‘Diminutive dynamo’ Erma Richards, Navy commander

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

In Mackinaw Township Cemetery is a gravestone marked with the Christian cross, bearing the following inscription:

ERMA A RICHARDS
CDR US NAVY
WORLD WAR II KOREA
OCT 31 1896 JUL 17 1991

This simple memorial of a Navy veteran’s service to her country and her fellow man was brought to my attention by Mackinaw historian Kathy Friend, who has supplied the Pekin Public Library with a couple of biographical items concerning the remarkable life and career of Erma Richards.

Richards’ life and personality are encapsulated in the first paragraph of her published obituary, which dubs her “the diminutive dynamo who rose to the rank of commander in the Navy Nurse Corps” – “diminutive” because she stood only 5 feet in height. Friend sums up her life with the comment, “I think she was an amazing lady.”

Born Oct. 31, 1896, in Waynesville, Ill., the daughter of William Clark and Leona Pearl (Heiserman) Richards, she grew up in Mackinaw with a brother and two sisters. Richards entered nurses training at Brokaw Hospital School of Nursing in Normal in 1991, graduating in 1922. She spent the rest of her life doing what she loved – caring for the sick.

After graduation, she served as a private duty nurse for seven years, working with Drs. Edson B. Hart, Joseph K.P. Hawks, Lester B. Cavins, and Fred W. Brian. However, it was, in the words of her obituary, “the promise of adventure and a more secure future” that led her to enlist in the Navy Nurse Corps in 1931.

Joining the Navy Nurse Corps fulfilled its promise of adventure. Richards was first stationed in Chelsea, Mass., then Portsmouth, Va., and the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. She was then assigned to the USS Relief, which was at the time the only hospital ship in the world. The Relief followed the U.S. fleet in the Caribbean Sea.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Richards was one of only 15 nurses chosen for assignment there in January 1942. After 15 months in Hawaii, she was assigned to a convalescent hospital in Asheville, N.C., as chief nurse.

As America’s war effort continued and casualties mounted, the need to provide care for the injured was met by the conversion of six tankers to hospital ships in the fall of 1944. Richards was assigned to one of them, the USS Benevolence, as chief nurse. Richards said that she loved being at sea.

In the summer of 1945, just before the war was ended with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Benevolence went to the Marshall Islands to join the Pacific fleet. The Benevolence steamed into Tokyo Bay on Aug. 25, 1945, and then received 1,500 American prisoners of war. Richards and her fellow nurses worked non-stop in caring for the liberated POWs.

With the war’s end, Richards spent eight years serving at Navy bases in San Diego, Calif., Corpus Christi, Texas, and then back to Chelsea, Mass. While stationed at Corpus Christi, Richards was rewarded for her years of service by promotion to the rank of commander. On Dec. 3, 1950, the Corpus Christi Caller newspaper reported her promotion in these words:

“Lt. Com. Erma Richards was selected for promotion to commander at Naval Hospital Chief of Nursing Service. To make commander rank, the chief of the nursing service at the U.S. Naval Hospital, here, Lt. Commdr. Erma Richards, Nurse Corps, USN, has been selected for promotion to the rank of commander. She is the 1st officer of the Nurse Corps to be serving in Texas at the time of selection for appointment to the rank of commander, and will be among the limited few in the service at this rank. Lt. Com. Richards came to the hospital from San Diego in June. She is a native of Mackinaw, Illinois, where her parents, Mr. & Mrs. Clark Richards, still reside. She is a graduate of Brokaw Hospital School of Nursing in Bloomington, Illinois. She has served in I.S. Naval Hospitals in Charleston, South Carolina, Pearl Harbor, St. Alk, New York, San Diego, Portsmouth, Virginia, and Chelsea, Massachusetts.”

Richards retired from the Navy in 1953 and returned to her hometown of Mackinaw, where she was an active member of Mackinaw Christian Church. She passed away in the early morning hours of Wednesday, July 17, 1991, at Martin Health Center in Bloomington.

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