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Hometown Hero: Don Riggles

Hortonville man fought in three major Pacific battles in WWII and survived
HORTONVILLE (WFRV) "I just wanted to get where the action was going. I knew I'd have to go anyway," said USMC WWII veteran Don Riggles of Hortonville.

It's been 72-years since Don Riggles enlisted in the U.S Marine Corps just months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He and his unit were dispatched to Somoa as preparation for three of the deadliest island battles in the Pacific. All were recounted in the book "Follow Me" The Story of the Second Marine Division In World War Two" by Richard Johnston. Riggles and his unit first saw action at the Battle of Guadacanal. A planned mission to take out a Japanese compound quickly showed an enemy that was determined to keep the island.

"When we got there, it turns out it wasn't a small group, it turned out to be a bivouac area for the Japanese," Riggles recalled. :"We were outnumbered there like four or five-to-one."

Just nine-months after U.S forces gained control of Guadalcanal and adjacent islands, Riggles and his unit joined in the Battle of Tarawa. Many landing craft couldn't get past reefs around the island. So marines had to make their way ashore as best they could under constant sniper fire. Riggles and other marines took cover under a pier. He made what would become a fateful move around another marine.

"I swum up to go around him a bit. And once I got beside him, he got hit. So I was that close," Riggles said. "He was dead before he hit the ground. He got it right between the shoulder blades."

Tarawa would be captured after 76-hours at a cost of 12-thousand lives. Nearly seven-months later, Riggles would see action in the Battle of Saipan and another close call.

"That's one of the first times we actually hit artillery fire coming our way," he said. "They were entrenched in that island (Saipan). They had been there for quite awhile already."

The nearly month long battle claimed over 34-hundred American lives...and all but 900 of the 30-thousand Japanese defenders. Riggles were honored for their service. But he remains philosophical about it.

"It's an experience that you wouldn't give up but you wouldn't want to go back and do it again," Riggles said.

Local 5's Terry Kovarik has the story.

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