A Veterans Day salute to the life and times of a local soldier
Every soldier has a beginning; a life before the call to service. This is the story of Don Richardson’s first 20 years, his growing up and his coming of age. He describes his youth spent in Jamestown, learning the values that he would be called to defend and to represent as a member of the U.S. Army occupying postwar Japan.
Richardson comes from hardy Jamestown stock. On his father’s side, Don can trace his family’s roots to his grandfather’s arrival from Sweden in the 1860s. On his maternal side, Don says that his mother’s family, the Caswells, came from England to Jamestown in the 1700s.
Don explained that at the time he was born – Nov. 5, 1928 – birthing often happened in island homes or at the Bates Sanitarium, an island health facility that contained a small medical clinic. “The ferry didn’t run past 6:30 p.m.,” he said.
As the middle child, Richardson has an older brother, Victor, who is a photographer for the Jamestown Press, and a younger sister, Dorothy, also of Jamestown.
His father, Alfred, owned a gas station and automobile repair shop that had three locations in the 40 years that it was in operation. First built on the waterside of Conanicus Avenue in 1922, the station was destroyed in the 1938 hurricane. Don recalls standing in knee-deep water as the hurricane gathered strength and his father told him go home to their house on 54 Howland Ave.
The 1938 hurricane was an extraordinary event – along with property damages, lives of Jamestowners were also lost in the tragedy. Don recalls that the hurricane’s waves washed a stalled-out school bus at Mackerel Cove into Sheffield Cove. He said that he and his buddy, John Moll, walked up the beach from Sheffield Cove all the way to Watson Farm looking for the undiscovered bodies of the seven victims.
He remembers the hurricane’s complete destruction of the 10- year-old bathing house at Mackerel Cove that included a popular dance hall and restaurant.
Don’s brother Victor spent the night of the hurricane away from the family, at the Hotel Viking. Roger’s High officials sent high school students from Jamestown to the Viking during the hurricane for their safety.
According to Don, his mother was, at some point, the rural postal carrier for the entire island and during the winter months sometimes delivered the mail on a horsedrawn sleigh.
“We always had a car, [although] not a new one,” Don said. He remembers the Sunday drives with his mother around the island, where he and his siblings would jump in the car and ride out to Beavertail and up to the north end of the island.
On those Sunday drives Don saw the “New York Boats,” steamers like the Commonwealth; big passenger boats that ferried people from New York to Providence and Fall River.
Because there were no clothing stores in Jamestown, Fall River and Newport meant shopping for the Richardson kids. Don described taking the ferry to Newport and the trolley to Fall River.
“Everything was right there, the Boston Store and the five and dime.” Don said, after he crossed the bay by ferry and walked up the street from the dock.
As for life in Jamestown, Richardson described it as “wonderful. Swimming at the town beach or East Ferry, or going down to the West Ferry and looking for plates on cars that had traveled the greatest distances.”
There were, of course, organized sports like baseball, football and basketball, but Don remembers lots of time spent playing games with marbles and jackknifes.
Ice-skating in the winter was possible on three ponds: Clark’s Pond, Spark’s Pond and the North End Pond. Other winter activities included sledding on Howland Avenue near his house, on Cole Street or by the Dumplings.
Don said that he and his friend used to go down to the West Ferry and jump into the ferry’s wake. They would get brushed back by the engines thrust and ended up under the dock as a result. “No one ever tried to stop us.”
Much of the time that Don spent on the water, he rowed his skiff; sometimes he would row down to the Dumplings and around Fort Wetherill.
In the days before World War II, Don would row out to the battle ships where naval personnel who were just paid would toss nickels and dimes into his boat.
He would spend hours in his small boat, including watching sailors paint a ship’s hull as they stood on scaffolding that would hang from the ship’s deck. At the end of the day, Don said, he would sometimes pick up the sailors who had reached the bottom of the scaffolding and row them around to the gangway.
Don recalls special events like when the postmaster, Sam Smith, greeted “the first-and-only air-mail delivery” to Jamestown. According to Don, the mail arrived in an open cockpit bi-plane landing in a field near the now defunct Beavertail Golf Course.
He also remembers when the Hindenburg crossed the southern tip of the island in a cross Atlantic flight sometime before its demise in Lakehurst, N.J. in 1937.
Don went to the Palace Theatre in Jamestown, now a multibusiness mall, to see every movie that came out, but he especially enjoyed westerns. He added that every movie was accompanied by a newsreel, mostly reporting on the progress of the war in Europe and in the Pacific.
“Growing up in Jamestown was the best,” he said.
In 1946, at the age of 18, Richardson headed off to Fort Bragg in North Carolina for Army basic training.
The war had ended only months before, but the occupation of Japan and the subsequent rebuilding of the war-torn nation required an immediate infusion of newly trained U.S. soldiers.
As the troop ship General Hughes carried Richardson and fellow Jamestowner Raymond Matoes across the Pacific, a typhoon moved through the western Pacific. Broken seas made for anxious times and word began to pass among the troops that a ship, only 100 miles ahead of the Hughes, had broken in half. Richardson recalls with a wry smile that Matoes didn’t eat during the typhoon, even though when they were on the calm water around Jamestown, they were always eating.
Seeing no need to waste food, Don said that he used Ray’s chow card. “[I] went in line twice.”
Richardson recounted Ray’s return flight to Honolulu on his way back to Jamestown. The plane, in route from Japan to Hawaii, lost power before the runway, landing in waste deep water, according to Richardson. He added that Matoes and the others walked ashore – disaster averted.
Stories of friendship and camaraderie form a stark contrast with Richardson’s description of life on the Japanese Islands for the two years he served there.
Arriving in Yokohama and eventually Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Richardson recalls the images of clearly defined train tracks making their way through piles of rubble where cities once stood.
In Kumamoto he said that he saw the distinct pattern of destruction left by the bombs of the B-29s that had previously dropped on the city.
When trains carrying U.S. soldiers would stop, Japanese citizens would approach the soldiers with woefully devalued Japanese currency seeking to buy whatever the soldiers had.
Don returned to Jamestown in 1948, a 20-year-old former infantry soldier who had seen a different side of world, both literally and figuratively
In many ways his life was just beginning, four years following his return to Jamestown he would marry, build a house, and begin a family with his wife Louise.
The stories of a life well lived since 1948 must be left for another time.
On this Veterans Day, let the story of Don Richardson’s growing up and coming of age remind us of what this island means to so many and let his story serve as a living tribute to values of family, friends, honor and duty.
On this Veterans Day, let Don’s story be a salute to all Jamestown veterans.
Information for this article was gathered in conjunction with the JHS oral history project.