Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Long Journey of Private Walter A. Riggs and His World War II Postcard to Mary

For several years now I’ve been finding long lost WWII postcards and returning them to the families of the soldiers who wrote them. I’ve sometimes wondered if I’m the only person who does this. Turns out there’s at least one other – Arden Anderson of Palo Alto, California. He and I have never met in person, but we collaborated online to return a postcard to a family in Texas who lost a loved one in Italy in World War II. Here’s how it happened.

I recently spotted a card for sale on eBay postmarked Feb. 8, 1943. It was mailed from Italy by Private Walter A. Riggs to Miss Mary Clausen in Spokane, Washington. The photo side of the card depicts a "Femme Maure" (Moorish woman). In his return address, Private Riggs included his Army Service Number (38111307). Having that number makes it much easier to track down a soldier. From the National Archives database of WWII enlistments I learned that Private Riggs was born in 1918 and was from Lavaca County, Texas. Further searching revealed that he died in Italy on July 16, 1944, and is buried at the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery in Nettuno, Italy. When I learn information of this sort, I sometimes pass it along to the eBay seller to add more detail to the listing. I sent the seller (who turned out to be Arden Anderson) a message through eBay, giving him a link to Private Rigg’s memorial listing on the web site of the American Battle Monuments Commission.  He replied:

“Thank you for pointing this out and for the great web address. I bought this post card in an antique shop in Spokane, WA. After getting home I thought that it should go to this guy’s family. I searched the internet and found a Walter A. Riggs from Seattle who died at 92 years old and I tried to contact his family without any luck. I will search for a Walter A. Riggs from Texas. Thanks, again.”

I was pleased to find another person who shares my interest in returning these postcards to families. I began searching, and from information on Ancestry.com was able to identify some of Private Riggs’ relatives in Texas.  I passed this information along to Mr. Anderson. He's even more diligent than me, because a few hours later he emailed me:

“This morning I spoke to a nephew of Walter A. Riggs and I am sending the postcard to him. The sister of Walter A. Riggs is still alive at 96 and so is the girl he was going to marry. The nephew told me that he was killed in a truck accident in Naples, Italy. They were just about to go home after the war and they were sightseeing before heading home.”

The nephew sent Mr. Anderson a collage of photos of Private Riggs, and he forwarded them to me. They show a handsome, strapping young man. In one photo he's posing with a car, and in another is with a group of friends, wearing a letter jacket.

Photos of Walter Riggs provided by his family.
I was curious as to how Private Riggs, from Texas, was connected to Mary in Spokane. Mr. Anderson's research showed that Mary was about 19 years old at the time. I did some more searching and learned that Mary married Howard Grimsrud in 1946. She died in 2012 at the age of 90. Her obituary (http://tinyurl.com/omoqszr) revealed that she volunteered at a USO and worked in personnel at Galena Field in Spokane during the war. It's likely that she met Private Riggs at the USO or Galena Field, he asked for her address, and she obliged. I contacted Mary's sons in Spokane, and they confirmed that she received and wrote a number of postcards to soldiers during the war.

So the story of Private Riggs and his postcard has come full circle. He survived combat, only to die in an accident before he could return to the States and marry the girl back home. Mary married a soldier and lived a long life. Walter and Mary briefly crossed paths, and the postcard that connects them is with his family. And now I know at least one other person who shares my interest in the stories behind these WWII postcards.

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