CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
Richard A. Ritchings
Richard Ritchings was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1920, and in December 1941 had his heart set on playing professional baseball. Ritchings had been the top baseball pitcher for both Westside High School and Saint Benedict’s Preparatory School in Newark, and baseball was all he was thinking about at the time the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7. The importance of baseball faded with the onset of war, however, and in early 1942 Ritchings joined the United States Army Air Corps for training as a fighter pilot. Although he could not foresee it at the time, his war would end in a “dark, damp and ugly” prisoner of war camp, “Stalag Luft One”, in Barth Germany.
Ritchings remembered that he was sitting on a couch with his fiancée and listening to the radio when he heard the news of the Pearl Harbor attack. He had been working as a truck driver, but decided to join the Air Corps because he felt he “… [didn’t] want to be fighting with bayonets.” He subsequently passed a test for a pilot training program at Randall Island NY, married his fiancée and then formally enlisted.
Ritchings’ first military assignment was at the pre-flight training school at Kelly Field in Texas. He described the school as “preparing you physically and mentally for the flying training you were going to be involved in.” He recalled learning aircraft recognition as well as running and hiking through the nearby woods to increase physical stamina. Upon completion of pre-flight school, Ritchings was transferred to flight school at Stamford, Texas.
The school at Stamford was a civilian run primary flight school, where pilot candidates trained on P-19 aircraft. Prior to arriving there, Ritchings had never flown; he recalled that the instructor on his first plane ride “did all kinds of weird things that actually frightened me.” He also discovered that “the airplane is not a left-handed piece of equipment.” Ritchings was left-handed and had to learn to fly a plane predominantly using his right hand.
After graduating at Stamford, Ritchings moved on to basic flight school at Randolph Field in Texas. At Randolph, he had some difficulty with the ground school subjects, and recalled that he was “…working very hard at it and relying on my classmates to beef me up, and I got through the basic flying school.” He had asked his wife to join him at Randolph, but by the time she arrived in San Antonio from New Jersey, he had been transferred to an advanced flight school at Moore Field in Mission, Texas, where they eventually rendezvoused. She returned home to New Jersey after his graduation in April, 1943, after which he was assigned to the Panama Canal Zone as a lieutenant to join the 28th Tactical Fighter Squadron, which was deployed to protect the Canal Zone. Ritchings considered his four months in Panama with the 28th as a sort of advanced training. Although the unit’s basic assignment was to intercept any planes approaching the Canal Zone, pilots also engaged in intensive practice target firing of their weapons, which was good training for future combat duty.
In the fall of 1943, Ritchings was ordered to North Africa, where he joined the 9th Air Force’s 52nd Fighter Wing at Casablanca, Morocco. He felt honored to fly with a unit that consisted of former “Flying Tiger” and other “AVG” (American Volunteer Group) pilots. After checking out in a British Spitfire fighter, “which I had never flown before,” he was re-assigned to the 57th Fighter Wing of the 5th Air Force, located on the island of Corsica in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of France.
The pilots of the 57th flew Spitfires, which Ritchings recalled as very light and fragile planes that were, however, far superior to any fighters the Americans fielded at that time and could outmaneuver any aircraft the German Luftwaffe flew. Ritchings said the Spitfire had a fuel capacity of only 87 Imperial gallons, so it couldn’t fly long distances. This fuel capacity did not matter when the plane was used by the Royal Air Force to win the Battle of Britain over the Germans, however. He mentioned there was not much to do on Corsica between missions, “so most everyone stayed on base.” He said that he wrote to his wife a lot but couldn’t tell her where he was stationed for security reasons.
Ritchings remembered that his squadron flew missions on a daily basis. These missions either involved escorting B-26 bombers on raids, or conducting “armed reconnaissance missions over Italy, that were really low altitude fire sweeps, [we]… shot everything that moved; they were very effective.”
Ritchings described a typical bomber escort mission for the interviewer: “We would strap ourselves into the cockpit around 6 or 7 in the morning, then sit and wait until the bombers formed up overhead at about ten thousand feet, and then we would take off and join up with them. We would fly cover at about five thousand feet above them to protect them. Once over the target, we would move to the side while the bombers completed their mission. It was kind of cruel. We watched them receive flak. A lot of them got shot up and shot down.” He said there was a huge German air base near Lake Como, and “we would be at a disadvantage, because the German planes were always above us. They would usually make a few sweeps through us and basically go away.” He remembers “shooting at some of the German planes that were on the ground, and some that were just taking off during one of our low altitude fire sweeps on their air base.” He recalled that “some of our guys were shot down by the German flak around their air base.”
