Charles Rhinehart - 1st Lieutenant
- Distinguished Flying Cross
- Air Medal with V (for valor) (Somalia)
- Purple Heart
- Korean Service Medal
We are grateful to Charles’ brother, Wally, and his younger sister, Marilyn, for sharing their memories of their oldest brother – and to Keith Barnes, Charles’ best friend from college.
Charles Walter Rhinehart was born on July 6, 1928 to Leo and Mabel Rhinehart in Brooklyn, Iowa. He was the second child in the family that was to grow to six children: Opal, the oldest, then Charles, two more boys, Jim and Wally, then ten years later another girl, Marilyn and 3 years after that, Janet.
The family farmed and kept several hogs and about 20 milk cows. Mr. Rhinehart always expected his kids to get home after school to help with chores and so Charles was never able to squeeze in high school sports and activities. Charles would help with the milking and brother Jim took care of the hogs. Being the youngest, Wally got to help Mrs. Rhinehart with the chickens.
One of the Rhinehart’s neighbors, Dale Griffith, was just back from service in World War II. He had flown P-47s and like many veterans, bought a J-3 Piper Cub and started a training school. That school lasted long enough to get Charles’s dad and his two uncles infected with the flying bug. The three got their private pilot's licenses and went together to buy a Piper Cub. Eventually, Charles and his brothers Jim and Wally also became interested in flying.
Charles - who was always called that and only occasionally “Charlie” - was a good student and a hard worker. To earn money to go to college, Wally recalled that Charles worked for other farmers in the area, driving a tractor doing field work among other things and helping his neighbor bale hay.
Charles graduated from Brooklyn High School in 1946.
He went to Iowa State for one year - from Fall Quarter 1947 through Fall Quarter 1948 - four terms. He followed his interest in flight and majored in Aerospace Engineering. It’s likely that he spent some time with his uncle, Wayne Rhinehart, who was an Iowa State alumnus and by then, an Iowa State employee.
Charles’ best buddy at college was Keith Barnes from the Milwaukee area. Keith said, “Charles and I started at ISU in the fall of 1947 in Aeronautical Engineering and wound up with exactly duplicate schedules. Every class I attended, I would look around and there was Charles. We became acquainted and rapidly became friends."
Keith would come home with Charles from time to time. Keith was an only child and enjoyed being around Charles' parents and many siblings and is still a special part of the Rhinehart family. The threat of the draft influenced Keith's decision to join the Army.
Charles' decision to go into the Air Force was more financial than fear of the draft, and he wanted to fly. He had the flying bug and got his student permit in June 1949 and his private pilot’s license in September 1950.
Wally recalled, “I remember one time when all three of us boys were home at the same time - I think it was May 1951. Dad and Jim flew one Piper, and Charles and I were in one rented from the Grinnell airport. We flew formation to Brooklyn then flew back to Grinnell. The picture of Charles, Jim and me was taken at that time.“
During his training at Randolph Air Force Base in Texas, Charles flew the T-6. He got his jet training at Williams AFB in Arizona where he flew T-33s and F-80s. He got into F-86s at George AFB, Victorville, California where he was a pilot in the 94th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, 5th Air Force.
Charles’ youngest sibling, Marilyn, sent this memory, “At age ten, I worshipped my big brother, Charles. He was a PILOT in the Air Force at "exotic" places in Arizona and California. I remember spending hours making meticulous drawings of his plane, the F-86. He regularly wrote letters to the family, but what I really loved were the ones he wrote just to me. Among other things, we shared opinions on what songs were on the Saturday night radio broadcast, Hit Parade. I still treasure a locket and an F-80 pin he gave me.”
A Squadron buddy, Frank Meyer recalled this story, “Charles had the nickname “Peaches” due to the fact that his facial hair was like peach fuzz. I was in Aviation Cadet class 50C and Charles was in class 50D and his classmates gave him the nickname. As cadets, we were required to shave daily but Charles really didn't need to. When we were ready to march to breakfast we were inspected by an officer. Charles was asked if he had shaved - to which he replied "NO SIR." He was “gigged” for not shaving and the officer gave him 10 gigs. For each gig you had to walk the parade ground for one hour. Next morning when Charles was asked if he shaved he replied YES SIR. He went through the motion of shaving but didn't use a blade.”
Frank further remembered, “We had a favorite restaurant in Victorville and it was also a favorite of movie stars. One time we had a beer before going into the dining area and as we were enjoying the beer a man sitting next to us said 'bartender - bring these boys another beer and put it on my tab,' It was Jimmy Durante - from that other Brooklyn in New York!
Lee J. Cobb entered later and Jimmy introduced us to him.
Our group’s Commanding Officer was Colonel Robin Olds (a legend to Air Force fighter pilots). His wife was Ella Raines, the famous actress. Col. Olds was a party boy and each Friday all officers and wives were to be present at the Officer's Club. The only pilots excused were the ones on alert.”
While he was stationed at George AFB, Charles met his future wife, Beth Demedenko. Charles and Beth were married about a week before Charles left for Korea. Frank Meyer said, “My wife and I were in Camp Stoneman, California, the replacement center and joined "Peaches" and his wife for dinner many times.”
Charles achieved the rank of first lieutenant and was assigned to Korea in August 1951.
