By Leslie Kelly
If you ask Navy veteran Harry Risch what’s the toughest job in the Navy, he’ll tell you being “a Navy wife.”
And if you ask him what was the most important thing behind his successful 32 years in the Navy, he’ll tell you it was his wife, Dorothy.
“Without her, I couldn’t have done it,” said Risch. “She was my backbone, my strength.”
Risch, now 91, and a resident at Clearbrook retirement center in Silverdale, has been without “his Dottie” as he calls her, for more than two years. But not a day goes by that he doesn’t thank her for helping him with his Navy career.
The two knew each other in high school in Plainfield, Illinois, but didn’t date. After graduation, Harry went off to Northern Illinois University to study mathematics and engineering. The year was 1941.
“I was just a farm kid,” he said. “I had a scholarship, and I wanted to study. But I got a draft notice and I didn’t want to go into the Army. So I joined the Navy.”
It was while on a trip back home before the Navy, that Harry met up with Dottie.
“I’d been to college and when I came back home, the hometown girls just seemed to look a whole lot better,” he said.
They dated a few times and soon he was off to become an aviation cadet, while she had enlisted as a WAVE and was off to become a yeoman.
“She wanted to learn to repair planes,” Harry said of his wife. “But early on they asked if any of the women knew how to type and when she said ‘yes,’ she was sent to yeoman’s training.”
First she went to bootcamp in New York, then to Oklahoma and eventually was assigned to the Great Lakes Navy school.
Harry had completed his preliminary work and was being trained as a pilot. In 1944, he graduated and became a commissioned officer in the Navy. Throughout this time, the two had been writing and calling each other when they could. On a few occasions, they were able to travel and see each other. They knew they were meant to be together forever.
Once he graduated, they married on Oct. 10, 1944. Then, Dottie had to decide whether to stay in the Navy or opt out.
“She had only 10 days to make a decision and she decided to follow my Navy career,” he said.
Harry was assigned to Naval Station Whidbey Island as a co-pilot on submarine and ship hunting planes, he said. Then came the end of World War II.
“There I was as a reserve officer, with a wife, a car, but no degree and no job,” he said. “My skipper said I should consider active duty and so I did. I was sent to Okinawa. Now I had a job, but no car and no wife.”
Dottie stayed behind and went back home to be closer to family in Illinois.
After being in Okinawa for six months, Dottie was able to join him there in 1946.
“I tried to make a Quonset hut livable,” he said. “It was pretty rough living.”
Their next location was Guam.
“The squadron got set up and then the wives were flown down along with our belongings,” he said.
Their Navy life then took them to Hawaii, and to Corpus Christie where Harry was a flight instructor for three years. He then was sent to Air Force school to learn to fly helicopters. He was in charge of a helicopter squadron in Waco, Texas. His next assignment took he and Dottie to Lakehurst, New Jersey where he served with a helicopter detachment.
In New Jersey, they adopted two children, a son they named Lance and a daughter they named Kelli Ann.
In 1953, he failed an eye examination and was assigned to ship duty on carriers, cruisers and ice breakers including the USS Sipan, the Wooster and the Atka.
His service included being the commanding officer on the USS Destroyer Bausell, which was home-ported in San Diego and the CO of the USS Samuel Gompers, which was built in the Bremerton shipyard.
“I was planning on going to college in San Diego,” he said. “But one day the Admiral came to see me and asked me about commanding the Gompers, which was a brand new ship, and the next thing I knew, I was there.”
The ship was a prime assignment, he said, because it was new with a hand-picked crew. He was in charge of 1,200 sailors.
“It was a great ship and they did everything I ever expected them to do,” he said of the crew.
The ship’s role was to repair other ships and subs, he said. It was sent from Bremerton to San Diego, and then on to Japan and Taiwan. The “shakedown” trip showed that the Gompers could do its job and no major problems were found. It returned to Bremerton and was then sent to San Diego in 1969 where it would be homeported.
“We were on our way down to San Diego, moving the sailors and their families there,” he said. “We had wives, and cats and canaries onboard. It was in the middle of the night when my executive officer came to me and said ‘Captain, we have a problem.’”
“I asked him, ‘How old is she?’”
A young photographer’s mate had snuck his girlfriend onboard, Risch said. She was 18 so he put her in with the wives and when they arrived in San Diego, she was taken off the ship by a couple of Federal Marshals.
“My stow-away made all the headlines,” he said. “That was something I didn’t need.”
After a trip to the Philippines, he was allowed to go to college where he got a degree in military science. His next orders were to Singapore where he served as an attaché to an ambassador.
“I escorted various Navy VIPs who came to visit,” he said.
One of them, the Secretary of the Navy, asked him for a special favor.
“He wanted a tiger rug,” he said. “I told him I’d try to get one for him.”
It took some time and communication through a local but finally the tiger arrived via a Marine delivery.
“I came into my office and there was a tiger — a stuffed tiger — about three feet tall and six foot long,” he said. “We’d had some miscommunication or wrong translation and I ended up with a tiger, not a tiger rug.”
Risch sent the tiger anyway to Washington D.C. to the secretary of the Navy, and suggested that “although it wasn’t what he wanted, he should keep it.”
In 1974, after more time in San Diego and San Francisco, he retired from the Navy. He and Dottie returned to Bremerton because they so liked the area.
“We had good memories of Bremerton — all the people were so friendly and we had good friends who were still here,” he said.
With their children grown and on their own, Harry and Dottie were back at home in Bremerton. Harry went to work for a local beer and wine distributor, the Jennings Corporation. Soon the owner, Bob Jennings, introduced them to boating. He called them and asked them to help him bring back a boat he bought in Florida.
“It was a 65-foot Criscraft and he named it the Intrigue,” Risch said. “It’s still in Bremerton at the yacht club.”
The trip took 75 days and resulted in Harry and Dottie buying their own boat and becoming live-aboards. They lived on their boat from 1977 to 1997 at the yacht club.
“We traveled to Canada and Alaska,” he said. “We loved boat life, even if it meant really scaling down.”
When he could no longer crawl around the engine room, they gave up the boat and moved to a condominium in downtown Bremerton. After the steps got to be too much for him, Harry and Dottie moved to retirement cottages near where he lives now. He lost his Dottie June 1, 2011.
“She was the best,” he said. “She loved life. She was a fun lady.”
Their travels with the Navy and throughout Europe are some of his favorite memories. And Dottie’s German potato salad.
“She was a great cook,” he said. “She could cook anything.”
Risch’s daughter, Kelli Ann Daum, of Kirkland, recalled she and her brother Lance’s childhood as “magical.”
“We traveled a lot,” she said. “Every 18 months we moved and my mom always made it an adventure. She’d make it fun. And no matter how long we were going to be some place — even if it was just two months — she’s unpack everything and make it our home.”
Although her father was gone a lot on deployments, she knew he was always there for her. When he came home, he’d have treasures for her and her brother and he and their mother would “have time away together — just the two of them.”
“They were always very much in love,” she said. “They both put their marriage first and they were each other’s best friend for almost 70 years.”
Looking back to the beginning, Harry recalled that Dottie ignored his attempts to get her interest.
“She ignored me for so long, it became a challenge,” Risch said. “She was the perfect Navy wife and a good mother to our children.
“She enjoyed all the things we experienced and moving never bothered her. I couldn’t have done any of it without her.”
By Leslie Kelly