Patton, Ralph K.

Ralph K. Patton

Aug. 16, 1920 – Jan. 31, 2011

By Linda Wilson Fuoco, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Wilkinsburg native Ralph K. Patton had successfully bombed a German fighter base on his ninth mission on Jan. 5, 1944, as a B-17 pilot in World War II when he was shot down over France.

Mr. Patton and surviving members of his crew parachuted into the Brittany peninsula. They were rescued and sheltered for the next 2 1/2 months by members of the French resistance who helped them evade capture by the Nazis. The British Military Intelligence Service picked up Mr. Patton and other downed fliers and took them to England.

Mr. Patton made multiple trips to France to find and thank the people who had helped him. It became his mission to make sure the world never forgot their bravery.

In 1964, he became co-founder of Air Forces Escape and Evasion Society. Members were American and Canadian air forces who “had evaded capture behind enemy lines for 30 days or more.”

The organization recognizes people who helped pilots and their crew who were shot down in France, Belgium and Holland.

Mr. Patton died Jan. 31 at his home in Bethesda, Md., from complications of Parkinson’s disease. He was 90.

Mr. Patton graduated from Wilkinsburg High School in 1938. He worked at Pittsburgh Coal Co. while taking accounting classes at night at the University of Pittsburgh. He enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1942 and served as a B-17 pilot with the 331st Squadron of the 94th Bomb Group, 8th Air Force stationed in southern England.

He returned to the United States in April 1944 and traveled to Memphis, Tenn., where a woman he had dated while in high school, Bette Lou Hopkins, was serving in the women’s naval reserve WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). On May 1, 1944, the couple married, beginning their 66 years together. Mr. Patton returned to civilian life in October 1945 as a manager for Consolidation Coal Co. in Pittsburgh.

The couple had two children and moved with his jobs to Buffalo and Detroit before moving to Mt. Lebanon in 1976. He retired in April 1983 as vice president of eastern sales for Consolidation Coal, which was then a subsidiary of the DuPont Co. In 2001, the couple moved to Maryland to be close to their son and his family.

Mr. Patton was president of AFEES for 27 years until 1991, when he became chairman of the board.

The society now has more than 680 members.