April 2005

Bill Ritchie's Navy experience, 1948 -1952

The following is an excerpt from an interview conducted by the Concord Oral History Project. The complete interview is available for reading at the Concord Free Public Library.

How Did You Happen to Join the Service?

I joined the service shortly after getting out of high school because of the threat of being drafted into the Army. I thought I didn't want that and enlisted in the Navy. As it turned out, I got more than I bargained for, because the Korean Conflict started a couple of years later, and Harry Truman extended my enlistment so that I could serve in Korea.

I was in 1948 to 1952. I saw quite a bit of combat. The first part of my enlistment was spent in the Atlantic Ocean traveling to Greenland, getting frozen, and we spent quite a lot of time up around Iceland doing scientific work. Then, in January 1949, we went to the Pacific Ocean and were doing exercises out of Pearl Harbor, and then went to the Philippine Islands, doing exercises out of Subic Bay near Manila. That was very interesting in that liberty was taken in Manila and you had to ride a bus from the base into Manila, and these rebels would raid the buses. They'd come aboard and rob everybody on the bus. Before we left there, the Army had posted soldiers on all the buses to protect the people. And, the Korean War started in June of 1950. On our way up to Korea, there was an article in the newspapers in the United States that our ship [the U.S.S. Rochester] had been sunk off Mimosa. A lot of excitement about that.

But it wasn't. We arrived in Korea after the North Koreans had invaded and we proceeded to patrol the coastline - as the North Koreans advanced all the way down to Pusan. They formed a perimeter in Pusan and decided that we would give the fleet a little liberty on shore. We went into Pusan, I say this is interesting, we'd go into a bar there - it was a sort of primitive country, of course, and order a beer; and the bartender turns around and reaches up on the shelf and hands you a bottle of beer that's nice and warm. I was only 19 years old.

Did You Tell Me on the Phone That You Were at Sea for Like 130 Days?

Yeah, 103 days. We were patrolling up and down the coast and shelling targets on land for 103 days. This happened in 1951, during the fall season, because the ship finally made it back to Japan for Christmas holidays, that's where we met other ship sailors who were complaining that they had been out at sea for 30 days.

Did You Have Casualties on Your Ship?

Near the end of our tour, which would be in 1952, we had some casualties - pilots that were on board our ship, and we'd handled 2 helicopters that flew various missions. 1 of the pilots was headed home and he was flying his aircraft to a carrier and it got crashed on the way over to it.

We had a lot activity. We were a flag ship for the fleet in the Pacific Ocean, had an admiral aboard, and at 1 point during the Korean Conflict, Douglas MacArthur came aboard and was on board the ship for about a week. And that was just prior to the Inchon invasion in which we were quite active. We were in the Inchon Harbor during all of the invasion and landing. We were attacked at that time by enemy aircraft who dropped bombs on us. One bomb landed right at mid ship on the side in the water, and damaged a great deal of piping in the fire rooms, so that fire room had to be shut down. There were no injuries as a result of that. And then the second bomb landed near the aft of the ship, hit the crane which was used to lift sea planes out of the water. Yeah, so that crane was then plastered with a purple heart, the remainder of our cruise!

Was the War, the Conflict, Over When You Came Home, or Was it Still Going On?

The Conflict was still going on when we left. They were starting to negotiate peace treaties in 1952, and we left about in the summer of 1952 to come back to the States. But we were moving up and down both sides of the Korean Peninsula. There were some activities that MacArthur was conducting and that Harry Truman was not too happy about, and one of those early in the war was immediately after the Inchon invasion. He sent a task force up the Yalu River, which is the border line between Korea and China, and Harry Truman wanted him to stay out of there, but we were, several ships went right up the Yalu River. We were firing at some of the Chinese that were crossing the River coming into North Korea at that time; they had a huge contingent, millions of Chinese soldiers that came across the border. And, you know, they were denying it at the time, but MacArthur had evidence that they were coming. So then Harry, I guess, sent him a stronger note and we left there and went back down south. Went around to the eastern side of the peninsula, and we spent most of our time over that side.

Over in the Sea of Japan, Right?

Yes. We were up there. And then, of course, after Inchon they cut across the peninsula and they started closing down on these people who were trapped, and moving up here [points to Chosin Reservoir on map]. The most exhausting part was after they [the U.N.] had gone way up here, the Chinese started coming across. They drove the allies back down again to where they are, the 38th parallel. But on this side, during the Sea of Japan episodes, as we Americans and allies were driven back from North Korea, we started to evacuate people from Hungnam and from Hamhung. And because of the size of our ship, which was quite large, (we had 1,500 sailors aboard), we had three doctors, so they were quite capable of handling casualties. A lot of Marines that were evacuated there came aboard the ship to transport back to Japan. A lot of injured Marines were brought aboard also.

Was Life What You Expected or Was it Different, the Living Conditions & things like that - on a ship of 1,500?

I think on board the ship, living conditions were about what I would have expected. We had experienced in our getting to port, even while we were in Korea, which was most of the time, we got back to Japan periodically, and got fresh food. One of the items that everybody was looking forward to was fresh milk, since out at sea all we got was powdered milk. And we got fresh eggs, instead of powdered eggs. But it was very enjoyable coming back into harbor periodically.

When You Look Back Now, Would You Say Your Years in Service Have Affected Your Life?

I believe they did, yes. Because I - while in high school I was thinking about college, but I think without the GI Bill I may not have gone to college. So I think that had a tremendous effect on my life. I had 3 brothers in World War II.

I think that the combat that we saw was not nearly as fierce as the Koreans and soldiers on land. But we had, you know, our house that we took with us every place that we went.

There were some amusing things that happened, and some of them had been mentioned in other newspapers. One of which was, during the period we cruised the coast of North Korea, shelling targets on land, the route that we took was to cruise up and down several miles, and then turn around and come back and swing the guns around and fire on land again. The destroyers and the carriers were always kept further out than the cruisers and destroyers that were doing the shelling. In one instance the U.S.S. Missouri, which has had a lot of fame attached to it, was sent out to the Pacific and was working with us, and they unfortunately made the turn at the end of the run, and didn't turn their guns. And they threw some shells out toward the carriers and destroyers and all the alarms went off.

Friendly fire, Right - Oxymoron.

Yeah, friendly fire.

Well, we made the tour interesting by getting details, since shore-based - the service would be telling us where our shells were landing, and we made several direct hits on targets that they were quite pleased with after only a couple of rounds being fired off, and that made the guys really happy. But when we were shelling, it was very smoky and smelly and noisy, and shells all over the place. When we went back to Japan, on occasion, to re-arm, everybody aboard ship was handling the gunpowder and shells, and we had contests, who would life a shell. Now these shells that we were firing, which were out of eight inch guns, weighed 350 pounds apiece. And you know, these young guys, including myself, be trying to life one. That probably started my knees.

Bill Ritchie Added a Couple of Things

  • His ship was also used as a mine sweeper; they would go along near the mines and the sailors would shoot the mines from the decks to explode them. Some of the other ships wouldn't venture anywhere near where the mines were.
  • Bill grew up in Haverhill, but has lived in Concord since marrying Margaret McBreen, a lifelong Concordian who had 3 brothers in World War II.
Dick Krug is the veterans agent for the town of Concord. He can be reached at 978-318-3038 or by email.