When then-Army 1st Lt. Jim Riffe was preparing for the invasion of Okinawa in April 1945, he kept a small, black book. In it were the names of the 29 men he commanded. Seven would be dead within weeks and 14 more wounded.
When the now 100-year-old retired colonel prepares to celebrate the 76th anniversary of Victory over Japan Day Sept. 2, the names in that small, black book are what he will remember. In remembering those names, he honors those heroes, and it’s the advice he gives to Veterans as they reflect on their own military service.
“Remember the individuals you served with,” Riffe said.
From conservation to Okinawa
Before the war, Riffe served in the Civilian Conservation Corps, in 1937 and 1938 in Babcock State Park in West Virginia. That program brought young men from across the country to improve America’s public lands, forests and parks.
Riffe later entered college, playing on a football scholarship as a fullback at Davidson College in North Carolina. That’s when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and Riffe soon went from college student to Army infantry private, joining in August 1942.
Riffe rose to NCO, then to the officer ranks. His training and career landed him in the South Pacific at multiple islands. In April 1945 as part of the 27th Infantry Division, he left from Espiritu Santo and landed in Okinawa.
There, Riffe fought in some of the bloodiest fighting of the war, advancing south. He described the invasion as “continuous fighting,” with U.S. forces attacking during the day and Japanese forces attacking at night. He received a Purple Heart, surviving an explosion that killed one of his teammates.
The Japanese surrendered Aug. 15 and formally signed surrender documents aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay Sept. 2, 1945, now a day of national celebration in the U.S.
Riffe didn’t initially hear the news, finding out a few days later. His battalion airlifted on Sept. 5 from Okinawa to mainland Japan to demilitarize Japan.
After the war
Following the war, Riffe continued to serve in the Army. He deployed to Vietnam twice, once shortly after the French left. He deployed again right after the Tet Offensive in February 1968, establishing a division headquarters and serving as an advisor to a Vietnamese division. Riffe retired Sept. 1, 1972, with 30 years of service.
Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur signs the Instrument of Peace as the supreme allied commander during formal Japanese surrender ceremonies on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, Sept. 2, 1945. Standing behind MacArthur are Army Lt. Gen. Jonathan Wainwright, left; and British Lt. Gen. A. E. Percival, commander of Singapore.
Remembering Victory over Japan Day
This Sept. 2, as in years past, Riffe will be at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. He plans to speak about the sacrifice and bravery of the Veterans who fought. Among those are the names in the small, black book that he’ll carry with him that day.
“I think mostly about the men in the infantry platoon I commanded,” he said. “They were like family to me.”
They’re not forgotten, not for as long as he remembers.
Don’t lose World War II stories
Friends of the National World War II Memorial works to educate current and future generations about the everyday men and women whose character, courage, creativity, determination and innovation not only led to winning the war, but also helped reshape America. As part of that ongoing effort, it encourages folks to share the images and stories of their loved ones’ lives and service with them, via our website, so that we might in turn share them with our constituency and ensure that those who served in the U.S. armed forces during World War II are not forgotten.
Learn more at https://www.wwiimemorialfriends.org/veteran-profile/ or click below.