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.