By Ken Newton | News-Press Now
In a time of war, even places that look peaceful carry risk. Bob Richards would learn this in a way that haunts him at times.
A soldier in the 6th Armored Division in World War II, Richards and his comrades found what they thought to be a quiet sector to stay for a time. He dug a nice foxhole.
The area turned out to be near a heavily armed German airfield, the cannons soon trained on the American position. Richards ran to his foxhole, only to find it occupied by two other soldiers. So he ducked under his half-track vehicle.
The armored vehicle took a hit, the shell blowing off its radiator and front wheels. The concussion knocked off Richard’s helmet, and he went scrambling to retrieve it. After his outfit’s artillery neutralized the German guns, he walked back to his foxhole.
“Both of those fellows in my foxhole were killed,” Richards said. “That and Buchenwald are the only two things that sometimes bug me.”
Few who served in the 6th Armored in 1945 can leave that memory on the battlefield. Seventy-four years ago today, this division of the Gen. George Patton-led Third Army liberated the Nazi concentration camp in central Germany.
“Some people say there was no Holocaust. I was there, and I smelled it. I know there was,” Richards said.
On the couch of his home in Albany, Missouri, the 99-year-old Army veteran picks through a box of memorabilia from his military years. Some of the photographs are of recent vintage: Two weeks ago, he went to Jefferson City to be honored by Gov. Mike Parson and members of the General Assembly.
Older black-and-white pictures show Richards in fatigues standing beside a half-track and with the “Rabbit Ridge Boys,” a group of locals who went through their military service together and survived World War II intact.
“I knew those guys since we wore diapers,” he said. “We grew up together, went swimming together, went fishing together, played ball. We were pretty close.”
Growing up on a Gentry County farm, Richards went to Crab Orchard School before going to New Hampton High School, the latter a 12-mile round trip on horseback. “When it was below zero,” he said, “it didn’t have any heat on that saddle.”
During the Great Depression, it occurred to him and his buddies that joining the National Guard would be a way to make a little money. It paid $1 for every drill day, or $4 a month.
“My folks weren’t too happy about it, because I was a good hand on the farm,” he said.
On a Sunday in 1941, he was scouting for an apartment. Richards planned to marry a girl he had been dating for several years, Lola V. Gillespie. News came that afternoon, though, about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Fourteen days later, they would be married in a minister’s home. They would be husband and wife for 72 years. Lola died in 2013.
Richards became a federalized soldier at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, and he also would train in Florida, Arkansas and California. One day, he boarded a train looking at the Pacific Ocean. At the end of those rails, he stared at the Atlantic.
The ship that took him and fellow soldiers to Scotland remained under construction as it sailed, so rapid was the military buildup. He would train in Great Britain until his unit crossed the English Channel 10 days after D-Day.
In the hedgerow fighting of western France, the artillerymen survived at first on their wits. Edward Manring of Albany, whose late father, Gordon, had been one of the Rabbit Ridge Boys, heard stories about those first days in the European Theater.
“They had no combat experience. The first day out, the first sergeant, who they all respected, got killed,” he said, noting that each day would dawn with fields of dead cattle. “They were shooting at noise.”
Patton became known for his aggressive style, and the troops in his command advanced constantly. This meant Richards’ 128th Field Artillery arrived in the Ardennes in December 1944 low on food and ammunition and with many of its vehicles stuck.
“I spent my birthday, our anniversary, Christmas and New Year’s in Bastogne,” the veteran said of his participation in the Battle of the Bulge.
After the discovery of Buchenwald, with its tens of thousands of deaths at this one concentration camp, Richards’ outfit remained in the area as the German army breathed its last. He resided in a pup tent in a pasture outside Weimar, Germany, when he learned the war in Europe had ended on May 8, 1945.
Manring said that none of the Gentry County men who served in Europe glorified themselves in the decades that followed the war.
“A lot of these guys were the adults when I was growing. Not one of them ever mentioned Buchenwald,” he said. “I finally pried it out of my dad 50 years later. It was a subject that was just not talked about.”
Richards would return from war to takes jobs at Quaker Oats and MFA in St. Joseph before moving to civil service jobs in Kansas and Alabama and finally to a cargo operations job at an Air Force base in Oklahoma.
When he retired, he returned to Northwest Missouri.
The Bronze Star recipient talks more about the war than he did in earlier years, but he does so with a veteran’s modesty about what he helped accomplish in his 20s.
“It was just a job that had to get done,” he said. “We were at the right age to do it.”