Sixty-three years later, shrapnel is still lodged in Wally Richardson’s cheek.
That tiny piece of steel — about the size of buckshot — became a part of his life, as present and somehow as natural as Richardson’s slow grin.
At 89 years old, Richardson readily recalls the specifics of a war that took so many lives yet saved so many, all at the same time.
There are many memories, he said.
Most of them, he will talk about.
Some of them he won’t.
Richardson dropped his head for a moment, to close his tear-rimmed eyes.
He will not speak of the concentration camps, Richardson said.
“I played a small part — a very small part — in defeating Adolf Hitler.”
Richardson carefully unrolls a map and traces various areas with a trembling finger. Someone long ago inked this path, made by Richardson and the other members of Company A 47th Regiment 9th Infantry Division.
“We walked it, you know,” Richardson said. “We were infantry. We walked all the way across France. Belgium wasn’t too big. But Germany was quite a ways.”
During that journey, Richardson was hit by shrapnel one month after arriving in Germany.
He speaks of living for three weeks in trenches outside of a small town in Germany.
“There was five foot of snow. The warmest it got was 18 below zero.” He said.
All soldiers followed a buddy system, Richardson said. “You didn’t go anywhere without your buddy.”
Richardson’s buddy was a soldier named McCulley from Missouri.
“McCulley’s feet froze,” Richardson said. “They had to take both feet off. I survived those three weeks. But I don’t know how.”
Richardson tells of another harrowing experience, crossing the Erft River in Germany.
“At midnight, we waded through the river, up to our shoulders,” he said. “Then we laid on a railroad track til daylight. Our uniforms were frozen.”
“Ten — maybe 12 — days later, you didn’t count the days, I was hit 13 times by a German 88th artillery,” Richardson said. “Six guys in my company were killed. When I came to, I was on a hospital train somewhere in France.”
Forty five days later, Richardson left a military hospital to recuperate at the 9th Replacement Depot in France. That’s where he was when the war ended.
He tried to march in a parade, to be part of the celebration, Richardson said.
“But I couldn’t make it,” he said. “My leg wouldn’t make it. They had to haul me in.”
Two years and nine months of his life and two purple hearts later, Richardson left Company A 47th Regiment 9th Infantry Division.
And yet he didn’t.
Because he couldn’t.
Those years of his life had become as much a part of Richardson as everything he left behind in Russell Springs, Ky.
After Richardson went home to his family, he opened a body shop but frequently traveled a few miles east to Somerset, Ky., to be involved in the VFW post.
It was important to spend time with men who shared his memories, he said.
“We fought a dictator for so long,” Richardson said. “I was proud to be a member of the VFW. I played a small part — a very small part — in defeating Adolf Hitler.”
In 1970, Richardson leased the body shop and said goodbye to friends at the VFW. He moved to Greenwood, to be closer to his only child, Wanda Rhoten.
During the next six years, Richardson, also an auctioneer, built a successful used furniture business, which is still located on Main Street in Olde Town Greenwood. His granddaughter, Gloria Straub, manages the store these days.
In 1976, Richardson was invited to help launch VFW post 5864 in Greenwood.
“On April 26, 1976, we organized a new post with 39 men on the charter,” he said. ”That original charter is hanging in the post to this day. There’s three of that 39 still living.”
Through the years, Richardson received numerous awards and accolades for serving in various roles to benefit Veterans of Foreign Wars. He has saved every certificate, every pin, every hat and newspaper article.
These are the parts of his life that give meaning and allegiance to that piece of shrapnel in his cheek.
“The VFW brings men together,” Richardson said. “They respect and love each other. They’re Americans and they fought for America.”