A father's life of service

July 11, 2004|by Tom Riford

I am a veteran of the United States Marine Corps. However, it's not about me that I'm writing to you, it's about my father. Although I believe that because of my father's service, I probably chose to serve.

My father is a veteran of World War II, but it took the United States nearly 50 years to recognize his veteran's status.

In 1942, when my father was an 18-year old freshman in college, he decided to enlist. Because of his poor eyesight, every branch of the military turned him down. What he finally chose to do, in my opinion, would be astonishing to most of today's youth.

He joined the American Field Service and became an ambulance driver and a medic. During World War I, in 1914, the AFS began as an all-volunteer ambulance corps. If you go online at, you can read about the history of the AFS, and you'll learn what an accomplished and special group it was. Some people served because they chose to be noncombatants, or were conscientious objectors, or merely wanted to help the wounded and dying.


My father joined because he has always had a strong commitment to be involved. He had to purchase his own uniforms, his own kit and buy his own train ticket to get from his home on the farm to the docks in New York City. He had to make his own way to his newly forming unit and trained to be part of the ambulance corps.

He served in 1942, 1943, 1944 and finally came home in the fall of 1945. At one point in 1944 he had to come home, again on his own, because he was drafted! He arrived after a two-week sea voyage, and the draft board took one look at the bespectacled youth in uniform and sent him away!

He made it back to the war, again on his own funds, and rejoined his unit. During those years, he carried thousands of wounded and dying soldiers of many nations. He served in North Africa, Italy, Germany and France. He helped liberate Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and helped treat hundreds of emaciated and mistreated former-prisoners.

He saw more war than most combat veterans. He was constantly in combat, at the front lines, shuttling from the very front to a field station, to a field hospital and back. His Dodge ambulance had been raked many times by German guns because the big red cross made such a nice target.

He belonged in the American Field Service, along with only 2,195 other volunteers, and served with the British 8th Army, the remaining Free French, the Free Polish forces, Australian and New Zealand troops, Gurkhas, Indian, and South African troops.

He had to scrounge for food every day, and often went on whatever rations were available from foreign units. He served with people who became famous, including the man who would later write Auntie Mame (Patrick Dennis). He carried generals, privates, and sometimes only pieces of brave young men. He saved a lot of lives.

When he came back from the war, he worked his way through college, got married, had three children and worked all his life. He served on committees, charities and service groups.

To me, he seemed to be on every board and participated with every philanthropic cause. He was a businessman, and also served 16 years in the New York State legislature, as an assemblyman and senator. He helped with the AFS when it became a student-exchange program.

I wanted to also let you know that my father never complained, never felt less than any other veteran of the war. He went to college on his own, when every other veteran enjoyed the GI Bill. I believe that it was in 1990 that the U.S. government sent him a box of medals and papers declaring that he was now entitled to U.S. veteran status. He put them away with the other medals that had been given to him long before by the British, the French and the ANZAC forces.

He was interviewed once about his war service. He reflected upon the years of being at or near the combat and around all the wounded and dying. He saw many major battles, including the final months of the North African campaign, the big battle at Casino in Italy and the final push into Germany.

He followed several amphibious landings, and saw the war from up close. While he was never wounded, he was hospitalized for severe jaundice and also suffered from dysentery and other battlefield maladies. He checked himself out of a hospital once when his unit was pulling out. He was nearly wounded many times and survived shellings and even a strafing.

When the government recognized the American Field Service volunteers, I asked my father if he was going to apply for any veterans' benefits. He laughed and changed the subject. The AFS estimates that its volunteers risked their lives to carry approximately 700,000 casualties from the front lines to medical help.

Many were killed, wounded or captured, yet until only recently the U.S. government denied them the recognition and benefits due to veterans simply because they were volunteers and not registered servicemen.

The U.S. did not provide these ambulance drivers with congressional honors or medals for bravery or combat wounds.

But while many now qualify for veteran status, few apply for benefits. I think the knowledge of their contribution to the wartime effort has been sufficient for them.

I'm very proud of my father, for his service and for his life spent without complaint. He was married for 50 years and cared for my mother for more than a year while she fought cancer. He held her as she died. That was seven years ago.

He has continued on, and is involved in many things. He sold the family farm in New York and retired to Hawaii. At 80 years old, he is growing corn on 400 acres on Oahu. He is trying to help turn around the Hawaiian agricultural economy. He is active in community organizations. His service continues. Without complaint.

Tom Riford President and CEO Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau 16 Public Square Hagerstown, MD 21740 301-791-3246

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