Pilot morale was generally good, Ritchings remembered, but said that there were a few people who didn’t want to fly after a bit of action. “I guess they were shot at a few times and didn’t enjoy flying. I heard that one guy didn’t want to fly and took off separately and flew to Berlin and bailed out. I don’t know how true that was.” Ritchings described the mission that he was shot down on for the interviewer: “It was an armed reconnaissance mission. We would look for something, and then we would try to eliminate it. We headed inland over the coast of Italy and found a supply column of about 25 trucks; and, in short order, all the trucks were burning. When we finished, I was out of ammunition and low on fuel, when our flight leader joined us all together; and, instead of taking us home headed down the coast for about 100 miles. For what purpose I’ll never know. We turned around and, for some reason, our flight leader made a pass over the trucks and again, for what purpose I’ll never know. I was the last man on the pass and, all of a sudden, I saw red balls going past my plane and things hitting my plane and looked back and saw a German pilot shooting at me. I took evasive actions and was very pleased that I got away.
“We joined back up in formation again and, on the way home, another pilot noticed that my plane was leaking coolant. I looked at my coolant indicator and saw it was red hot and the engine ready to blow.” Ritchings said he then rolled back the canopy, opened the small side compartment door of the Spitfire, and bailed out at an altitude of about 1000 feet, landing shortly after leaving the plane. Soon after he hit the ground, he was surrounded by a bunch of Italian farm workers, who he thought were trying to help him escape. They all disappeared, however, when a German arrived in a truck and fired a pistol in the air. “For you the war is over,” were the only words in English the German said to Ritchings. He was shot down on his 38th mission, March 17, 1944 — St. Patrick’s Day.
Ritchings was first taken to Florence Italy, where he was interrogated for a couple of days. He mentioned how important and helpful his training on the Military Code of Justice was throughout his interrogations. Afterward he was taken to a railroad yard and put into a boxcar he called a “40 or 8,” referring to the fact that the car’s holding capacity was either forty men or eight horses. Ritchings said that at that time, the Anzio beachhead had already occurred, and the Battle of Monte Casino was just about over, and there were a lot of Germans on the train on the way north. One German spoke in English and asked Ritchings if he would like him to contact his wife. Ritchings gave him her address, and the German wrote his wife a little note saying her husband was okay and a POW (prisoner of war.) After the war, Ritchings received a letter from the German asking Ritchings to help him get to America. Ritchings said he didn’t know what to do, so he did nothing.
Ritchings said that the train went through the Brenner Pass and then on to Germany, where every city was “beat to a pulp.” He said that Berlin was so badly damaged that he was advised not to look through the knotholes of the boxcar, and was told if the German people knew he was there they would kill him. The train took Ritchings to Stalag Luft One, a prisoner of war camp, near the Baltic Sea in Barth, Germany. The camp held thousands of Allied airmen; there were so many there that when Ritchings first saw all of the prisoners, he thought to himself, “Oh my God, we must have lost the war.” To him it seemed as if the Germans had captured the whole United States Army Air Corps. He spent the next 14 months in the POW camp.
Ritchings described life in the camp to the interviewer: “There was a high barbed wire fence, and a warning wire lay out around the compound, that if you crossed, they would shoot you. There were 28 men to a room. We survived on black bread and potatoes, some tomatoes and occasionally some meat or something. They gave us coal to heat up the barracks and to cook with, but, sometimes we didn’t have any coal.” He described the guards as being “very efficient, but if you did something you were not supposed to be doing, they would severely beat you.”
Ritchings recalled that at Stalag Luft One, “you were at the top of the world. You could see the northern lights. It was dark most of the time – an hour or so of sun each day. The winters were cold, damp and ugly; and, everyone wore two pairs of ‘long johns’ and an overcoat. We got decent clothing.” There were no work assignments, and there was no special treatment on holidays. He described a typical day in the camp: “You would get up about six in the morning and fall out for roll call. After the head count you could go back to your barracks. Some played bridge; some wrote letters, and most did other things to occupy themselves. There was a little library, but the books were always out. Some got books from home.”
Ritchings said the Red Cross was very helpful. The POWs received Red Cross parcels that contained cookies, “Spam,” coffee, cigarettes and similar articles. “The packages were all punctured so you couldn’t save them for use in an escape attempt.” The POWs also received packages from home, and some were humorous. Ritchings recalled someone getting a pair of bowling shoes with a note saying that they would send the ball the next time! He said the packages came periodically, but not as frequently near the end of the war. He explained that prisoners were required to send home a form that their wives or other relatives would fill out in order to officially exchange letters or packages.
