The "world's greatest fighter pilot" has flown his last mission.
Word arrived this week that Ray Matera, who loved nothing more than to be called a fighter pilot, has passed away at the age of 94. While he experienced health problems the past couple of years, he will long be remembered for his vigorous leadership as Wisconsin's adjutant general from 1979 to 1989, a time in which the Wisconsin Guard was rebuilt into a modern, well-equipped military force — "the tops in the country," he'd insist.
I had the good fortune to serve under Maj. Gen. Matera for 10 of the 26 years I was in the Guard. Fact is, though, those of us in the Army Guard weren't so sure about him at first. He was, after all, the first non-Army adjutant general in Wisconsin Guard history. Besides, the Army Guard represented three-fourths of the Wisconsin Guard, the Air Guard the rest.
Matera wasn't a "ground pounder" like we Army people. He had spent his early military days with the Marines as an aerial gunner during World War II and when the war was over joined the newly created U.S. Air Force as a flight commander, a post that soon took him to Madison's Truax Field. After he was discharged he joined the local Air Guard here, but quickly was activated again to fly fighter jets in yet another war, Korea.
He came back and rejoined the Air Guard as a part-timer, quickly rising through the ranks and winding up a major general. Despite all that Air Force background, it didn't take long for the Army staff at the Department of Military Affairs to warm to him and his leadership style.
When Matera took command, the Army Guard was struggling with membership. It had only about 74 percent of authorized strength and had been threatened by the Pentagon with a loss of units if it couldn't get its strength up to snuff. Meanwhile, the Wisconsin units were deprived of new combat equipment and even access to funds to improve armories and other facilities.
But the general viewed this as a "Catch 22." He believed that what was really causing the problem wasn't the lack of recruiting new members, but the result of outdated equipment that thwarted meaningful training and subpar facilities that caused troops to quit rather than re-enlist
With Matera's great personality, his negotiating skills — or whatever it was — it wasn't long before the Pentagon was sending Wisconsin units new equipment and both the state and feds were coming up with money to build 18 new armories and remodel many others.
The Air Force adjutant general was helping the Army Guard get back to the top.
When Matera's five-year term was up in 1984, it was Democratic Gov. Tony Earl who picked him to serve another five years. This time, the troops he had nurtured — the Army personnel who once had doubts — were elated with the choice. Two years into his second term, the Wisconsin Army Guard was selected to take part in the biggest peacetime deployment in history.
The Guard's entire 32nd "Red Arrow Brigade," the successor to the famed 32nd Infantry Division, was chosen to move — lock, stock and barrel — across the Atlantic on ship and by convoy from Brussels to Grafenwoehr, Germany, to take part in the massive NATO exercise called REFORGER to test military readiness during the Cold War.
It was an experience like no other and who should be there when the brigade rolled into Bavaria? The "world's greatest fighter pilot" himself. He was always proud that the Wisconsin Guard lost no equipment and suffered no major injuries during the huge undertaking.
The "fighter pilot" nickname came mostly from himself. He regaled us with stories about his flying days, many of them hilariously funny. His sense of humor knew no bounds. He'd ask us if we thought our bodies could take the "Gs" as the fighter gained speed and then he'd threaten to take us Army guys up to see, no barf bags included.
After Matera retired in 1989, Gov. Tommy Thompson hired him do some public relations work for the Department of Transportation, soothing out problems the state may have caused a local government or with a citizen enraged because of a road project.
And after he stopped doing that he took an active role in the now-famous Honor Flight program and could be found in the crowds cheering on the vets returning from visiting the veterans memorials in Washington.
"You never want to just walk away from them," he remarked.
Nor do you ever want to walk away from a fighter pilot who later in his distinguished career helped mold an organization that gave his successors the model to keep the organization on top.
To me, Gen. Matera was one of the finest and most honest serviceman I had come to know. His family has decided to hold a graveside service with full military honors at 1 p.m. on May 24, 2019, at Resurrection Catholic Cemetery in Madison to say goodbye to one who was simply among the best.
Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org, 608-252-6410 and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.
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