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OBITUARIES

Iliff D. Richardson, 83; War Hero

October 23, 2001|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He's not a genius or neurotic. Nor is he a man with extraordinary drive or with anything to him extraordinary at all, but just someone who seems to feel unshakably sure he can handle whatever he comes up against and not get hurt trying. . . . He is the only one of the thousands of targets I have met in the shooting part of the present war to whom it has never occurred, under any circumstances, that he could be killed. He's got this belief in himself and it sits in him like an anvil.

--Ira Wolfert in "American Guerrilla

in the Philippines," 1945

*

Iliff David "Rich" Richardson, whose heroism battling the Japanese in the Philippine Islands after his PT boat was shot out from under him during World War II was memorialized in two books and two motion pictures, has died. He was 83.

Richardson, who was portrayed by Tyrone Power in the 1950 film version of Ira Wolfert's biographical novel, died Oct. 10 at his home in Houston, said his son, Iliff David Richardson Jr., of Austin, Texas.

As a Navy lieutenant in the South Pacific before the United States entered the war, Richardson volunteered for John D. Bulkeley's "expendable" motor torpedo boat (or PT) Squadron 3 that in 1942 brought Gen. Douglas MacArthur out of the Philippines as the Japanese overtook the islands.

The group's efforts were chronicled in the 1942 book by W.L. White, "They Were Expendable," and the 1945 motion picture of the same title directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne and Robert Montgomery as composites of the officers.

Film historian Leonard Maltin has described the movie as "one of the finest (and most underrated) of all WWII films, based on the true story of America's PT boat squadron in the Philippines during the early days of the war."

After his plywood speedboat was destroyed by the Japanese when the enemy took control of the Philippines, Richardson and a dozen Americans set out in a native outrigger to sail the 1,300 miles to Australia. The boat sunk in a storm.

Richardson swam for 24 hours to the town of Cantilan on the island of Mindanao. For three years, he worked in the guerrilla movement based on Leyte, becoming chief of staff to its leader, Col. Ruperto Kangleon.

It was the ever-resourceful Richardson who set up the radio network that linked about 50 guerrilla bands operating in the islands and served as "the light that led MacArthur back to the Philippines."

He also mapped minefields laid by the Japanese in Leyte Gulf to ease MacArthur's return and recapture of the strategic islands.

Warring on the sea and in the jungle, Richardson earned the odd distinction of becoming both a Naval and Army officer. He was a Navy lieutenant, graduated from Officer Candidate School at Northwestern University, and, because of his guerrilla efforts, was designated by MacArthur as an Army major in intelligence. Richardson received the Silver Star with two Oak Leaf Clusters, among many decorations.

Not surprisingly, the hero's exploits prompted Wolfert to write his book and director Fritz Lang to create a movie version with the dashing Power playing Richardson.

The real-life Richardson recorded his own version of his story, typewriting a 152-page diary--in duplicate--of his guerrilla years as he lived them. One copy went to the Navy and was returned to him after the war. The second was buried by priests in a Mindanao churchyard and given after the war to another PT boat sailor, Robert D. Hostetter. In 1986, Hostetter returned the diary to Richardson during a PT boaters' reunion in Portland, Ore.

"It brings back the thrill and excitement and imagination of my youth," Richardson told the Associated Press then. "It associates everything that I was going through there, including the bad parts--dysentery and being away from everything."

Richardson always considered his years in the Philippines "a special time," despite the hardships of living with people he described as so primitive that "a bolo knife and salt were their only concessions to civilization."

When he returned to California after the war, Richardson told an Eagle Scouts dinner at the downtown Biltmore that he was prepared for his jungle years by lessons he learned in Los Angeles Boy Scout Troop 92.

Born in Denver, Richardson was the only surviving child of a Methodist minister, Royal Richardson, who died when the boy was 3, and Velma Weston Richardson, who taught Latin and music.

For 11 years, little "Rich" moved with his itinerant teacher mother from Leadville to Lamar and other Colorado towns and spent time on her father's ranch in Springview, Neb. When his grandfather died, his mother used her inheritance to move her son to Los Angeles.

The youth studied two years at Compton Junior College, then spent two years traveling in Europe and the Middle East. Convinced that America would soon be in a developing world war, he returned to Los Angeles and joined the Navy.

His first assignment as a newly minted lieutenant was aboard the USS Bittern minesweeper in the Philippines, then an American protectorate.

In 1945, Richardson went to Houston to marry Coma Noel and stayed there, working as a life insurance salesman, business executive and consultant. He also served as technical advisor for several Hollywood films about World War II.

Richardson is survived by his wife of 56 years, Coma; three sons, Iliff David Jr. and Edward, both of Austin, Texas, and Temple, of Spring, Idaho; one daughter, Coma Garr of Houston; and four grandsons.

The family has asked that any memorial donations be sent to the Defenders of America Naval Museum Inc., P.O. Box 36, Kemah, Texas 77565.

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