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Devil Dog of the Air: Sam Richards

By Maj Dennis A. Cavagnaro, USMC (Ret). Leatherneck Magazine, October 1991 (Courtesy of the Marine Corps Association)

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Photo: In April 1918, the 1st Marine Aviation Force trained on Curtis Jennies in order to accompany British bombers flying an antisubmarine patrol over the North Sea and English Channel (Defense Department Photo 518425)

Sam Richards of Oakland, Calif., now in his 96th year, has enjoyed an amazing and colorful aviation career. 

As a young man he was a Marine Corps pilot shot down in Belgium in World War I. He later served as an Air Force pilot in World War II.

Following the war, he developed a chemical fire retardant capable of fighting forest fires, to be dropped from aircraft, and eventually served as commander of the First Marine Aviation Force Veterans Association, which was the forerunner of today's Marine Corps Aviation Association.

Richards, from Bryn Mawr, Pa., was a sophomore studying chemical engineering at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., when in May 1917 the United States declared war on Germany. He wanted to fly and enlisted as a seaman second class with the Navy recruiter in Washington, D.C. He was required to purchase his Navy uniforms.

While awaiting ground school orders and living at home, Richards worked on a machine-tool lathe in the Autocar factory. The Navy sent him by train to Massachusetts Institute of Technology Flight "E," where he and his fellow recruits completed 10 weeks of aviation ground school. Upon graduation, Chief Quartermaster Richards and his classmates sailed from Boston to Savannah, Ga., where they entrained for Pensacola, Fla. 

At Pensacola, Richards learned to fly with four hours and 10 minutes of instruction in the N-9 (the two-seater N-9 had a center pontoon and two wingtip pontoons) and R-6 (a heavier plane using two main pontoons) and then soloed in both. He said, "While waiting for commissioning and assignment at Pensacola, we heard that the Marine Corps was starting an air wing, so we volunteered and left Pensacola by train for Miami, after being designated naval aviators and commissioned as ensigns. We paid our own train fares. The Marine Corps' first aviator, Alfred A. 'Ma' Cunningham, greeted us at Curtiss Field." The groups from Lake Charles, La., and Miami Naval Air Station (NAS) joined on June 3, 1918, at Miami for further training in land planes. Richards was "promoted" from Navy ensign to Marine Corps "shavetail" (second lieutenant). 


USMC Roundel2Cunningham, in charge of the Marine Aeronautic Company at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, was ordered to Pensacola when the United States entered WW I. The Marine Aeronautic Company was comprised of 1st Aviation Squadron (land planes), commanded by William M. "Bill" McIlvain, and 1st Marine Aeronautic Company (sea planes), commanded by Francis T. "Khaki" Evans. Evans was at Cape May, N.J., and was ordered to the Azores for submarine patrol at the outbreak of the war. 

The remainder of the Aeronautic Detachment at the Philadelphia Navy Yard was sent to Miami NAS under the command of R.S. "Roy" Geiger. Cunningham merged these units into what was to become the Marine Day Wing of the Navy's Northern Bombing Group.

Richards had seen that it would be faster to get overseas to France and into the war in the Marine Corps, so he eagerly joined Cunningham. As it turned out, Richards' Pensacola classmates who stayed in the Navy were on their way to France when the Armistice was signed. Their ship turned around and brought them home.

After three weeks of continuous training in land planes, flying the JN-4S with Curtiss OXX engines and the Thomas Morse Scouts with Gnome rotary engines, in gunnery and bombing instruction, Richards was designated a USMC aviator.

The United States had no merchant marine ships to transport the troops to France. Richards sailed from Hoboken, N.J., on July 18 for Brest, France on the captured German raider Prinz Eitel Frederick, renamed de Kalb. From Brest, the Marines were put on a train for Calais. The journey took three days and two nights, during which each man received only one loaf of French bread and a gallon of stewed peaches as rations. Richards complained, "I have not cared for peaches since that time."

Upon arrival in France, Richards found that the Marine Corps had pilots but no planes. The first American planes arrived in September 1918. Every de Haviland made in America and shipped to France was rejected. The reasons were many: loose fabric on the wings, short control cables, etc. The planes required extensive overhaul before they could be flown.

So Richards and his buddies were initially assigned to fly with Squadron No. 217 (DH-4s) and Squadron No. 218 (DH-9s), Royal Air Force. The United States had aircraft engines in England and Scotland but no airframes. The R.A.F. had air-frames but few engines, so the Marines built their squadrons by trading three Liberty 400 hp engines for every airframe with engine. "The R.A.F. loaned us 20 DH-9s to get started," recalled Richards.

