Former Vietnam POW Gaither ‘stood tall’ in captivity

Dozens attended a funeral service at Barrancas National Cemetery (BNC) onboard Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola May 16 for retired Cmdr. Ralph Ellis Gaither Jr., a naval aviator well-known in the Pensacola community as a Vietnam veteran and Prisoner of War (POW) who had exemplified defiance while in enemy hands.

Gaither, 77, was a resident of Gulf Breeze, Florida. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, he passed away May 7 in the company of his loved ones. NAS Pensacola squadron VT-86 provided a flyover at the service with two T-45C aircraft, one of which peeled off in a missing-man salute to the decorated pilot.

Gaither enlisted in the U.S. Navy in September 1962. During boot camp he was asked to consider the Navy Aviation Cadet Program, and since he held a flying license – acquired at age 17 – he soon found himself in flight training in Pensacola.

Preflight and cadet training followed; flights in the Beechcraft T-34 Mentor and later in the North American T-28 at NAS Whiting Field, that he soon mastered. Moving on to Carrier Qualification Squadron VT-5, he completed training aboard the USS Lexington (CVA 16) in May 1964. Jet schooling followed at Chase Field in Texas where Gaither flew the Grumman F-9 Cougar and F-11 Tiger; he was designated a naval aviator Oct. 16, 1964.

In San Diego, California, as part of Replacement Air Group VF-121, Gaither qualified in the F-4B Phantom II and reported to VF-84, the Jolly Rogers, for combat assignment.

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