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A Tampa man's diary details his World War II service, from enlisting at 17 to fighting kamikaze pilots and seeing his father return home in a casket.
By JOHN BARRY
Published August 28, 2005
[Times photos: Michael Rondou]
|A viewing for Douglas Ridge in Brandon preceded his burial July 23. Ridge was a Navy gunner, the first in his family to volunteer for World War II despite not meeting the minimum weight; his father and brother followed the next year.
Generations of Ridge men have gone to graveyards in flag-draped caskets. Douglas Lawson Ridge, 80, now rests among them, and among the 2,000 World War II veterans for whom taps is being played each day.
He died on July 19 of a heart attack just after a series of morning interviews at his kitchen table in Tampa. He spent his last days reading aloud terse diary entries from long ago and far away.
A Jap plane tried to crack into us but missed us and hit the drink . . .
At 5 o'clock 15 Jap bombers attack us . . .
He mostly wanted to tell how it felt to be 17 and a Navy gunner: a mere boy, saving aircraft carriers from kamikazes. And he wanted to tell how his dad - another anonymous gunner - was exalted in death by his country in a war that exalted basic human principles.
Doug was the first of the Ridge men to volunteer for World War II. In August 1942, he was 17, stood 5 feet 4 and weighed 107 pounds, eight short of the theoretical minimum. The recruiter squeezed his scrawny biceps and said, "You'll fatten up."
His dad, George Gordon Ridge, and brother Wallace followed him in the next year. Dad and Wallace went through boot camp together.
Wallace was the last Ridge to see Dad alive.
Most of the story is preserved in a diary Ridge kept between 1943 and 1944 called "My Life in the Service." It's a pocket-sized journal issued by the military. In it, he lies about his size; he gives himself two extra inches and 23 more pounds. Every page comes with an inspirational passage, such as this one: "All actual heroes are essential men, and all men possible heroes" - E.B. Browning.
He became an essential man, whose diary dealt only with essentials.
In History of the USS Kidd, an account of the destroyer's service in World War II and the Korean War, there's this excerpted description of its first sea battle on Nov. 11, 1943: "The Kidd arrived at Rabaul in the morning. . . . In the afternoon, a large group of Japanese aircraft attacked the group. Meanwhile a plane had crashed during takeoff from the Essex, and the Kidd was ordered to pick up the crew. The Kidd fell behind the main group and maneuvered to pick up the men in the water. She was alone and vulnerable and while she was alone, eight enemy aircraft attacked her. For the next 50 minutes the Kidd alternately picked up personnel out of the water and engaged the enemy. Enemy planes torpedoed her at both port and starboard sides. (The commander) put the ship in reverse and the torpedoes missed. . . . During the fight, the Kidd engaged eight enemy planes, shot down three and crippled several others."
The same day is tersely described this way in Ridge's diary:
"Nov. 11: attacked Rabaul -
was attacked by Jap aircraft
shot down three - our first kill."
Ridge hadn't even seen the battle; he'd only felt it. He was assigned to a five-inch gun, but his starting job was to crouch in a dank, dim compartment at the very bottom of the ship in the ammunition magazine - five sealed hatches below topside - and hoist shells and powder upward.
As "low man on the pole," bare-chested in the swelter, he literally sat on the hull, touching both sides of the ship with outstretched hands. Every gun concussion rumbled like a clap of thunder down the steel shanks of the destroyer, to below the waterline, through the keel, and through the teenager's quivering spine.
Two boys in adjoining compartments told him they couldn't take it, they had to break through those five bolted hatches and get to topside. "You do and the lieutenant will shoot you," Ridge told them.
Without knowing it, little Doug Ridge, who eventually worked his way topside to a seat on the five-inch gun itself, had become a link in the strategic chain that would soon strangle the Japanese. By helping to load and fire the gun, he helped shoot down the Japanese bombers and torpedo planes intent on destroying aircraft carriers. Those were the carriers that won the war.
The Japanese found a terrible means to come back at those destroyers and five-inch guns. But Ridge would narrowly escape the horrors to come.
By 1944, his diary entries had changed. They had become a cold catalog of violence, one bombing, one torpedoing, one shelling after another.
This from the summer battle for the Marianas:
"June 17 - We were attacked by 12 dive bombers and two torpedo planes - four were shot down.
"June 18 - At five o'clock 15 Jap twin motor bombers attacked us. Our fighters knocked down nine - and the ship got six. We are losing a lot of our fighters.
"June 19 - This morning we were attacked by two Jap planes - no one got any - too bad. We picked up a dead Jap pilot. Both of his legs were torn all to hell. They took all his clothes off and heaved him over the side. A few of the guys got some of his teeth. . . . Everybody is awful tired and needs sleep."
A year and a half into the war, Ridges had been flung all over the planet. Dad was a gunner's mate aboard the USS Savannah, a light cruiser in the Atlantic. Wallace was closest, somewhere in the Pacific. But Doug held little hope of bumping into him.
"This is a big ocean and there are a lot of ships in it," he wrote in his diary.
Ridge was training his five-inch gun at jungle caves on Guadalcanal. Another sailor on a nearby minesweeper helped him adjust his aim.
"Up five mills," a voice said through his earphone.
To confirm, Ridge repeated the message back to the sailor.
Then, "Left 10."
Ridge again echoed the message back.
Then, "That you, Doug?"
Doug Ridge had found brother Wallace.
In February 1945, Doug Ridge was dropped off in Pearl Harbor to catch a ride home to train gunners in San Diego. He was 32 pounds heavier. In his three years on the Kidd, the ship hadn't lost a man.
Two months after he left, the Kidd joined the assaults on Iwo Jima and Okinawa. On April 11, 90 miles east of Okinawa, a kamikaze, skimming the wave tips below reach of the five-inch guns, made its run at the destroyer.
The ensuing mayhem is described in The History of the USS Kidd: "The plane crossed the fireroom from starboard to port, where it came to rest. The 500-pound bomb it was carrying tore through the port side of the hull and exploded just outside. This blew shrapnel all over the portside superstructure and opened the fireroom to the sea."
Thirty-eight sailors died. Fifty-five were wounded.
The news was the second blow to level Doug Ridge since leaving the Kidd. Shortly after his transfer, Ridge learned that his father, who had survived nearly every major sea battle in the Atlantic, had died of a heart attack after returning to the Savannah from liberty. He was 39.
George Gordon Ridge was buried at sea, the Navy told the family.
Two weeks later, his remains unexpectedly arrived in Nashville. They had been frozen for the long voyage home.
The casket was solid bronze and intended for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It had been brought to the Mediterranean in case the ailing president died during meetings with Churchill. (Roosevelt didn't die until two months later, in April.)
So Dad's return was a presidential one. Would a sailor under the flag of fascist Japan have come home in an emperor's sepulchre?
The Ridges wanted a last look. They opened the casket and found their father's body covered in moss, four inches thick.
They carefully cleaned his face, Doug Ridge said.
Underneath the moss, Dad was unblemished, "as young as the day he left for war."
That was the last story Doug Ridge told. He died going to the doctor on the day after his 80th birthday. At his funeral in Brandon, three sailors presented a flag to his oldest son, Doug Jr., a Marine Corps veteran, and blew taps.
[Last modified August 24, 2005, 12:47:01]
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