Ernest F. Richards, 95, received a diploma from Murdock High School last Friday.
Richards left high school at age 18 and joined the Army, serving as a private first class in Europe during World War II. That was an education in itself.
“It’s an honor to present Pvt. Richards a diploma from Murdock High School,” said Francisco Ureña, secretary of the Massachusetts Department of Veterans Services, before the ceremony Friday afternoon in the museum room at the Massachusetts Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Winchendon. “This is a small token of our gratitude for the sacrifices he made years ago and his continued commitment to his fellow veterans of the commonwealth.”
While the diploma is the most recent recognition of his service to the country that the Petersham resident has received, it’s not the first. The veteran, who will celebrate his 96th birthday on Feb. 28, also received the Good Conduct Medal, the Meritorious Service Unit Plaque, the WWII Victory Medal and the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal.
Although the awards are appreciated, they’re clearly not what has driven Richards’ success since he joined the Army in November 1942 at the age of 18. Honoring his country and its veterans is what he has strived to do for years.
Richards began his tour of duty when he landed in North Africa in the spring of 1943. He served first as part of an anti-aircraft artillery unit and later as a member of the military police who, among other responsibilities, guarded German and Russian prisoners of war. He fought in five major battles. He served in Sicily, Italy, France and Germany.
His service immersed him in a whirlwind of experiences. He was fascinated by the various people, sights and cultures he encountered. He said he was surprised by some peculiarities, such as Germans so fastidious that people could practically eat off their front steps.
But Richards, who also survived malaria while serving, was disgusted by the horrors of war. In some places, he saw people starving. He also saw the unfathomable cruelty of SS troops, who he said “had no use for anybody.”
“A lot of things you go through, you don’t care to talk about,” Richards said. “You think back on how it was. I had a few close shaves, but I made it OK.”
Richards served under Gen. George S. Patton, whom he remembers as being “a good general” and “really, a tank man.”
“When he said something, he meant it; he didn’t take anything from anybody,” Richards recalled. “He was quite the guy. He had his own way of doing things.”
On Armistice Day (now known as Veterans Day) in 1945, the Victory ship that Richard had boarded in France docked in Boston. Although the 21-year-old had been sick during a two-day storm at sea, his spirits were immediately lifted. The ship was met by the jubilant cheers of a crowd that showed up to welcome the brave troops home.
When Richards returned to civilian life, he worked briefly in a toy factory. He later worked in a paper mill, and, then he worked with heavy machinery. But it was his hobby as a guitarist and lead singer for a local country western band that brought him immeasurable joy.
When he was playing a gig at a Grange meeting, he spotted a pretty girl in the audience. Richards said he looked at her while he sang, and, with an unrestrained laugh and sheer delight at the vivid memory, he recalled that she “got red in the face.” That tender moment led to a 58-year marriage that ended when his wife, Dorothy, passed away in 2008.
In 2005, he was asked if he would like to join the Honor Guard for the Massachusetts Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Winchendon. Since then, he has served nearly every Friday at veterans’ interment services. The Honor Guard ensures that they receive the dignity, respect and gratitude that they deserve when their remains are laid to rest. Richards serves as a flag bearer, with the utmost respect and dedication, during military honors.
Although he’ll have to be absent for a couple of weeks to get a new pacemaker on Valentine’s Day, he hardly ever misses a chance to honor those who have served this country. It has even occurred to him that some of them might have saved his life.
His daughter, Karen Hager, was happy to see her father receive the diploma. “He’s worked hard all his life,” she said, beaming. “He is very committed to the service and his country and his family and his fellow Honor Guard members. They’re like brothers to him.”
Throughout that commitment, he has cherished the freedom that service members were willing to give their lives for. Even though he doesn’t like to see so many terrible things happening in the world today, and he doesn’t know how anyone can solve the problems the United States faces, he’s happy that this country still preserves freedoms.
“This country, here, you’ve got more freedom,” Richards said. “You can do what you want. Other places, you’ve got to do what they tell you to do.”
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