After graduating from South Park High School, Richard P. Baumgardner enlisted in the Navy, eager to follow in his older brother Bernard’s footsteps.
But when Rich returned from the recruiting station to his parents’ home on Keppel Street in South Buffalo and announced his act of patriotism, he hit rough seas. The family had already given their older son to the war effort, and one was quite enough.
“My father objected. I was 17 years old, and he didn’t want me in the service. Bernard was already in,” the 91-year-old recalls. “My father went down and got me out of the Navy. I wasn’t old enough.”
When Baumgardner turned 18, he and a buddy went to the recruiting station, and this time Rich succeeded in enlisting in the Marine Corps. He says that he cannot remember his father’s precise reaction but that there was no doubt he was displeased.
Not long after, Baumgardner was shipped to the Pacific with the 2nd Marine Division and would participate in several major battles. “It wasn’t easy” is all he will say.
His wife, Eleanor Rosten Baumgardner, who occasionally chimes in as her husband is being interviewed, cheerfully remarks – with just a pinch of loving sarcasm – “He makes it sound like it was a picnic.”
More than 100,000 U.S. service members gave their lives as the Allies fought from one Pacific island to the next, moving ever closer to Japan. And perhaps because of the great sorrow in those memories, Baumgardner would rather discuss happier moments, like two unexpected reunions during short breathers amid the battles.
The first involved Baumgardner and his brother, a radioman on a “landing ship, tank,” or LST, that was docked at Saipan in the Mariana Islands. “My brother was on watch, and someone on the ship shouted to him, ‘Your brother is here to see you.’ I went onboard. We hugged and cried a bit,” says Baumgardner, who, in recalling that reunion so many years later, still finds himself overcome with emotions.
An article in The Buffalo Evening News recounted the meeting, based on a letter from Bernard to their mother, Catherine. The article began with the missive’s opening line: “Get set for a surprise, ma. Rich and I finally got together. ….” It was their first time seeing each other in 2½ years.
The other unlikely reunion occurred on Tinian, another island in the Marianas, where the Marines had fought. Baumgardner said he received word that his friend Ed Herbst, with whom he had enlisted in the Marines, was on the other side of the island. Wasting no time, Baumgardner hitched a ride across the island and visited with his buddy from South Buffalo.
“It was great to see him,” he says. “It was a short visit.”
Baumgardner also recalled that while on Tinian, he and other Marines were camped on a beach and that the living conditions were hazardous.
“We would have Japanese fighter planes strafing our tents,” he says. “We’d get out of the tents and dive for cover.”
After the Battle of Okinawa, the Marines moved ever closer to Japan and finally set foot there after the atomic bombs were dropped in August 1945.
“We were assigned to Nagasaki,” Baumgardner says. “It was bombed out. It was just devastation.”
When he returned home, “I landed at San Diego and went to Camp Pendleton,” he says, “and then I took the train to Bainbridge, Md., where I was discharged.”
He and his wife raised three children, and he supported the family as a skilled tradesman at General Motors, retiring in 1987.
“I’m still kicking,” he says, adding that having a caring and loving wife has made all the difference. “She’s what keeps me going.”
Richard Baumgardner, 91
Branch: Marine Corps
War zone: Pacific
Years of service: 1943-46
Most prominent honors: Two Bronze Stars, Combat Action Ribbon, Asiatic-Pacific Theater Medal, American Campaign Medal