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WWII Veteran Rish recalls 95 days in Pacific foxhole

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

EDISON -- Leon Rish speaks slowly and quietly.

But his tales of fighting in World War II in the Pacific with the Army's 37th Infantry Division speak volumes.

Now 89 years old, Rish and others in his division were forced to find shelter in a foxhole for 95 days because of heavy gunfire they were receiving from Japanese fighters on New Georgia Islands. The soldiers Rish was with were putting up telephone lines in the dense jungle landscape at the time of the attack. The 5-foot-7 Rish entered the war weighing 185 pounds.

"There was a bunch of us," said Rish, who was drafted into the Army Jan. 13, 1941. "We stayed in a foxhole 95 days. You're talking about a long time. You wouldn't believe it, but I lost a 100 pounds because we weren't getting any hot food; just C rations."

According to U.S. Army Models.com, the first version of the C rations provided packages of biscuits, graham crackers and sugar tablets. It had cans of meat -- ham for breakfast, chicken for lunch and turkey for dinner -- and contained a fruit bar for breakfast, caramels for lunch and a chocolate bar for dinner. It had powdered coffee for breakfast, bouillon for lunch and a lemon for dinner. It also provided a piece of chewing gum, a four-pack of cigarettes, a package of toilet tissue, a wooden spoon and matches.

Rish was in the machine gun squad in the 37th Infantry Division, which was under Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

"We were shooting them," he said. "It showed them they weren't as good as they thought they'd be. We were mowing them down. There were four to five of us in the same hole. We had that machine gun and rifle, too."

Although it was "hot all the time," Rish and the other men in his foxhole were able to get water in the hole. It also didn't hurt that it "kept raining," Rish said.

"I knew I was losing weight, but there was nothing I could do," he said. "We never ran out of C rations and they couldn't get hot food to us. It was all different stuff and we ate what we could."

Rish and the other soldiers got through the long days through prayer.

"We'd be praying for this and that. We talked. We didn't have games to play," said Rish, who will turn 90 in June.

When Rish and the others were finally able to escape from their foxhole shelter, the war had concluded.

"We came out of the foxhole when the war ended and walked right to the hospital ... (although) I didn't feel like walking," he said. "I stayed in the hospital six months (in Guadalcanal) and six months in a hospital in Rome, Georgia. They were giving me food. Some boys went crazy and they were going to put me in a locked ward, but I said I was to go in a private room because I wasn't crazy. I just lost weight. I was nothing but skin and bones."

Rish's great nephew, Eric Jenkins, has heard Rish's heroic stories of war survival since he was a child. Rish's late sister, Martha Rish Jenkins, was Eric Jenkins' grandmother.

"That was rough," said Jenkins, 32. "I'm glad I wasn't there."

Rish remembers listening to the radio the morning of the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, 1941.

"They (a Japanese delegation) were in D.C. that same day signing a peace treaty, then they bombed Pearl Harbor," he said. "That tells you they weren't right."

It took more than two weeks to reach the Fiji Islands, Rish's first stop as part of the 37th Infantry Division's Pacific campaign.

"It took us 19 days to get there," said Rish, who never married. "We were zigzagging. We had guns on the boat. There was no Japanese on the Fiji Islands. Some of the natives on the Fiji Islands helped us."

Rish's Pacific tour included combat duty at Guadalcanal, the Allies' first major offensive Pacific action starting in August 1942 and ending February 1943. The Japanese lost 24,000 soldiers and 6,000 Americans lost their lives in the battle, according to Japan101.com. Americans started the battle with 16,000 troops, the Web site stated.

Looking back on his three-plus years of military service, Rish doesn't know why he was able to live through the war.

"I don't know how I survived that mess, but I did," said Rish, who noted that his division shoot down about 90 Japanese planes.

Jenkins said he's been in awe of Rish for years because of what he endured during the war.

"It's just unbelievable what they all went through and thankful they did because we're free," he said.

Unfortunately, Rish doesn't have any of the medals he earned from his military service. Those were lost in a house fire that claimed the life of his sister in 2004.

Following the end of the war, Rish returned to his home in Edison. One of the early jobs he had was building vaults for burial and funeral services. He also farmed for 20 years, delivered The Albany Herald for 10 years and worked at the Green Thumb for 29 years in Edison before retiring at age 80.