His old friend Keith said, “I decided to quit school and follow his path, but the pilot training program was closed at that time. Given the choice of services, the army had the shortest enlistment term of three years, so that's the one I picked. [Charles and I] continued to write letters after he left for service.
Our letters were a little late with all the address changes. I shipped out of Seattle for a 17 day luxury cruise to Yokohama, then traveled by train to Sasebo, took a boat to Pusan and then a train up to Seoul. Charles, on the other hand, flew over to Korea leaving two weeks after I did, and he got there a week ahead of me. He was stationed at Kimpo Air Base just across the Hahn River from Seoul. He was flying the F80 on close support missions. They decided to move the unit down to Suwon as they were losing too many planes trying to get over the mountain at the end of the runway while carrying everything but the kitchen sink. Charles flew from there a while and then transferred to the F86's, flying fighter interceptor work over the Yalu River.
I wound up in the 38th Ordinance Co in Seoul, Korea. One day the Sgt of the Guard came in and said somebody wanted to see me out at the gate. I went out and there stood Charles. We got to visit back and forth a few times. He was in the 16th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, 51st Fighter Bomber Group. He flew the F-80, bombing, strafing and launching rockets. He got in about 65 missions in the F-80 then flew some 20 missions in the F-86E Sabrejet, which he liked better. He was in the 4th Fighter Wing. Their mission was intercepting unidentified aircraft.”
The North American F-86 Sabre was one of the most successful jet fighters of all time. It was the scourge of communist pilots in the Korean War and the first swept-wing fighter to fly for the US. It had been under development since 1944 and went into service in February 1949. When the Sabres arrived in Korea to meet the threat of Russian MiGs, the enemy never knew what hit them.
Good as they were, the F-86's engines were notorious losing oil at high altitudes. When flying combat, the crews would climb as high as possible in order to take the advantage in any potential battle.
On a mission, four F-86’s would fly in formation. When the enemy was sighted, the flight leader and the number 2 jet would separate from numbers 3 and 4, with the number 3 becoming the lead for number 4. If the trailing jet was losing oil, it would not have been noticed.
Charles’ last mission was on January 29, 1952 over what American flyers called MIG ALLEY.
When the North Koreans began their war against South Korea on June 25, 1950, they had a small, out-of-date air force of World War II, propeller-driven Soviet aircraft - flown by under-trained and inexperienced pilots. Once the United States committed its air power to the war, this force was rapidly depleted.
For several months, U.S. F-80 Shooting Star and F-84 Thunderjet fighters, B-29 Superfortress bombers and Navy and Marine aircraft roamed the skies over North Korea virtually at will while the North Koreans and their Soviet and Communist Chinese allies argued behind the scenes over the best course of counter-action.
By October 1950, the Soviet Union agreed to provide air regiments equipped with high performance MiG-15 fighters, along with the trained crews to fly them, as well as planes and training for North Korean pilots. For many years, the participation of Soviet aircrews in the Korean War was widely suspected by the United Nations forces, but consistently denied. Their aircraft were adorned with North Korean or Chinese markings and pilots wore either North Korean uniforms or civilian clothes.
"MIG Alley" was the name given by U.S. Air Force pilots to the northwestern portion of North Korea, where the Yalu River empties into the Yellow Sea.
Under the rules of engagement, US pilots could not follow aircraft into Chinese air space unless in “hot pursuit." Russian pilots flying for N. Korea could not fly over UN-held territory or within 30 to 50 miles of the allied front, nor could they pursue US aircraft over the US-controlled Yellow Sea. These restrictions narrowed the acceptable range for engaging in air combat to the narrow “MiG Alley."
Because it was the site of the first large-scale jet-vs-jet air battles, MIG Alley is considered the birthplace of jet fighter combat.
On January 29, 1952, Charles took off on a mission over MiG Alley. During that flight, his engine froze due to a loss of oil. He headed for the west coast of North Korea and ejected over the water of the Yalu Sea.
He was initially listed as missing in action. Then, in 1993, Charles’ name appeared on a list entitled "the transfer of U.S. Korean War Prisoners of War to the Soviet Union.”
The conclusion is that he may have been captured by North Koreans after bailing out and turned over to the Russians for interrogation since he flew the "hot" F-86. Stalin wanted to know why so many MIG 15s were being shot down while the F-86 losses were very low. It is assumed that captured pilots and crews were sent to Russian gulags where they were worked to death. He was listed as presumed dead on February 28, 1954.
Buddy Frank Meyer stated, “Peaches Rhinehart was a special friend of mine. It brings tears to me every time I think of Charles. He was a wonderful man and very much liked by all.”
Sister Marilyn said, “When he was lost, my eleven-year-old mind could not understand that he would not be found and come home. Thirty-some years later when I touched his name at the MIA memorial wall at Punchbowl Crater in Honolulu, I tearfully honored his sacrifice. He will always be my hero.”
Friend Keith said, “I have become a part of the Rhinehart family by mutual adoption and will always have my memories of the good times Charles and I had together. I could readily see Christ in him. I was [at the base in Korea] the day that he didn't return. It's a strong comfort to me knowing that I will see him again.”
Charles was awarded the Purple Heart, Air Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross and the Korean War Service Medal.
In addition to the memorial in Hawaii, he is remembered on a bronze plaque next to his parent's graves in the Brooklyn Cemetery and on the National Aviation and Space Exploration Wall of Honor at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.