by Dean Rothermel
(Guns Save Life) – On a blustery Central Illinois day in March 2011, many from around the country joined in saying goodbye to Earl Riggins, a brave American hero who helped America defeat Japan in World War II.
Riggins served as a Marine guard on the USS Indianapolis, the fast cruiser sent to deliver the components of the first atomic bomb to the island of Tinian. At the time, Riggins said not even the captain knew what was in the lead cask locked inside the officer’s quarters under armed guard.
On its return, the Indianapolis was sunk in a torpedo attack in the dead of night.
On that fateful night Earl, a Marine Corps guard, was asleep when torpedoes from a Japanese sub ripped through the Indy. Riggins was dazed from hitting his head on the turret in the small compartment, but soon began helping his shipmates and donning his life jacket. Moments later the ship was listing and Riggins jumped into the water.
The ship sunk minutes later. The survivors, some of whom were injured, and burned, were now bobbing in the shark-infested waters of the South Pacific. Clinging to whatever they could including each other, the men did the best they could to keep it together. Most never made it, due to sharks, delirium, dehydration, and their injuries. Some just swam off because they were hallucinating, one of these was one of Earl’s friends whom he never saw again. Many of the men were covered in heavy oil from the fuel bunkers. This complicated their condition even more.
After the Indianapolis was well overdue, a search was mounted and eventually a PBY plane spotted the rag tag group on their last leg. The plane landed offering assistance, and managed to get 56 men on that plane to await rescue from naval vessels which eventually rescued the remaining survivors.
Of the 900 or so men who made it off the Indianapolis after it sank, only 317 were rescued from five days adrift at sea.
Earl was very active in the Indianapolis cause, and spoke to many groups about the experience.
Earl was a husband, father, and brother. He farmed, owned a trucking company, and was very active in showing horses. He and his wife Dorothy enjoyed horse riding up till just the last few years.
I have known of Earl a long time, but it wasn’t until later that I learned about the role he played in ending the war with Japan and his great mettle and perseverance in surviving that terrible event.
I’ve known his son Steve for many years, but it wasn’t until I found out about his war experience that I got to know Earl personally.
I invited Earl to come speak at one of our regular monthly GSL meetings, and he gladly accepted. He was a big hit, and even returned another time at our request. His son once told me Earl would talk to any one that would listen about his experience on the Indy. One of the most interesting anecdotes I was ever told about Earl was that he wouldn’t use a bath tub, or swim in a swimming pool. I never had the nerve to ask him, so I don’t know if it is true for sure, but you couldn’t blame him.
With that I will say farewell to my friend, the way I always said good bye to him… Semper Fi Marine, Semper Fi.
Reprinted from the May 2011 issue of GunNews.