The story of Capt. Richard Chorlins, a Jewish war hero from St. Louis

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Richard D. Chorlins on the ladder of a U.S. Air Force jet.

Jordan Palmer, Chief Digital Content Officer

As visitors wind through the new 4,500-square-foot exhibit, “Vietnam: At War & At Home,” they may stop at a small, encased display focusing on the United States Air Force. Included in this display are a Distinguished Flying Cross medal set and a photograph of the pilot who earned it, Captain Richard Chorlins.

But what many may not know, or possibly have forgotten is that Capt. Chorlins is a Jewish St. Louis war hero.

Captain Richard Chorlins

Richard David Chorlins was born on July 16, 1945, in University City. He graduated from U. City High School in 1963 and went on to the U.S. Air Force Academy. He graduated from the academy in 1967 with a bachelor’s degree in economics. He made the superintendent’s list for five semesters and the dean’s list for academic achievement for seven of his eight semesters at the academy.

According to the Air Force, in 1970, then-1st Lt. Chorlins was assigned to the 602nd Special Operations Squadron at Nakhon Phanom, Thailand. On Jan. 11, his A-1H Skyraider was struck by ground fire and crashed into a mountain during a night mission over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. Chorlins’ death was officially confirmed on Jan. 13, and he was posthumously promoted to captain on Jan. 14.

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Because his flight was part of secret American missions over Laos, Chorlins’ remains were not returned to the United States until 2003. It took another decade to confirm they were his.

“Richard Chorlins story is somewhat typical for many Vietnam-era Missing-In-Action servicemembers,” said Mike Venso, the military and firearms curator at the Missouri History Museum. “It often took years to finally confirm identities of remains that frequently took months or years to recover after the individual was listed as missing.”

When his remains were identified in 2013, it would take another two years before he could be buried. His family posted his obituary in the St. Louis Jewish Light on April 3, 2015. Chorlins was to be buried in the USAFA Cemetery in Colorado Springs.

“Six academy pallbearers carried a wooden casket shrouded with an American flag as they marched under a cloudless sky Tuesday morning,” reported Stephen Hobbs on April 15th for the Colorado Gazette. “They took seven steps, paused and took seven more steps. The ritual was repeated until the processional had halted seven times on its way to the resting place for Capt. Richard David Chorlins in a Jewish burial custom to express grief and prolong saying goodbye.”

Dennis Cooper, who graduated from University City High School with Chorlins in 1963, attended the funeral in 2015.

Now an ophthalmologist in Scottsdale, Ariz., Cooper said he rescheduled his patients’ appointments so he could honor his high school acquaintance.

“For 45 years we’ve wondered what happened to Richard,” Cooper said. “I’m so glad he’s back.”

More honors for Chorlins

Chorlins’ sacrifice has been honored across the United States. His name appears on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington (Panel 14W, Line 25) and on the Air Force Academy’s War Memorial.

Each year during pre-graduation festivities at the Air Force Academy, the Outstanding Cadet in Behavioral Sciences and Leadership Award is presented in memory of Capt. Chorlins. This award is sponsored by the National Ladies Auxiliary and the Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America, Inc.

Inside The Exhibit

The Distinguished Flying Cross medal was donated to the Missouri History Museum by CPT. Chorlins’ sister Toby Keane. Keane donated it along with a number of other artifacts and all have been on display for many years in the Reflections Gallery.

“Currently, you can see his Distinguished Flying Cross medal set and a photograph (reproduction) of Richard by one of his planes.  In the coming months, we will be rotating more medals as well as a service cap, garrison/flight cap, and his “party” flight suit into the exhibit,” said Venso.

Soldiers Memorial Military Museum is open Wednesday through Sunday, 10:00 am to 5:00 pm. Admission to Soldiers Memorial and ‘Vietnam: At War & At Home is freeVietnam: At War & At Home is open through May 27, 2024.