By Bob Holeman
(Bob Holeman conducted this series of interviews with local World War II in 2011-12. Most of those 34 American heroes have passed away in the decade since).
Seeking to put some distance from an oppressive home environment in Arkansas in the early 1900s, Arch Cornelius Riggs Sr. took a fancy to a site down a wagon road not far from Packton and homesteaded 160 acres.
Virgin timber abounded. “Daddy worked in the woods,” said A.C. Riggs, who lives on a portion of that 160 acres that he now owns. He points to the tree line that marks the Winn Parish line and describes the proximate historic Old Harrisonburg Road. “He made crossties and lumber. He also grew cotton and corn and stuff. Growing up, we worked in the field, too, helping him.”
The Riggs family was one, like so many during World War II, that sent several sons off in defense of our nation. “My oldest brother, Clyde, was one of the first around here to be called up. But he never got further than Texas where he served through the war.
“Next was my brother Oliver, who we called ‘Blue.’ When he was 17, Mom (Bessie Guin Riggs) and Dad signed for him and he headed for the Navy. But he was drafted into the Marines. He was shipped to the Pacific where he was involved in the invasions, including Tarawa and Saipan. He came home but didn’t live too long afterwards.”
But this account is of the younger A.C. Riggs, born Dec. 20, 1926. He attended Georgetown school in grades 1 through 9 and finished out his final two years at Selma, graduating in 1944. “On Monday, Dec. 8, 1941, the principal called us all into the auditorium. He told us we were at war. At the time, I thought it didn’t concern me. It was across the ocean and I was just in high school. But it did concern me. It took two years of my life.”
Riggs said he wasn’t in a hurry to register but when he turned 18 in December of his graduating year, “Miss Kidd sent me my draft notice. In February, I came up to Fort Humbug to be examined. It was a big, old building. We had to pull off all our clothes. We ran around all day without a stitch on and probably saw a dozen different doctors, physical and mental. I was a country boy who’d worked in the field all his life so there was nothing wrong with me.”
Asked about his choice of services, Riggs picked the Army. Like young enlistees at that phase of the war, he thought he’d be participating in the final invasion of Japan. But it wouldn’t be.
“I was on a ship on the way to Japan when the Japs decided they’d had enough. I’ll tell you right now, we were some happy soldiers. I’d stood on the deck, watching as the Golden Gate disappeared on the horizon. I wondered if I’d ever see it again.
“And even if the country of Japan had surrendered, there were still soldiers out there, hiding in caves in the Philippines and places, who wouldn’t surrender. And our own ship had to zigzag across the Pacific because there was a captain of a Japanese submarine who refused to surrender.
“When we got to Okinawa, we got into a typhoon, like a hurricane. They said the seas were 35 feet high, with waves breaking over the deck. That ship rolled and rocked. We had long tables in the mess and you sat down with a tray. When the ship would rock, your tray would slide one way. When it rolled, your tray would come back and you’d take another bite.”
They reached the Lingayen Gulf in the Philippines where they spent the next month dealing with Japanese POWs. “We were ashore. By the time we got there, they’d gotten all of those that had been hiding in the caves. But the Japanese had been brutal to the locals while they’d been there, killing folks just because they could.
“One morning, there was a bunch of Filipinos ganged up. I watched and they had a long net out in the water, with boys and girls pulling it in. It was full of little fish. Those little kids took handsful of those fish and put them into their mouths, still flopping around, and ate them. They were starving. The Filipinos were gentle people.”
Riggs described the housing of the local people. They were huts, set up on stilts. The family lived inside, with the livestock beneath. He said that when the family’s water buffalo, (beast of burden and milk producer) was put out in the field, they’d place a small child on its back, just behind its massive horns. “Out in the blistering sun. That was to keep anyone from stealing the buffalo, I suppose.”
After their time there, the soldiers moved on to Korea. This was well before the outbreak of the Korean War (1950) but the region was tense. “It had been taken over by the Japs in 1935 and many of the Koreans had been converted to soldiers. They were a whole lot like the Japs, though maybe not so cruel. But they’d still beat their prisoners to a bloody pulp. We walked guard 24 hours a day and I tell you it wasn’t an empty rifle we carried. If we ever went to town, we went in groups. They didn’t fool with us and I only had to pull a gun on one of them.
“When we went on in to Korea, in Pusan, it was wintertime. There was no place to stay and we had to sleep on the ground. It was wet but frozen as hard as a rock. We were there for a couple of weeks. Then we moved to Chonju in central Korea. That’s where we built our own Quonset huts.”
Once the soldiers accumulated enough honor points to get out of service, they were shipped out of central Korea to a site near Seoul. There they’d stay for another month before berth could be arranged on a ship (“if you could call it that,” quipped Riggs). The corporal headed home on a Liberty Ship on a voyage that lasted 35 days. On Dec. 25, 1946, he was discharged. “It was a good Christmas present.”
Over his two years of service, all his food had been canned or dehydrated. His only fresh meat came from one low-flying goose he shot with his rifle.
Riggs caught a train home from Washington state but when he arrived, there were no jobs to be found for the late-returning soldiers. For a time, a government program helped with $20 per month. He had no interest in the GI Bill. Then he got a job in the oil field and found a successful career there for the next 45 years.
Growing up, Riggs lived about a mile down the road from Inez Hennegan. “I’d seen her many times before, a little girl with long hair in pigtails. But she was younger and caught a different bus. To make a long story short, she came home with one of my sisters one day after I returned. I guess you could say I noticed she’d grown up, she wasn’t a little girl any more. She was 15 or 16. We dated 2 or 3 years before we got married.”
That was Feb. 15, 1949. “I didn’t make a lot of money back them. I wanted to get married but didn’t have the $3 for a license. Maybe I had a dollar. I called Inez and she sent me the other $2. We were married in Mansfield.”
The couple has three daughters and a son. They also have 11 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.