Carlin’s Ghost Rider Fighter Pilot

Richard Perry’s legacy honored at National Naval Aviation Museum

By Dianna Troyer, Photo by Sarah Spratling

Carlin Casualties To honor Carlin veterans who died in combat, a plaque was placed at the Carlin Combined School’s library last fall. The plaque lists Carlin’s casualties of war: Brigido Gonzalez, Richard Perry, Sterling P. Johnson and Britt Simpkins. Former history teacher Lou Polizzi said he organized the project because he thought the four needed to be remembered for the ultimate sacrifice they gave to their country. 

Ruth Young holds a photo of her brother, Navy pilot Lt. Cmdr. Richard “Dick” Clark Perry, who died in combat 50 years ago in Vietnam. Photo by Sarah Spratling
Ruth Young holds a photo of her brother, Navy pilot Lt. Cmdr. Richard “Dick” Clark Perry, who died in combat 50 years ago in Vietnam. Photo by Sarah Spratling

As she puts flowers on relatives’ graves for Memorial Day, Carlin resident Ruth Young reminisces about her late brother, Richard “Dick” Clark Perry, who died in combat 50 years ago.

“Our park is named for him, and so is the administration building at the Naval Air Station in Fallon,” she says of her brother, who was born in Carlin August 9, 1932, to Clark and Eva Perry.

Last fall, Ruth learned how Dick touched so many lives as a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War. She heard stories about Dick, a lieutenant commander, when she attended a dedication ceremony at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida, in September.

An A-4 Skyhawk—the type of jet Dick flew in Vietnam—was dedicated as a permanent museum exhibit. The plane is emblazoned with his name and the name “Lady Jessie.”

Members of his attack squadron, the VA-164, known as the Ghost Riders for their stealth, planned their reunion to coincide with the ceremony. They honored Dick and his friend, Reno casino owner Jessie Beck, who sent bountiful care packages to Dick and others aboard the aircraft carrier, the USS Oriskany.

“They passed around a CD with 15 minutes of stories about Dick and Jessie,” Ruth says. “Their stories and the exhibit keep his memory alive.

He was two years older than me, so he’d be 85 if he was still alive.” Dick’s son, Steve, who also attended the ceremony, says keeping in touch with his father’s friends over the years “helped me understand who my father was. I was only 7 when he died. The Ghost Riders are men of valor and passion. I can’t speak highly enough of them.”

The Ghost Riders told how Jessie’s care packages boosted their morale during the unpopular war. To express his gratitude, Dick had the name Lady Jessie painted on his plane.

“Dick was like a son to her,” says Ruth. After graduating from Carlin High School in 1950, Dick studied geology at the University of Nevada-Reno and worked part-time at Jessie’s keno business.

“He wanted to be a pilot, so he joined the Navy and earned his flight wings in 1957,” says Ruth. “When Jessie learned he went to Vietnam, she sent care packages. Even after his plane was shot down, she kept on sending packages and provided servicemen with free lodging and meals at her casino.”

In appreciation, the Oriskany crew launched a tradition. During each cruise, the commanding officer’s plane was named the Lady Jessie until the squadron was disestablished in 1975. A friend of Dick’s, Don Purdy, wrote a poem, “Batman and the Gambling Grandma” to pay tribute to the duo.

Ruth says Dick’s pilot friends described him as good-natured and a natural leader who encouraged those around him.

“Once there was a fire on the ship, and he led men through the smoke to safety,” she says. “Another time, his plane was damaged during a mission, yet he was able to land it at night on another carrier.”

Dick died a few weeks after celebrating his 35th birthday when a North Vietnamese surface-to-air missile exploded under his plane August 31, 1967. He flew his ruptured plane over the Gulf of Tonkin and parachuted into the water.

“A helicopter was dispatched with a rescue swimmer aboard,” recalls John C. Davis II, a fellow pilot. “When the swimmer reached Dick, he was confirmed killed in action. Then shore batteries opened fire. It was too risky to continue, so we had to leave Dick to the sea. Eventually, local fishermen recovered his body and buried him.”

John describes Dick “as an unforgettable man full of verve, vigor, vitality, and an uncommonly huge bunch of love for family, friends, flying and life itself.”

To honor Dick, Carlin’s town leaders put up a bronze plaque at the park, which they named the Richard C. Perry Memorial Park, in 1968.

Dick was listed as missing in action until the fall of 1986. An American delegation exhumed the remains of soldiers in North Vietnam and returned them to the United States. In February 1987, Dick’s identity was confirmed at a forensic lab in Hawaii. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery on April 24, 1987.

“We had a ceremony for him there, which gave us closure,” says Ruth. When Dick’s wife, Margot, died in 2010, she was buried with him in Arlington.

“They met each other through friends when he was stationed at Moffett Federal Airfield in Northern California, and she worked nearby,” says Ruth. To honor Dick and all Carlin veterans, more than 100 flags are flown at the town cemetery during Memorial Day weekend. Ruth thinks Dick would be pleased.

“He always loved Carlin, the military and his country,” she says. “He was known for bragging about Carlin and the state of Nevada.”