The Marine Wing of the Navy's Northern Bombing Group consisted of four squadrons in France: "A" Squadron, commanded by Roy Geiger; B Squadron, commanded by Bill McIlvain; C Squadron, commanded by Douglas B. "Doug" Roben (who died of flu) and then R. S. "Bob" Lytle; and D Squadron, commanded by Captain R. A. Presley.

From its arrival in France until the end of the war, the Marine Day Wing was greatly indebted to the R.A.F., who gave unstintingly of experience and materials as they trained the Marines for combat. According to Richards, the benefit was mutual as "we helped them with our manpower."

Richards related, "Seventy-three years ago both pilots and planes were 'fair-weather flyers' and the weather in the fall of 1918 was mostly despicable. Nevertheless, we flew 57 bombing raids, dropped 52,000 pounds of bombs, and made five food drops to isolated troops.

"Marine aviation personnel were awarded two Medals of Honor, four Distinguished Flying Crosses, and 30 Navy Crosses. The Marine Day Wing of the Northern Bombing Group took credit for downing six confirmed and eight unconfirmed German planes."

One month before the Armistice, while returning from a raid on Eecloo, Belgium, Richards was shot down. "I was unhurt," he said, "but German antiaircraft shrapnel punctured my radiator, allowing the cooling medium to escape, after which the bearings froze and the engine was gone. I watched the tachometer drop from 1600 to 800 rpm and 'crunch' at 500 rpm. I stayed over the English Channel as long as possible, then landed amid sand dunes at Nieuport, Belgium, under machine gun fire from the German trenches. Forty-two bullet and shrapnel holes in the fuselage and wings had to be sealed."

Richards shipped out from St. Nazaire December 6 on the Nord Deutscher Lloyd liner Barbarosa, renamed Mercury, to Norfolk, Va. "After returning to the United States we were given one month's leave and Christmas at home and then sent back to Miami to flight-train all cadets who had completed ground school." Richards said, "My assigned duty there was 'stunt instructor.' "

During April 1919, as their duties decreased and there were rumors of impending separation from the Marine Corps, Richards and two other Marine pilots, Shea and Webster, wanted to visit nearby Cuba to look for post-war jobs. As no one in the camp was qualified to give military personnel permission to leave the country, Richards fired off a telegram to the Bureau of Navigation of the Navy in Washington, D.C., requesting permission. Permission was granted in a telegram signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt, Acting Secretary of the Navy.

Richards and his friends landed in Cuba by ferry from Key West. He said, "On our second day in Havana, we were hailed by a military sedan. Major General Verona, Minister of Cuban Aviation, leaned out and asked us if we were aviators, and, if so, would we be good enough to give his men advice on assembling 10 JN-4Hs which had just arrived from the U.S. State Department for the Cuban government. We volunteered.

"The Jennies were in crates and the wings had to be assembled with the correct tension on the support cables. We showed his crew how to do it and test flew each plane, earning the general's approval and gratitude. He personally took us to the Spanish Club on the Prado, in Havana, where he arranged for our stay. From then on, for 10 days, our lodging, food and drinks were on the Cuban government."

He continued, "As time came for our separation from the Marine Corps, MajGen George Barnett, the Commandant, begged us to stay in the Corps, as the Marines were going to Nicaragua to police an election there. My mother, who had been widowed five years before and who had suffered seeing me go to war, wanted me to finish college and earn my degree. I thought I owed that to her, so I left the Marines. I completed my education and worked five years as a metallurgist at U.S. Metals Refining Co. in Carteret, N.J.

"Then an uncle wanted me to return to my family and Philadelphia. He offered me a job in the stocks and bonds brokerage business. I accepted and worked there for the next 19 years, but not before marrying. I wed Clara Goldschmidt of Upper Montclair, N.J., a girl who was engaged to one of my Marine Corps flying buddies who had been shot down and killed by Germans on one of our bombing raids in France. We had two children and built a home in Villanova, Pa."

After the outbreak of WW II, in June 1942, Richards was contacted by Capt C. F. Hansel of the Aviation Section of Marine Corps Headquarters to return to the Corps as a captain but without flight pay. Richards said, "I went down to Marine Corps Headquarters in Washington to see him and plead my case. I wanted flying orders with flight pay, or no service. The Marine Corps rules at the time were too strict for aviators who had been away from flying for so many years.

"Capt Hansel couldn't give me flying duty," Richards continued, "but he called the Army general in charge of the Air Transport Command, introduced me to him over the telephone, and sent me over to see him. The general told me that the chance of receiving flying pay in the U.S. was nil, but overseas, anything goes. I said, 'Okay.' He asked, 'Where do you want to go?' I told him that I had enough of Europe in WW I and would like to try the South Seas."

