Elburn veteran reflects on World War II service as 100th birthday approaches

Like many World War II veterans who returned home safely, Jack Richtman of Elburn figures it was simply luck that bullets from German soldiers whizzed right past his head on occasion but did not strike him along the French countryside. At the same time, some in his Army division weren’t as lucky.

That sort of luck allowed Richtman, getting ready to celebrate his 100th birthday on June 29, to come home and eventually raise a large family.

Last week’s coverage of the 80th anniversary of the Allies’ D-Day invasion of Europe on June 6, 1944, couldn’t really focus on what awaited those who returned.

I had the honor of speaking to Richtman last week on the anniversary date of D-Day, and what caught my attention was the story of how this “gunner” on a mortar unit for the Army’s 71st Infantry Division was able to marry Karwyn, his high school sweetheart, and go on with his life — and affect the lives of so many others, in part, because he was one of the lucky ones. It is incredible to consider what the path of enemy fire may have potentially taken away.

Over the years, including a second marriage after Karwyn passed, the “math” behind Richtman’s family is staggering. There were 19 children, seven of them stepchildren, and by 2024, he had 52 grandkids and 52 great-grandkids.

“Karwyn and I were only-childs in our families, and we didn’t want that for us,” Richtman said with a smile. “We had 12 kids, and it worked out fine.” While on leave from Fort Benning, Georgia, he proposed to Karwyn at a park in St. Paul, Minnesota, in December of 1944 — just days before his division shipped out from New Jersey for France.

“Everyone was not sure I should give Karwyn that ring because they were afraid I would get killed over there … but that didn’t happen,” he said.

Well before the U.S. was engaged in war in the Pacific and Europe, Richtman grew up on Chicago’s south side. In 1938, during the latter stages of the Great Depression, he moved to an aunt’s home in Wisconsin to continue school. His high school in Blue Island shutdown during the winter because it could not afford heat.

He was a junior in high school when Pearl Harbor was attacked, and he had an urge to join the Army Air Corps. He finished high school and, while officially enlisted, continued studies at St. Thomas College in St. Paul, waiting to reach age 18.

“After becoming 18, I was pulled into the artillery unit and trained for 13 weeks in California,” he said. “Because they were starting the new Army Specialized Training Program, I went to that school as well.”

In his late teens, Jack Richtman gets ready for a day of duty with his mortar unit along the French countryside in 1945. Courtesy of Dave Heun

Physical training took place in the mountain regions of California, preparing Richtman and his unit for potential warfare in the Pacific or Italy. But he was headed for Normandy in January of 1945, to a relatively quiet beach compared to what occurred six months earlier.

“If I hadn’t gone to college for those extra six months, I would have been part of the D-Day invasion,” Richtman noted.

Richtman saw action in about six battles, and though his war stories may not be as harrowing as those of men in Europe since June 1944, his postwar tasks in Europe were no less important.

“When the war ended, we went to Austria and had to take German soldiers packed on trucks back to their homes in Germany,” said Richtman, who reached the rank of sergeant. “But we had to weed out Hitler’s SS guys and take them to interrogation stockades.

“As it got later in the war, there were not as many casualties in my unit,” he noted. “But earlier, it was really bad. So many things were destroyed, and it was a time when they (some in Richtman’s division) were discovering the concentration camps where Hitler was killing all of the Jewish people.”

Jack Richtman’s sergeant stripes, battle medallions and infantry division patch are on display at his home in Elburn. Courtesy of Dave Heun

After the war, Richtman married Karwyn and lived in St. Paul, working at a foundry that later closed. With a degree in chemistry, a friend helped him land a job with Swift/Eckrich. The company transferred him to Chicago, and he moved to Aurora in 1971.

After 32 years of marriage, Karwyn died in 1978, and Richtman remarried about two years later to Mary Perkins, a widow who had eight kids of her own, though one had died at age 7. Ironically, Mary passed away after 32 years of marriage as well.

Richtman’s family moved to Elburn in the 1990s, and he has been there since then. He now lives with a caregiver in his son Tom’s home.

“My stepfather is a very dedicated family man,” said stepdaughter Terri Morlock. “I am truly blessed to have him; I lost my dad when I was 15, and my mom and Jack got married when I was 18. I don’t think of him as my stepdad … he is my dad.”

Morlock is amazed Jack continues to be alert and in good spirits, being an avid Cubs fan and talking about sports, gardening and other interests.

“Jack and I went to the Garth Brooks concert together in 2014, and he stood the entire time,” she noted. “He was 90 years old at that concert. It was a very memorable night for me.”

Richtman uses a wheelchair these days but has stayed quite healthy. However, a urinary tract infection six years ago landed him in the hospital for 11 days and resulted in several weeks of rehab. “I almost didn’t make it through that one,” he said.

His son Tom points to Jack’s eating habits and his ability to stay busy after he retired from 38 years at Swift as keys to his longevity.

“I’ve never seen a person eat as many fruits and vegetables as he does,” Tom said. “For 38 years, every morning he went to work, he had two soft-boiled eggs and a bowl of oatmeal with milk.”

Ironically, Richtman continued to love his vegetables after what he describes as “sort of a funny memory.”

“When we were going to France, our ship had to zigzag a lot to avoid the German ships and U-boats,” he said. “I don’t know if it was from being seasick or something else, but a bunch of the guys eating peas one night got sick, and they were throwing up.

“I will always remember seeing those peas rolling along the floor,” he said with a smile. “Somehow, I didn’t get sick.”

Or hit by a bullet, which was an incredible blessing for his extended family.

New restaurant at Sergio’s spot

When I spotted a worker on the roof last week at the former Sergio’s Cantina location at 30 W. State St. in Geneva, it had to mean something new was coming to that spot.

Sure enough, a building permit for Arechiga Restaurant Group indicates the same folks who operate La Hacienda in the Geneva Commons have something planned for the Sergio’s site.

I couldn’t connect with Arechiga Group to get more specifics, but they confirmed they will operate a new restaurant there. More information is likely coming soon.

He was one of first:

It’s not a pleasant topic to contemplate, but some prep athletes I covered as a sports editor and writer in the Tri-Cities over many years have passed away. They were way too young.

Kevin Bryant of Batavia, who died in a white-water rafting accident in Colorado in 2008, comes to mind. Bryant was a star basketball player for Batavia, graduating in 2004.

An obituary last week for Dave Pease carried a different type of memory because he was a prep star so many years ago. He was one of the first Geneva High School athletes I saw in action on the football field and basketball court during my first year as a sports editor in 1978.

I recall snapping a cool photo of him taking a jump shot in one of the first basketball games I went to. Pease was a tall kid, so he filled the frame on a camera when you could get close enough to the action.

And here we are now, learning that Pease passed away at 63. Still too young.

I think Pease made that jump shot I caught on camera. From reading the obituary about his passions and successes, I learned that he made many more important shots in his life for family and friends.

Roots of softball success

There was plenty of joy for girls’ softball fans at St. Charles North last week when the North Stars captured their second state title in four years with a victory over Marist.

There’s a source for all of this — The Wasco Diamonds girls’ fastpitch softball program, closing in on 30 years of developing local girls into terrific players.

Joe Garbarski and, more recently, Bill Morrow have been key figures in creating softball players who have proven to be among the best in the state. It takes a lot of people to keep a program like this going strong, and, of course, many players are determined to reach their goals.

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