William Harry Combs
Colonel, United States Army
Richard Maddox Combs
Second Lieutenant, United States Army
of The Class Of 1943
United States Military Academy
Richard Maddox Combs
It has now been over four decades since the Pacific Campaigns of World War II. Our former enemy is now our ally. But this peaceful condition was bought at great cost — a cost that is not evenly distributed in our country. Dick Combs’ loss is an example of how some families bore more tragic burdens than others did.
Dick’s father, born in Oregon, spent his early years in Alaska before serving as a captain in the AEF. After the war he returned to San Francisco where he married Dick’s mother. So, although Dick was born into a financial world, his father’s service in World War I helped influence him toward West Point. He attended the Portsmouth Priory School in Rhode Island, where he won two letters in football and was active in five other sports including boxing. Like so many of us, he took an extra year to prepare at “Beanie” Millard’s in Washington. From that, he knew many of the class before he entered, but his warm manner and infectious smile would have won him his many friends without that.
Cadet life came naturally to Dick. He had that mixture of toughness and compassion that marks the successful military leader. He played polo, boxed, and won monograms in intermurder soccer and football. Active with the Catholic Chapel, Dick served as an acolyte and was on the Military Ball Committee. He made the progression of rank from acting corporal to corporal, to regimental sergeant major, striding proudly beside the national colors at parade. Standing academically in the respectable middle of the class, he chose the Infantry, a difficult branch where his natural leadership talents would soon be sorely tested under fire, for he was in combat long before the remaining members of our class.
In 1941, Dick met Kitty Smith at a New England camp where both served as counselors. Dick taught riding to the campers. Romance blossomed and they were married at the Catholic Chapel at West Point, 20 January 1943. Dick served at several posts before leaving for Bougainville in the Pacific.
A son was born to Kitty and Dick the day before Dick sailed from California for combat in the Pacific: Richard Maddox Combs, Jr. On 8 December 1943, Dick joined the American Division in the Fiji Islands after the division came back from Guadalcanal, progressing from platoon leader to special troops to commander of "H" company, 164th Infantry Regiment on Bougainville. In less than a month after joining the regiment, on 28 February 1944, Dick was killed in action. He was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action, the Bronze Star Medal, the Purple Heart, and the Combat Infantryman Badge.
But it is not the cold words of these citations that tell us best the qualities of Dick’s battlefield leadership. That comes from an amazing letter written to Richard Jr., by the men of Dick’s command. Why this unusual letter? Let the letter speak: “You never did have a chance to see your father. He told us he sailed the day after you were born. We only knew him for a few short weeks. He had just joined our regiment. The point is that we had the opportunity of being with him for that brief period — a privilege that has been denied you.
“He was proud of you, Richard. He lived for the day when he might have returned home and clasped you and your mother to his heart. He lived for the moment when the world might be free and he could go home. He died for that moment too . . . He died as many true American heroes have — in the jungle, hunting down a most vicious enemy. He was killed leading his men on patrol.
“Your father didn’t have to go on that patrol.
He was company commander of a heavy
“It was his first patrol and he was determined it would be a success. Hunting down the Jap in the jungle is no easy task, Dick. It requires skill and courage. It’s hot, rainy, and frightening in the bush — sometimes a fellow wonders why any human being must fight under such conditions. But no one ever shirks his duty. Your father didn’t.”
And so, leading a five-man patrol under the barbed wire against an enemy stronghold, Dick Combs was killed at the head of his men — a gallant son of West Point who was never to know his own son.
In May 1942, Dick’s father left his civilian firm and re-entered the Army. Serving first with the new 8th Armored Division, he soon was sent to the Pacific Theatre, preceding his son. Colonel Combs was combat liaison officer with a Chinese regiment when he learned of Dick’s death. Within 24 hours he wrote General Hayden Boatner requesting combat duty. From then until June he earned a reputation for being the most courageous and forceful leader in his command. On 14 June 1944, less than four months after Dick’s death and after being under fire for 21 consecutive days, Colonel Combs demonstrated his last act of heroism. General Boatner was assembling a force to relieve the position where Colonel Combs and his men were, when the enemy opened fire. Colonel Combs advanced against the attackers almost single-handedly and was hit twice. Supporting troops managed to recover him, but he later died from his wounds. He was awarded two Distinguished Service Crosses. His bravery was an inspiration to all who served in the area. Like father, like son.
In late March 1949, at a service led by Father Murdock, who had known both at West Point, father and son were re-buried together at Arlington National Cemetery. Even President Roosevelt, who wrote a touching tribute to Dick’s mother in July 1944, noted the loss to family and nation. At his death, his father and mother survived Dick, by Kitty and son, Mac, by two brothers, Jack and Bill, at West Point, by one other brother in the Marine Corps, and by two sisters. The three brothers, Dick, Jack, and Bill, were the first three brothers to attend West Point at the same time.
COMBS, RICHARD M