A Prescott soldier’s life of service
By Sandy Moss
Eighty-nine-year-old Earl Melvin Richwine has a bad knee, one hearing aid and walks with a cane, but otherwise, he’s in good shape. He remembers with crystal clarity things decades in the past and his eyes light up with genuine good humor as he tells his stories.
Born Oct. 20, 1922, in Prescott [Ariz.], Richwine has spent the bulk of his years serving the local Salvation Army.
“Mother took me to the corps when I was 3 weeks old and I just kept going,” he says.
In 1929, at age 7, Richwine enrolled as a junior soldier. That year, his mother also taught him to play the cornet. When he was a senior soldier in 1939, he went to the World’s Fair in San Francisco with The Salvation Army’s Border Divisional Band.
Music has been as constant as the Army for Richwine. In sixth grade at Washington School some students persuaded him to come play at the high school across the street, as they needed more band members.
“So there I was at 13, playing with the regular Prescott High School Band,” Richwine says, still seeming a bit surprised.
At almost 90, he still plays in The Salvation Army band every Sunday.
“It would probably fold if I didn’t,” he says, laughing.
When World War II came along, Richwine attended an aircraft mechanic school at Prescott’s Love airport, where he earned a Class A airframe mechanic’s certification. He soon got a job at an aircraft plant in San Diego building wings for B-24s and PBY water-capable planes.
While there, Richwine joined with a six-piece Salvation Army band.
“They needed a drummer, so that’s what I played,” he said, along with the baritone, E-flat bass, and a gigantic sousaphone.
“I’d be completely exhausted (carrying the tuba) by the time we’d march eight blocks to the San Diego plaza,” Richwine recalled, where they played for the thousands of soldiers milling about.
In 1944, Richwine was drafted into another army: the U.S. Army Infantry. He reported to San Pedro, Calif., and was inducted at the same time as actor Mickey Rooney and comedian Red Skelton.
On Christmas Day, the U.S. Army sent him to war in the Philippines.
Even during the war, Richwine was reminded of his Salvation Army roots. Every evening aboard a ship heading to Okinawa, the soldiers would gather on the fantail and sing hymns—from Salvation Army song books.
Immediately after arriving in Okinawa, Richwine and his unit were engaged in heavy combat. One day, a mortar hit close by. It knocked him out and when he regained consciousness, his helmet was lying some distance away with a silver-dollar-size hole drilled out of its side.
Not long afterward, Richwine was looking for enemy troops on a small rise when an artillery shell landed behind him, throwing him into a nearby hole. Reaching to pull himself out, he found that only a portion of his right hand remained.
Hauled back to a field hospital tent, Richwine missed the boat that took the wounded soldiers out to sea at night for safety, leaving him and a nurse behind. When an air raid siren screeched in the night, she took Richwine to a safe place nearby and lay over him to protect him.
“I’ve always had a soft place in my heart for nurses,” he said, tearing up at the memory.
Years later that experience served as the impetus for his weekly social calls to the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Prescott. For more than 20 years, at 2 p.m. on the fourth Sunday of every month, Richwine would visit every single hospitalized GI there and take them cookies.
“That’s why I liked to go to the VA,” he said. “I’d been in a hospital and knew what it was like.”
Upon arriving home after the war, Richwine found his mother had used the money he’d sent to support her to set up a self-serve Laundromat. Alice eventually moved it to Granite Street as a full-service laundry where her son settled in to work.
In 1952, he married a friend of his sister’s named Alma. They had two children, Leah and Arthur. Alma died in 1979 from multiple sclerosis.
Richwine owned and ran the Prescott Laundry for 56 years until he had triple bypass surgery in 2000 and closed the laundry for good.
During all those years, he continued to volunteer at The Salvation Army.
In 1951, he was commissioned as Prescott’s corps treasurer. In 1955, he became the young peoples’ sergeant-major.
“My favorite job was working with the young people,” he said. “I like kids. I wore out three of my own vans picking them up to take them to church or outings.”
In 1966, The Salvation Army gave Richwine the William Booth Award for his service with the youth. In 1972, he was commissioned as the corps sergeant-major, a position in which his mother had served. It’s still Richwine’s job at the corps.
“I’ve been doing it for 40 years. Mother did it for 50. I’m running out of time to catch up,” he said, jokingly. “I’m the oldest person at the corps and people know it. That carries a certain distinction.”
In 1986, Richwine received his 50-year pin for half a century of Salvation Army service.
“I like being around people and working with them,” he said. “It’s a great way of helping people.”
The biggest thrill of his life, though, Richwine confides, was at that 1986 event when he bore his testimony.
“A thousand people gave me a standing ovation,” he recalled—a standing ovation for a life of service.
Richwine is known as a devoted soldier. That’s quite a legacy, he thinks.
And what is this good soldier’s philosophy?
“Live how God wants you to,” he says. “Depend on him and he’ll take care of you. He does a good job.”
Reprinted with permission from The Daily Courier