The war veterans I interview are in their 80s and beyond, so you’d think I’d get used to losing them. Nearly half of the three dozen vets in my book War Stories: In Their Own Words have died, and that was in a period of 12 years.
But it doesn’t get any easier, and that point was driven home yet again over the weekend.
Dick Richards, a World War II vet I first met with early in 2010, died about 6 p.m. Saturday (Feb. 4, 2012) in Easton Hospital. He was 95. I got the word later that night in a phone call from Morris Metz, president of the Lehigh Valley Chapter of the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge, who had introduced me to Dick.
Dick’s longevity was all the more amazing when you consider what happened to him in the war. A soldier in the 99th Infantry Division, he crossed the Remagen bridge into Germany’s heartland in March 1945 and shortly afterward lost his jaw to an enemy shell. For two years and seven months, he was a patient at Valley Forge General Hospital, where doctors built him a new jaw. But they couldn’t give him teeth, so he could never again eat solid food.
For more than a year, Morris had politely pestered me about doing a story on Dick, and on a rainy spring day, March 29, 2010, took me to see him. Dick lived alone in the house he grew up in on Morgan Hill in Williams Township, with an orchard out back and a big, lovable dog name Ginger. His wife had died the year before. When Morris said I was there to do a story on him, Dick shot back, “My name’s not going to be in the paper, is it?” Morris laughed. I winced, concerned about whether he’d talk to me.
That didn’t turn out to be a problem. I ended up meeting with Dick many times, usually for two hours or so in the afternoons, with my digital recorder running. When the story was in shape to run in The Morning Call on Memorial Day, staff photographer Kevin Mingora shot nice portraits of Dick, who called Kevin “Mumbles” because he had trouble hearing him. Kevin still laughs about that.
Morris has told me that the story perked Dick up and boosted his pride. Here’s the link to it: http://www.mcall.com/news/all-dickrichards,0,6369554.story Dick started coming to Bulge vets luncheons, and I couldn’t keep him supplied with enough extra copies of his story to give to friends and family. Last October, after my War Stories book came out, he bought six copies for his children.
We continued to meet from time to time, just chatting in the afternoons in his living room. He liked to talk about growing vegetables and how much he enjoyed sharing them with friends, who always came back for more. One day he insisted I go home with some of his cucumbers.
In the summer of 2010, Morris, Bob Faro of the Lehigh Valley Military Affairs Council and I visited Dick on his 94th birthday, and I visited him on his 95th birthday last July.
A few weeks ago, Morris called me and said Dick had been moved to Manor Care nursing home in Easton and probably wouldn’t be going home. I went to see him on Jan. 23 and he chattered for an hour, just like old times. He seemed fine. But then a week later, he was admitted to the hospital, where he lay semi-conscious. When I called his room on Friday and spoke with his daughter Kathy, she said his condition was not good.
The next day was his last.
Dick had been a member of the Greatest Generation who had answered the call to arms and suffered a terrible, disfiguring wound, but said he would put on a uniform again if the nation needed him.
I’ve lost a friend who was the definition of courage. It hurts that he’s gone.