World War II Veteran Series--Henry Rich:  Easy On The Starch

November 7, 2018

 This series was originally published in 2008-2009 in The Dade Sentinel. 


This series has already chronicled the adventures of the USS Intrepid, the most attacked aircraft carrier in the U.S. fleet during World War II, in the profile of Rising Fawn resident Jakie Smith. But here is one Intrepid story that didn’t make it into that article.


Years after the war, the Intrepid was turned into a floating museum in New York, and Smith got into the habit of attending the veteran reunions that were regularly held aboard. At one, an old shipmate named Carl Wallace asked Smith where he lived, and Smith said northwest Georgia. Wallace asked, was that near Trenton? Because he had a friend in Trenton who had also served on the Intrepid, a guy named Henry Rich.


Smith was astonished. He’d been going to church with Henry Rich for years and had never had any idea he’d served on Intrepid.


“Oh, Wallace, he’s a kind of loudmouth anyway,” said Rich of the incident. He hadn’t mentioned his war experience to Smith because, until the past few years, he’d never talked about it at all. “It just didn’t come up,” he said.


Now, however, that it has come up, here is the story of Henry Rich, Dade County’s other Intrepid veteran.


At the beginning of World War II, Henry Rich was a raw 19-year-old farm boy, working his father’s spread in McMinnville, Tenn., with mules and muscles. With six sisters and the farm to tend, he was safe from the draft, but one day while he was turning over ground his cousin showed up and told him he was joining the Navy.


Rich stopped plowing.


“I carried the mules out and tied them up to a fencepost, and I got on the motorcycle with him and we went up to town and I joined the Navy and left the next morning at 6 o’clock,” he said.


Everybody was joining the armed forces in those days, and Rich just couldn’t stand to stay home. But it wasn’t only his cousin’s example that influenced the branch of service he chose. “The Army was having maneuvers on our farm and it was rainy and muddy, and they’d wade in that rain and mud and have to sleep in them tents,” he recalled. “I said, I want a dry bed,  so I just preferred the Navy.”


But if Rich was expecting prestige from the Navy, he was to be disappointed. After boot training, he was sent to Norfolk, Va., where restaurants posted signs that said, “No Dogs or Sailors.”  Rich understood the prejudice. Away from home – and exposed to the demon rum – for the first time, sailors could get pretty rowdy, he admitted.


Not that he ever drank himself, of course.


While the brand-new Intrepid was still being tweaked in harbor, Rich was sent aboard an elderly ship called the Wyoming for gunnery training. It was so hot below that the sailors had to sleep on deck with the big guns. One went off while Rich was sleeping under it, bursting his eardrum. He was offered a discharge because of this injury.


“I don’t want no discharge,” he said. “I want to stay in the Navy.”  So when the Intrepid was deployed for action in the Pacific, Rich went along as first loader on the 40-millimeter guns.


And found he didn’t like that at all.


When he wasn’t on the guns, young Rich worked as the captain’s messenger. So he had the officer’s ear, and one day he told him, “I’m scared back there. I want to change jobs. I want to get below decks.” Good-naturedly, the captain obliged. Young Rich went to work in the engine room.


But it was only a few days later that the captain found himself petitioned by the crewman once again: Rich didn’t like the engine room, either.“It’s too hot down there,” he said. “I want to find me another job.”


This time, the captain was less patient. ”Rich, if you don’t hurry up and find you a job, I’m going to send you home,” he said. But he assigned Rich to work in the ship’s laundry, and at last the job “took.” So it was that Henry Rich spent most of the war washing clothes.


Not that it was all detergent and starch. Intrepid was torpedoed near Truk Island. The first kamikaze plane to target a U.S. ship exploded on her decks, and before the war was over she took four more suicide attacks. During these battles, Rich was on deck as a stretcher bearer, taking the wounded to triage stations. Intrepid carried barrels of ammunition and tanks of high-octane fuel, and the fires that resulted when an airplane nosedived into the ship made the work fairly scary. Once a piece of shrapnel lodged in Rich’s leg, where it stayed until long after the war.


But when the carrier wasn’t under attack, it was business as usual. “The ship was like a city,” said Rich. “Everybody had a job.”


That “city” had a population of 3300. This, with the different shifts hours and different work stations, probably accounts for the incredible coincidence that Rich and Jakie Smith served on the same ship for over two years together and never met.


In any case, Rich liked his part of the ship fine. In the laundry, he worked the night shift, so he could lie in his bunk during the day, a no-no for most sailors. Work hours were regular and shore leave was generous. “I was treated extra-good,” he said.


But what he liked best about his work was the financial side. “You made plenty of money in the laundry,” he said. Not that his base pay was any better than anybody else’s, but every payday the sailors would drink and play poker and stuff their winnings into their pockets –


And forget all about it. “Well, you’d turn that washing machine on and I’ve seen the whole top be covered with money,” said Rich. “All that money, you didn’t know who it belonged to or nothing. Well, you had to pick it up.”


So Rich always had plenty of cash for shore leave, and to fly home when the Intrepid was Stateside. With a friend, he toured Guam on a motorcycle borrowed from the U.S. Army, and in Hawaii he took many black-and-white photographs of beautiful grass-skirted girls dancing the hula.


But that was just to show friends back home how it was, he is quick to point out. “I didn’t participate or nothing like that,” he said.


It was on these shore leaves that the farm boy from McMinnville saw the world. “For me, it was just a vacation,” he said.


But the most interesting shore leave of all, to Tokyo–Intrepid stayed for a time in Japan after the war ended–was no fun at all. Sailors were allowed to walk around and look, but they were forbidden to eat or drink anything ashore, and they were cautioned to stay in groups. “Because, see, the Japanese were still mad at us,” he explained.


Rich described that Japan of 1945 as a bleak place, ravaged by war. “The bridges and all the buildings and factories and everything was gone,” he said. “It was demolished.”


After the armistice, Rich got disgusted with trying to make ends meet farming, so he reenlisted for a couple of years and served with the Navy on Bermuda while beginning his family. He had married during the war years and eventually had three children.


Rich spent most of his working life in Chattanooga, then settled in Dade when he bought a chicken farm in the north end of the county. After retirement, he lived in Deerhead Cove and later in Trenton with his wife, Polly, until her death a few weeks ago.


So that was Henry Rich’s war: a good glimpse of the wide world, some scary air attacks–and lots and lots of laundry. He never regretted his service – “Them Japanese, and Germans both, were determined to take us over” – but as Jakie Smith can attest, he never thought it was anything much to talk about, either.

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