Capt Richards, now in the Army Air Corps, was ordered to Hamilton Field, Calif., and sent to Hickam Field, Hawaii, in charge of a transport full of GIs bound for Asia. There, while waiting for further transportation for himself and his foot locker, Richards spotted three buddies from Hamilton: the pilot, copilot, and navigator of a B-24 headed for Richards' ultimate destination, Australia. "So," as Richards related, "I joined them on a fabulous 'milk-run' to Christmas Island, Jarvis Island, Samoa, Fiji, New Caledonia and on to Brisbane-all without any armament, and having to avoid Japanese planes."

During his 27 months in Australia, Richards checked-out in C-47s and copiloted them on flights between New South Wales and New Guinea. When Eleanor Roosevelt made her wartime trip to Australia, Richards found that her pilot and copilots were old buddies from Hamilton and they insisted on Richards accompanying them flying around Australia. He recounted, "I had been 'Down Under' for a few months. Eleanor and her secretary were agreeable. She signed my 'Short Snorter' (a rolled scroll autographed by passengers) which I still carry.

"Forty-three years ago, Australia was far more primitive," remembered Richards, "but Sydney's Kings Cross area was the world's best place for a party. The animals did not fear mankind, and I made pets of a parrot named George and a Joey kangaroo just by feeding them. Once, while landing at Sydney, a flock of seagulls rose from the runway, and one jammed in my port engine air intake which caused an inflight emergency.

"While I was serving in Australia," Richards continued, "the Air Force inspector general (Pacific) came through Amberly and prevailed upon me to accompany his group in his B-25 to New Zealand. One rainy day we were detained in the officer's club, where we drank and played 'red dog' all day. I was most fortunate. In fact, I could do no wrong, and won all their spending money. The I.G. gave me his personal IOU. After he returned to Hickam Field, he sent me a check with which I was later able to purchase a new 1946 Packard in Philadelphia."

Upon return to the States after the war, Lieutenant Colonel Richards was assigned to the staff at Mather Field, Calif., until separation. This military experience then included Naval Aviation, Marine Corps Aviation, the Army Air Corps, and finally the Air Force.

The Benecia Arsenal was selling war surplus, and Richards bought one of the first Jeeps sold. He drove it all over California and fell in love with the state. According to Richards, "I went back to Villanova, Pa., sold our home, packed our goods, and we moved out to Oakland in 1946."

Settled in California, Richards needed a job. He didn't want to go back to the brokerage career he had before WW II. He said, "One day I had a lunch date with a friend whose office was in San Francisco's Federal Building. He was tied up for half an hour, so I wandered through the building. Outside of the Forest Service door I noticed a list of available jobs. One was for a chemical engineer. I went back that afternoon and took the examination, which I easily passed."

Ten days later, the Forest Service invited him to the Berkeley office for an interview. "They were particularly interested in my aviation background," volunteered Richards, "as they wanted someone to help them develop the 'initial attack on forest fires by air.' The problem was that water, the best fire retardant, dropped from a plane was blown away by the slipstream created by the plane's propeller. To reach the fire it had to be thickened."

It was Richards' job to find the cheapest and most abundant thickener. "I helped the service," Richards remembered, "develop the 'bombers' which drop fire retardants on forest fires in California and the United States, patterned after a Canadian idea. Canada, with its many lakes, had easy and plentiful water sources quite different from California, where the water had to be transported long distances. We tested borax slurries but found them harmful to citrus crops. Then I tried pectin from citrus husks discarded by juicing plants. That worked partially but was expensive. Then I tried seaweed for its thickening characteristics (used in ice cream and toothpaste). That too was expensive but indicated that we were on the right track, as aircraft attacks on fires were a great help in cooling down fires so that helicopters could drop fire crews on the scene.

"The product we decided upon is manufactured by a well-known chemical company. It thickens water as it is injected into the tanks so that it can pass from the plane through the propeller stream without total evaporation, and little time is wasted filling the tanks. It has the consistency of Jell-O."

About 20 years after WW I, James E. Nicholson, a Marine Corps sergeant from Richards' old WW I Headquarters Squadron, had the list of names of all those who had served in Marine Corps Aviation during WW I and contacted many who lived in the eastern U.S. A few met at Nick's Tavern in New York City in 1938 and formed the First Marine Aviation Force, a veterans association of both officers and enlisted which grew through the years. According to Richards, "We held 35 reunions around the country. I served as the commander in 1970. From this organization evolved today's Marine Corps Aviation Association."

As Richards looked back on his life he said, "I shall always admire the Marine Corps for its ability to get the job done with the minimum of resources, and I will always cherish the friends made in the First Marine Aviation Force."

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