LEWISBURG — When an ace World War II fighter pilot went missing in April 1946 in the rugged, mountainous area of Leetonia, north of Slate Run, it was seven months before the wreckage — and remains — were found by bear hunters.
Seventy-three years later, it’s the mission of veteran Rick Bressler to see that the legacy of Capt. Lawrence John Ritter, who lost his life in the crash, is not forgotten.
Bressler has spent more than a year researching Ritter’s story, and the more he’s learned, the more he’s contributed to the legacy of the fallen hero.
The result is the documentary film, “Fallen, Not Forgotten: The Life of Captain Lawrence John Ritter.” It will be shown at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, May 4, at The Campus Theatre, 413 Market St. Doors open at 1 p.m. and Bressler will speak about the film prior and host a question-and-answer session following.
There is no admission; however, donations will be accepted.
“I was never a history guy,” admitted Bressler, an Army veteran and student at Lock Haven University. “It’s now a passion I never knew I had.”
Work into Ritter’s history began for Bressler while employed at the VA Benefits Center in Lock Haven, where Dave Bower, supervisor, learned of the story from Randy Gillen, a friend.
“We knew nothing about the man,” Bressler said. “We didn’t know if there was any family, nothing.”
Ritter had been married only months to Eve when his plane went down on a training mission and he was declared missing.
Bressler’s research first led him to Ritter’s death certificate. Then he uncovered old news clippings.
“That’s how I learned he was an ace pilot,” Bressler said.
His research led him to several states and to Yonkers, New York, Ritter’s hometown. He learned Ritter was an exceptional athlete and that he’d won the 100-yard sprint at the Penn Relays. Ritter had been enrolled at Dartmouth College when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps.
As he continued to dig, he found Ritter’s niece, Janice Lariviere. She and her husband had a photo of Ritter hanging in their Cape Cod home, along with the flag that was presented to the family after his death.
She proved to be the only family left. Ritter’s wife, Eve, had remarried and died in 1987.
“Finding family was my greatest success,” Bressler said.
Ritter’s father was a world-renowned chemist and his mother’s family name was Dvorchak, famous for musical compositions, one of which is used in Ritter’s documentary. Lawrence had a younger brother, who served in the Navy, and a sister.
“The tragedy is she (the sister) is the only one to have children,” Bressler said. “There’s a lot of history with this family, but a lot of tragedy. There were a lot of early deaths in the family.”
Through Lariviere, Bressler uncovered a treasure trove of history, including some video footage shot by Ritter from his plane. There were some amazing photographs and personal letters, as well as a condolence letter to the family from President Harry Truman, and more.
“She found this box in her attic,” Bressler said. “It was from her grandmother — his mother.”
Ritter’s service during World War II was nothing short of remarkable. He flew with the 325th Fighter Group — the Checkertail Clan — 319th Squadron, and manned P-40 Warhawks and P-47 Thunderbolts in Europe and North Africa. He accumulated 152 combat flying hours and flew 55 missions. He earned ace status for shooting down no less than five enemy aircraft and was even credited for sinking a Nazi submarine.
When Ritter’s plane went down in April 1946, it was during a training mission from Michigan to New York. A freak late-season snowstorm was to blame.
“The crater is still there,” said Bressler, who led a memorial hike to the site in April 2018. “It went straight down.”
Bressler’s wife, Jamie, sang the National Anthem at the site and an honor guard was present for a ceremony at the memorial stone placed there in 2001 by Boy Scouts.
“It was 50 years before a memorial stone was placed at the site,” Bressler said.
Lariviere was also there for the ceremony, Bressler noted.
As he accumulated documents, photos, video footage and more, Bressler started a Facebook page dedicated to Ritter and a YouTube channel “American Heroes.”
“That’s how the documentary got started,” Bressler said of the YouTube channel. “What can I do to make sure he’s not forgotten? It made me angry... he was left alone in the mountains.
“Every minute of that film I tried to in one way or another represent him and his family ... to honor what he went through.”
Bressler is completing a book about Ritter under the same name as the documentary and hopes to have it completed in time for the May screening in Lewisburg.
His “American Heroes” YouTube channel is also host to other veterans’ stories, something Bressler plans to continue beyond the Ritter project.