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, 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, Lt. j.g. 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.”
Schechter, snapping out of semi-consciousness, did just that.
Over the next 45 minutes, the temporarily blinded Schechter followed one calm instruction after another from Thayer, his best friend on the aircraft carrier Valley Forge. Severely wounded, Schechter finally managed a safe landing on a remote Army dirt strip. Thayer flew beside him, just feet away.
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, Kenneth 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 Schechter was in a group of pilots ordered to bomb rail and truck lines. Flying at 1,200 feet, he 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, Schechter leveled his plane. He dumped his canteen over his head and, for a moment, saw his controls through a red-rimmed veil. But then – nothing.
“Get me down, Howie,” he moaned. “Get me down.”
Thayer guided his stricken friend toward the waters off Wonsan, where, he hoped, U.S. destroyers would pick him up.
But Schechter refused to bail out. On his second mission in Korea, he had seen his wingman, Lt. Cmdr. 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,” 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 Schechter would make it.
Schechter was weakening. Thayer, close enough to see his friend’s head slumping, 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. 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 OK. You’re over the runway. Twenty feet. Kill it a little. You’re setting down. OK, OK, OK. Cut!”
Thayer flew back to the Valley Forge, where sailors who had heard the tense transmission mobbed him with congratulations. Schechter was flown to the hospital ship Consolation and then military hospitals in Pusan, Korea, and San Diego.
He left the Navy months later but his final flight became famous. A 1954 film, “Men of the Fighting Lady,” dished up the incident with Hollywood license.
In his mid-60s, 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.
“That first letter was heartbreaking,” Schechter said in the 1995 Times interview. “It was a cold letter – like, don’t bother me.”
With aid from then-U.S. Rep. Carlos Moorhead, R-Calif., Schechter was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross on board the aircraft carrier Constellation in San Diego.
Schechter is survived by his wife, Sue, whom he married in 1955; daughter, Anne Buckley; sons Rob and Jonathan; and seven grandchildren.
Thayer, who was best man at the Schechters’ wedding, died in 1961. Then a lieutenant colonel, 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.