Author, “Once Upon a Time in War”
On March 14, 1945, Charlie Company was advancing toward the Wied River in the Rhine bridgehead. The company spent the night on a high ridge not far from the village of Steinshardt. In the morning, as the first platoon came upon two wooden hunting lodges, the Germans unleashed a terrifying artillery barrage.
Oakley Honey and two others jumped in a covered foxhole dug by the Germans. Lying there, Honey heard what sounded like a chicken squawking. Looking out, he spotted Staff Sgt. Richard Richards down on all fours with his jaw missing and blood gushing out.
Oakley ran back and told Fred Tate, the medic, that Dick was in bad shape. Tate led Richards back to one building and told him to sit down and press his fingers behind his jaw against the arteries to stop the bleeding. Where there used to be jaw there was only a big hole. Half his tongue had been sliced off and his teeth were gone.
An aid man helped walk Richards back down the hill toward the Rhine. Luckily they intercepted a jeep carrying two wounded GIs, and placed Richards in the jeep, which motored across the Rhine on a pontoon bridge and raced to a field hospital. There the doctor knocked him out and when Richards finally awoke, his head and faced were heavily bandaged. Then they shipped Richards across the Channel to England where he underwent the first of many operations.
Given the seriousness of the injury, he was flown to New York where his wife Betty and dad arrived to see the shocking sight. Richards was subsequently transferred to Valley Forge general Hospital in Phoenixville, PA, where a surgeon reconstructed a new jaw from two ribs. It took a long time for the pieces to graft on to what remained of his jaw.
Richards would spend two years and seven months in that hospital, though he would sometimes hitchhike home to Easton, PA, with his head wrapped in bandages – he would write down his destination for the drivers.
Since he could not move his jaw or chew, for the first year he was fed through a tube in his nose, and he could not talk, which worried his wife, Betty. It took a year and a half before he attempted to say words and even then it was difficult for others to understand him. Since the teeth were missing, he could never again eat solid food. Betty later told him it took her the longest time to accept what had happened to him but that ‘she was going to help me however she could.”
After receiving a medical discharge in 1947, Richards worked as a crane operator for a gas-cylinder manufacturer, finally retiring in 1979. His loyal, loving wife Betty died in August 2009, after 67 years of marriage and five children.
Richards is not resentful or angry over what the random violence of war had done to him. “I always felt that I went to do a job, and I got hurt trying to do it, and I was lucky I didn’t end up like the guys that got killed.”
(Interview with Oakley Honey and journalist David Venditta’s recent interview with Richards in his Easton PA home.)