Edwin H. Richardson: A warrior and a scholar
By T. Rees Shapiro,
In the winters of his boyhood in New Hampshire, Edwin Herbert Richardson hiked the foothills of the White Mountains, trudging through the powder in snowshoes his grandfather had fashioned by hand out of birch and moose hide. He trapped muskrats with his father, whose forebears were American Indians, and together they skinned the animals and tanned the hides. From his mother, whose constitution made her a woman to be reckoned with, he learned to make maple syrup in a kettle over a log fire.
For Richardson, who died Oct. 1 at 93, his rough-hewn childhood prepared him for a life that encompassed frozen Apennine mountain battlefields during World War II and service with the Green Berets during the Vietnam War.
He was born Sept. 21, 1919, in Berlin, N.H., where his father, Herbert Richardson, was a horse wrangler and farmer. His mother, the former Mabel Lowe, overcame an eighth-grade education to serve more than three decades in the New Hampshire House of Representatives.
At 13, the younger Richardson began work as a logger in Coos County to help support his family. He came of age with a lithe, muscular body tempered by hard labor and hours on the nearby ski slopes — which his Penobscot tribal Indian elders acknowledged by giving him the name “Strong-Legs.”
When World War II broke out, Richardson joined the Army. In his family, military service had been a tradition since the Civil War. His maternal great-great-grandfather, Thaddeus Lowe, pioneered the use of the hot-air balloon on the battlefield, conducting reconnaissance missions for the Union.
Richardson’s own outdoor skills led him to the 10th Mountain Division, where he became an expert mountaineer and ski instructor. “To be in the 10th, you had to know how to ski and had to know a lot about rock climbing,” Richardson told the Ohio State alumni magazine in 2001. “Others would see an obstacle and say, ‘Bypass it.’ The 10th would see an obstacle and look for routes over it.”
He endured rigorous training in the Colorado Rockies before his first combat deployment to face the Japanese.
Under sail for the invasion of Mount Kiska in the Aleutian Islands, Richardson captured the nervous energy buzzing among the men of his platoon in a Kerouac-esque diary entry.
“It was 18:00 one night on the ship, the U.S.S. Harris, and nary a light shone above the main deck, and a weird atmosphere of something big was brewing like strong coffee in the cool breeze of the Bering Sea,” Richardson wrote in 1943. “Everyone was of a character that seemed to be so strange and yet so natural, with a feeling of duty, with a manner of peculiar delight in which a smile was the vogue of constant expression.”
As a motor officer on Mount Kiska, Richardson oversaw one of the first uses of tracked snowmobiles in combat. He nearly died after a prototype flipped over on the icy side of a volcano, escaping before the hulking machine came to rest buried in a snowdrift.
For his next deployment, Richardson commanded a machine-gun platoon in the mountains of northern Italy. The unit’s first assignment was to take Riva Ridge in the Apennines.
At night, Richardson and his men gathered at the base of a cliff and swigged from a bottle of whiskey. Above them waited German sentries entrenched in bunkers.
The soldiers climbed 1,000 feet up the frosty escarpment carrying 90-pound rucksacks. They surprised the Germans and destroyed the bunker complex. Richardson and his men then broke up an enemy ambush by lobbing grenades at the Germans lying in wait. They killed them all.
Later in the campaign, molten shrapnel hit Richardson in the back. While recuperating in a field hospital, Richardson befriended a folksy Kansan soldier who later ran for political office: Bob Dole.
After the war, Richardson studied clinical psychology and received a doctorate in special education and counseling from Ohio State University in 1951. With his background in psychology, Richardson was called back to Army service during Vietnam and sent to the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare School. He oversaw top-secret psychological warfare operations and also took part in paratrooper training. During a nighttime skydive, Richardson’s parachute collapsed and he fell 150 feet. He suffered spine fractures and spent nine months recovering.
During the 1970s, Richardson moved to the Washington area and worked as a research analyst for what is now the Department of Health and Human Services. In retirement, he began a second career as a consultant and lecturer. In the 1990s, he taught classes on psychology, communications and sociology at Catholic University, the University of Maryland and George Mason University.
Although his action-filled career in the military came to an end in 1968, when he retired at the rank of major, perhaps the greatest adventure of Richardson’s life began in the mid-1980s after a chance encounter in the Newark airport.
It was there that he met Muriel Kashinoki, who was waiting to board a plane for Wyoming and had brought along a book about Native American spirituality. Richardson, bewitched by the woman’s tender smile, shared the story of his Penobscot heritage.
Before parting ways to travel to opposite ends of the country, they exchanged mailing addresses. In the Fairfax County home they shared together for a quarter-century as a married couple, Muriel Richardson keeps a suitcase brimming with scores of letters from their courtship.
T. Rees Shapiro is The Post’s Fairfax County education reporter.