Island World War II veteran recalls his experience
Not every war hero has fired a weapon. Vic Richardson, 86, was unarmed for more than two years in Europe during World War II. The lifelong Jamestowner stacked dead bodies, witnessed shots fired from the barrel of a Nazi’s Karabiner 98 Kurz rifle, and trekked through the streets of Bastogne, Belgium, carrying injured American soldiers on stretchers during the Battle of the Bulge.
And never once did he aim a weapon at the enemy. As a combat medic, it simply wasn’t in his job description.
Born in Bates Sanitarium on Dec. 22, 1924, Richardson is the son of a mechanic and homemaker, Alfred and Edith Richardson. His father originally owned a garage on Conanicus Avenue, but the building was washed away during the Great Hurricane of 1938 and he was forced to take his business elsewhere.
Vic Richardson was the first of three children. He has a brother Don and sister Dorothy. As a youth, Richardson attended grade school in Jamestown and then enrolled in Rogers High School in Newport. When he was 18 and still in high school, he decided on the Army over academics.
“More or less,” he said, “I was failing in high school and told the draft board that I quit.”
As a private first class, Richardson traveled on four boats from four different nations to get across the Atlantic Ocean into England – first an English ship, then a Canadian one, then a French boat, and finally an American vessel. Working for the U.S. Army Medical Department, Richardson spent his first years abroad agonizing over the possibility that the Axis powers would resort to chemical warfare.
“During World War I, they used poisonous gas,” Richardson said. “So we thought they would use it again. We had gas treatment battalions. One of our main duties as medics was to be prepared for a poison attack. Of course, it never happened.”
From England, Richardson and his battalion moved south into Belgium. In December 1944, the American troops set up camp in Bastogne, but were soon surrounded by German forces.
According to the Geneva Convention, it was a war crime to maliciously fire at a medic who was wearing clear insignia. During World War II, American medics wore helmets with four red crosses, while Germans wore a vest with a red cross.
Even with the Geneva Convention in place, the order that Richardson was given was to stay alert. While in Bastogne, American military medical staff, including Richardson, set up inside a gymnasium to treat wounded Allied soldiers.
“The Germans wanted Bastogne very badly,” said Richardson. “Our battalion sent in Company A, which I was part of, and we went in with the 4th Armored Division and were the first ones in Bastogne. We set up a medical station in a gymnasium, but then we realized we were completely surrounded. It became likely that the Germans were going to bombard Bastogne and it’d hit the gym and we’d be worse off.”
The safety of the injured soldiers fell on the shoulders of the medics. They had to relocate the “wounded walking,” as Richardson called them, to a safe spot.
But there was a problem: “Even with the red crosses, the Germans would shoot at everything,” Richardson said. “We couldn’t move during the day.”
Richardson was one of the “litter bearers,” which is a medic who transports the injured soldiers on stretchers. Because of the German forces, the bearers had to sneak around out at night to move the patients.
“From sun down to sun up, we did nothing but carry patients out of there,” Richardson said. “I was 19, so I had plenty of strength and endurance.”
According to the company clerk the next day, 321 wounded Allied soldiers were taken out of harm’s way by Richardson and the other litter bearers and moved to a desolate farm house. A few days later, Gen. George Patton and the Third Army relieved the American forces in Bastogne.
“I was never scared,” Richardson said. “I was young and didn’t worry about those things.”
The Germans surrendered five months later following Adolf Hitler’s suicide, and the war in Europe came to an end, although there was still a conflict in Asia with Japan.
“It was great,” Richardson said, “until we met the Russians.”
One of the mysteries that occupies Richardson to this day is the treatment he and his company received from the Russians following the victory. Although the Soviet Union was an Allied state, he remembers clearly the disrespect from the Russians following the Axis surrender.
“The war was over and we had won,” he said. “We were going in from the west and the Russians were coming in from the east. We were in jeeps and saw the Russians and said, ‘Let’s go over and see them.’ We parked the jeep and walked down and they all turned around and faced the side of the road and wouldn’t talk to us.”
“I was part of a few rescue missions, but I wasn’t in combat all much” Richardson said humbly. “I was just doing my job.”
From 1943 and 1946, Richardson spent dozens of holidays in combat, including two birthdays at sea and one Christmas in Bastogne. On Monday, he will be able to spend a holiday in a more traditional fashion, with family and friends on the island he grew up on.