Navy Captain Richard Schaffert was born on a farm in Nebraska. He received a scholarship to the University of Nebraska, and enrolled in ROTC; but after graduation, became a county extension agent and played semi-pro baseball. On a train trip to California to join a minor league team, he saw a billboard about the Blue Angels and decided to become a Navy Pilot. Although he had never been in an airplane, Schaffert was to become a distinguished Naval Aviator.
He entered flight training in 1956. After qualifying aboard the USS Saipan, he flew F-6 Hellcats at Guantanamo Bay, F-11 Tigers off the USS Intrepid, and F-8 Crusaders off the USS Shangri La in the Mediterranean before transferring to the USS Oriskany and Vietnam. By June 1966, he was on Yankee Station flying missions into Vietnam. When an ammunition storage locker exploded near his stateroom, Schaffert narrowly escaped the fire, which killed his roommate and 44 others who were mostly Air Wing Pilots. After Oriskany was repaired, he was back on Yankee Station from 1967 to 1968. During an escort mission, he had a solo engagement against four MiG-17s and two MiG-21s. The History Channel’s Dog Fighter documentary series featured the 10-minute engagement as The Last Gunfighter. It ended in a draw, but one of the MiG-17s was shot down by another Crusader pilot as he was exiting the fight. During the 16 months of Rolling Thunder that Oriskany was on Yankee Station, 58 of her 72 assigned pilots were killed in action, 11 became POWs, and 5 are still missing. The wing’s 65 assigned combat aircraft were hit by enemy fire on 238 occasions, and 69 were shot down.
After transitioning to F-4 Phantoms and instructing at Top Gun, Schaffert returned to combat, serving two tours on the USS Constellation as Squadron Executive Officer in 1972 and Commanding Officer in 1973. He flew 236 combat missions and was decorated 35 times, including three awards of the Distinguished Flying Cross “with the Grace of Almighty God.” In all that time, his plane was never hit by enemy fire.
Schaffert later served in the office of Secretaries of Defense Schlesinger, Brown, and Rumsfeld, at the U.S. Embassy in the Philippines, and then as Director of Policy Studies at NATO Military Headquarters in Belgium. He retired in 1983, following 27 years of service. He, his deceased Navy Petty Officer son, his surviving Marine Corps son, and his two Navy Corpsmen grandchildren served a combine total of 87 years of active duty in America’s military. CAPT Schaffert often reflects back on his years in Vietnam by saying; “In Vietnam we fought for each other. We knew we had to do the job right the first time, or someone would have to go back and do it again.”