At the camp, many prisoners were planning escapes. In order to go ahead with an escape plan, the planners had to present their ideas to what was called the “XYZ Committee” that had to approve it. If the committee approved, they would help the planners by getting you food, wire cutters and other material. The committee was composed of the ranking officers in the camp, some of whom were also Air Corps aces. Colonel Francis Gabreski, the top ace of WWII, was a prisoner at the camp and member of the committee. Although he never personally participated in an escape attempt, Ritchings recalled that he and other prisoners would cooperate in these attempts by engaging in sports activities on the parade ground to prevent German seismographs from picking up any noises made by the tunnel diggers. “We had to be active enough to prevent that from happening.” He recalled that one tunnel was discovered by the Germans after a loaded “honey wagon” — a horse drawn wagon which was used to empty out the latrines — caved in the tunnel. He said that at one point General Eisenhower issued an order to all POW camps, requested that POWs cease escape attempts, because the war would soon be over, but it continued for seven more months.
Ritchings recalled that he knew of a few people who escaped the camp, but of no one who escaped Germany. One pilot he flew with on Corsica, Bob Hoover, did steal a German FW-190 after being freed by the Russian Army and flew the plane to France! Hoover was an author of several books after returning home. He noted that there was a considerable amount of technical talent among the POWs, and that the Germans were concerned about it, as the knowledge that these people had could cause their captors problems. He said that someone even manufactured a radio; they received war news by listening to BBC, “British Broadcast.”
Ritchings said “the worst feeling was the uncertainty of looking down the barrel of the machine guns all around you, and the Russians getting closer and creating a lot of [battle] noise. You didn’t know what was going to happen when they got here, or if the Germans would machine gun the whole camp.” He said the German camp commandant had issued a decree which stated that whenever our planes flew over the camp, all prisoners had to go inside the barracks. “One prisoner was late getting in, so they shot him. They were absolute; when they said they were going to do something, they did it.” Ritchings mentioned a decree from Hitler that ordered the separation of the Jewish POWs, but the war ended before it was carried out.
Once the Russians liberated the camp, things were in flux, and Ritchings recalled how dangerous it still was to go outside the camp once it came under Soviet control. He remembered that the German camp commander approached the ranking POW’s officers and stated that, under the rules of the Geneva Convention, he wanted to surrender to the senior officer and be treated as a prisoner of war. He was refused. “He was shot to death by the Russians fifty feet from the camp.”
Ritchings said the Russians initially wanted the POWs to walk almost 1000 miles to Odessa, a Ukraine port city on the Black Sea; however, after negotiating with the Russians, the POWs walked to a nearby airport, where they flew to France on American Air Corps B-17 bombers. He recalled that the GIs were throwing candy bars to the Germans as they walked through the German town to the planes, but “no German would pick them up –no satisfaction.” He recalled passing a German forced labor camp on the way to the airport, and said that it may not have been as bad as Buchenwald, but it was very close to it. He described the laborers as being very, very bad off. He recalled how lucky he was not getting caught by the Russians when he climbed onto a German FW-190 plane at the airport and stripped some the instruments to take home as souvenirs. He was flown to France and received new uniforms at Camp Lucky Strike, an American replacement camp at Le Havre. He remained in France for a while and was in Paris on “V-J Day” (Victory in Japan.) He was later transferred to England, and “ was hanging around in London” when he saw a bulletin requesting all ex-POWs to report to a certain location, from where he was put on a Victory ship and sailed home to America and was sent to McGuire Air Base in New Jersey, from where he hitchhiked home.
Mr. Ritchings was one of eleven siblings. Two of his brothers served during the Second World War, one in the Marine Corps and another in the Merchant Marines. Upon returning home from the war, Ritchings enrolled at Seton Hall University in South Orange, majored in accounting and became a Certified Public Accountant. He also joined the New Jersey Air National Guard’s 108th Tactical Fighter Wing after the war, rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel and served with a squadron based at Newark Airport and then McGuire AFB as an air operations staff officer, when the wing was activated and sent to France to aid in flying food and supplies to Berlin during the Berlin Airlift, and he retired from the National Guard in 1965. He said that he had attended most of his annual reunions, but not in recent years. He remained in contact with some of his wartime buddies and mentioned that Dick Bach, the author of the famous book Jonathan Livingston Seagull, flew with his New Jersey National Guard squadron during the Berlin operation.
Ritchings described talking to the sixth grade class that his daughter taught in a school in Pennsylvania as “one of the most interesting experiences of my life.” He said he has had no interest into going back to re-visit Barth Germany, and that he was not in favor of the then-current war in Iraq, but he said that if called upon, he would serve again and “absolutely do it all over again.”
Richard Ritchings passed away on October 17, 2009.