his friend’s head slumping in the cockpit, looked around desperately for a field, a rice paddy, any place flat. Then he remembered the Jersey Bounce, a rutted strip that had been used by reconnaissance planes.

“Schechter, for all his loss of blood, handled his plane beautifully,” a writer for the Saturday Evening Post recounted in 1954. “Spare energy and strength came from some reservoir God stores up for wounded men to draw on when a final, desperate effort is needed.”

Approaching the trip’s most difficult maneuver, Thayer told Schechter to lower his wheels.

“The hell with that!” Schechter barked, figuring a belly landing would be safer than slamming onto uneven ground with his wheels down.

Thayer remained unflappable.

“We’re heading straight,” he intoned. “Hundred yards to runway. You’re 50 feet off the ground. You’re level. You’re okay. You’re over the runway. Twenty feet. Kill it a little. You’re setting down. Okay, okay, okay. Cut!”

Thayer flew back to the Valley Forge, the aircraft carrier on which they were based. Sailors who had heard the tense transmission mobbed him with congratulations.

Mr. Schechter was flown to a hospital ship and then military hospitals in Korea and San Diego. He left the Navy months later.

His final flight became famous. A 1954 film, “Men of the Fighting Lady,” dished up the incident with Hollywood license, making jets of the men’s prop planes and staging Mr. Schechter’s landing as a flaming wreck back on his carrier.

The son of European immigrants in the garment trade, Kenneth Schechter was born in New York on Jan. 30, 1930, and grew up in Los Angeles.

He attended the University of California at Los Angeles for two years before his Navy duty and later received a bachelor’s degree from Stanford University and a master’s degree from Harvard Business School.

In his mid-60s, Mr. Schechter asked Navy officials what had happened to paperwork that was filed decades earlier to support the issuance of medals. It was never received, he was told.

With aid from then-U.S. Rep. Carlos Moorhead (R-Calif.), Mr. Schechter was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross on board the aircraft carrier Constellation in San Diego.

Survivors include his wife of 58 years, Sue Schechter; three children; and seven grandchildren.

Thayer, who was best man at the Schechters’ wedding, died in 1961. Then a lieutenant commander, he crashed into the Mediterranean while guiding a fellow pilot whose plane’s electrical system had failed. Neither man’s remains were found.

Thayer received a Distinguished Flying Cross posthumously in 2009.

— Los Angeles Times

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