Honoring a true hero

  • Published
  • By Airman Hrair H. Palyan
  • 28th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
It was 1953. Nikita Khrushchev became First Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. Egypt declared itself a republic and President Harry S. Truman announced the United States had developed a hydrogen bomb.

It was also the year that a 13-year-old boy in South Dakota found out his father wasn't coming home.

"I remember that day as if it were yesterday," said John Ellsworth, son of the late Brig. Gen. Richard E. Ellsworth. "I had a paper route with the Rapid City Journal and I had just returned to our quarters on base. My mother met me at the door and I knew without her telling me that something was wrong."

Ellsworth was killed along with 21 other men on board an RB-36 Peacemaker assigned to the 28th Strategic Recon Wing that crashed without survivors on a remote island March 18, 1953. The general and his crew were on their way back to Rapid City Air Force Base from Lages Field in the Azores Mountains of Portugal where 11 other RB-36s from Rapid City were participating in simulated combat missions.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke on June 13, 1953, during a dedication ceremony renaming the base a mere three months after a horrific crash in Newfoundland.

"We are met here in tribute to a gallant and patriotic American, a man whose name will always be an honor to the members of his family and to this air base," Eisenhower said. "It is my very great honor to dedicate this base in honor of Brig. Gen. Richard E. Ellsworth."

During World War II, Ellsworth served in Alaska, on the staff of the Air Weather Service in Washington, D.C., and in the southwest Pacific. He was awarded battle stars from his actions during eight different campaigns, and had logged nearly 800 hours of combat flying time.

Ellsworth's unique leadership qualities were noticed and appreciated by his peers and subordinates. He focused on his Airmen and wanted to get to know everyone working under him.

"Many times when we were working on aircraft on the flightline he would come by in a staff car. He would stop and talk with you, and even hand you a wrench if he could," said Bob Bartlett in the book "RB-36 Days at Rapid City," written by John Welch. "General Ellsworth was a highly respected officer and the men would follow him anywhere. I took great pride in knowing him and serving under him."

John Ellsworth said he saw the level of respect toward his father one day on a bus ride from the base to Rapid City, when he was 13 years old. It became one of the most enduring memories of his father's legacy.

"I don't know how it happened, but one of the Airmen on the bus found out who I was and I confirmed that yes, I was General Ellsworth's son," John said. 'Well,' he said, 'if you turn out to be half the man your father was, you will be alright."

John let that Airman's advice serve as a guide to how he wanted to lead his life.

"Although the trajectory of my life was not what I imagined when I was young, his influence on my life was very great for as long as I can remember," John added. "Because he went to West Point I had it my mind that I would do the same. However, when the Air Force Academy came along I thought it made more sense that if I was going into the Air Force that the academy was a better choice. After graduation I flew KC-135s for five years at Barksdale AFB, La."

Reflecting back through his life, to his memories of his father, John finds details fading with the passage of time. However, the legacy his father left at the base, which now bears his name remains strong.

Hundreds of thousands of military members and their families have called Ellsworth home. While the missions and landscape of the installation have changed to meet the needs of the nation's defense, many things have remained constant - the stellar commitment, dedication and professionalism of the Air Force's finest - the standard set by those 70 years ago.