Thomas J. Riggs – Colonel, United States Army

From a contemporary press report

Thomas J. Riggs Jr., 82, a World War II battalion commander who was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge, then escaped and struck out on a desperate odyssey to rejoin his unit, died yesterday (November 5, 1998) at Rhode Island Hospital after a week in the intensive-care unit, suffering from pneumonia and heart failure.

After the war, Colonel Riggs served as a military attache in Mexico, then made a name for himself as a business executive in different cities across the country. He came to Rhode Island in 1960 as a vice president of Textron Inc., a position he held until 1971. He later became president and chief executive officer of Lawson-Hemphill Inc., a   mannufacturer of textile machinery in Central Falls.

But it was his experiences as a military officer and as a college athlete that were the highlights of his life, his family said yesterday.

Colonel Riggs was born in Huntington, West Virginia., a son of Thomas and Beulah Riggs. He attended the U.S. Naval Academy in 1935 and 1936, and graduated from the University of Illinois in 1941 with a degree in metallurgic engineering.

He was captain of the Illinois football team and the Blue team in the 1941 Blue-Gray game, a competition between college all-stars from the country's North and South.

He joined the Army as an officer in 1942. His leadership and heroism would earn him the Silver Star, the Purple Heart and, from both Belgium and France, the Croix de Guerre. His unit, the 81st Combat Engineer Battalion of the 106th Infantry Division, was given a Presidential Unit Citation for its “extraordinary heroism, gallantry and determination.”

A Saturday Evening Post article about the 106th Division said Riggs, a Lieutenant Colonel, was “the outstanding hero of the division,” in the eyes of his men.

He was 28 and in charge of 350 men, some of them quite “green,” when he was ordered to block a prime road into the Belgian town of St. Vith, which the Germans were pounding with tanks and infantry.

Though less than ideally equipped – the six guns of his tank destroyer battalion were so new, they lacked aiming sights – he and his men held the enemy back for five days. “He stalked the line boldly,” wrote Journal columnist John Hanlon in a 1985 retrospective, “so his troops could see he was still there, encouraging scared soldiers to hold on.”

Hanlon noted that even British General Bernard Montgomery, who rarely praised Americans, admired the work of the 106th: “By Jove, they stuck it out, those chaps.”

Ultimately, though, the division was overwhelmed. A mortar fragment grazed Riggs's head, knocking him out. When he regained consciousness, German soldiers were standing over him.

He was marched to an assembly point and grouped with 40 other Americans, none from his unit, then marched for 12 days more toward Berlin. Now and then, the Germans would stop near a village to forage for food, and would throw crusts from their sandwiches to the prisoners.

Worse than the indignity of being forced to grovel for food, Riggs hated being separated from his men. “I guess that was the lowest I ever felt in my stupid life,” he told Hanlon. “I felt I had not done the job I was given to do, and that hurt.”

The prisoners were taken by rail to a prison camp – Stalag 4 – outside Berlin. Then, perhaps as punishment for revealing nothing more than his name and serial number, he was sent off alone to a camp in Poland.

On his 28th day in that camp, he went to the latrine and noticed the usual guard was not there. In that instant, he decided to escape. He walked to a deserted mess hall and climbed atop a walk-in ice chest that was about eight feet tall, and tucked himself snugly against the wall.

He heard his name being shouted at roll call, and when there was no reply, “the search was on,” he told Hanlon. “Four or five times patrols came through the mess hall. One of them even had dogs with them, barking like hell. Each time, the guards opened the ice chest door and looked in. But nobody checked on top.”

When darkness fell and no guards were near, Riggs threw himself through a double barricade of barbed wire and, having heard that the Russians had taken Warsaw, tried to make his way on foot.

Three nights later, resting in a culvert, he felt a tap on his shoulder and announced, “I'm an American Colonel.”

“With that, this guy threw his arms around me and kissed me on both cheeks.” It was a member of the Polish underground, who took him to a house and fed him “potatoes and that great Polish sausage and warm milk,” which he ate until he was sick.

The underground linked Riggs with a Russian colonel of an armored unit who said, “Come on, Americanski, I'll have you in Berlin in a couple of weeks and you can meet your own people.”

The Colonel kept his promise, though he wound up getting there, in Hanlon's words, “by foot, truck, tank, train, boat and airplane,” via Odessa, Istanbul, Port Said and Naples. When he finally met up with the American military and said he wanted to rejoin his unit, they told him no. But when Riggs warned that they'd have a “basket case on their hands,” they relented.

His men were astonished to see him again when he arrived at the 81st headquarters. A Major came “roaring out from behind the desk and we hugged. I was a little broken up, all right, and so were the others.” They celebrated into the night.

Yesterday afternoon, Riggs's family unearthed the tissue-paper telegram he sent to his father: “Dad. Am free and in Allied hands, safe and in good health.”

His family recalled his Clark Gable-esque good looks, his charm, dancing ability and athletic grace, as well as his commanding presence in a room. He was “bigger than life,” they said, a natural leader, and a ready volunteer when one of his clubs needed a hand.

Among the clubs he belonged to were the Hope Club, the Agawam Hunt and the U.S. Seniors Golf Association.

Among his honors: being named I-Man of the Year by his alma mater in 1989, the 50th anniversary of the year his college team beat Michigan in a big game. He was also named to the Young Presidents Organization, a national group of company presidents under 40, and was chairman of the Small Business Association's advisory council.

He was a delegate to the 1980 White House Conference on Small Business and served on the Rhode Island Governor's Small Business Advisory Council. Also in 1980, he was elected director and vice president of the Smaller Business Association of New England.

He leaves his wife, Virginia Griggs Riggs; six children, Julia Yates of Elgin, Ill., Thomas J. Riggs III of Chicago, Robin Riggs of Cambridge, Mass., Geoffrey Riggs of Los Angeles, Rory Riggs of New York City and Merry Murray Meade of Wellesley, Mass.;
and two stepchildren, Barbara Powers of Providence and Dr. Hugh Barrett of Darien, Conn.; and eight grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held November 12 at noon in St. Martin Church, Orchard Avenue. Burial with full military honors will take place in Arlington National Cemetery.

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