Service Number: O-006084
Birth and Early Life:
Wilfred Ringer was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, around the year 1916. He and his two siblings attended the local high school – where their father, Wilfred Senior, was the principal – and like his father, “Bill” attended Tufts University, graduating in 1937.
Enlistment and Boot Camp:
Bill Ringer decided to join the Marine Corps while still a sophomore at Tufts. His career began on June 4, 1935, at the Eastern Platoon Leader’s Class at Quantico, Virginia; instead of going directly to active duty, Ringer elected the slower career track of the Reserves – but still finished first in his class in 1938. (1)
Service Prior to 1941:
A good portion of Ringer’s first four-year enlistment was spent on inactive duty before his promotion to second lieutenant in 1939. He settled in with the General Service Unit at the Philadelphia Navy Yard and carried on a romance with Miss Ruth Warren.
In February 1941, Lieutenant Ringer was called up for active service. The casual Marine officer was to be transformed into a tough leader; Ringer went through training at Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania and emerged qualified to lead a platoon – he was given a section of Company M, Third Battalion, Fifth Marines later that year, and was deemed responsible enough to lead the company temporarily.
Shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Ringer was transferred to the regiment’s Headquarters & Service Company as the assistant Operations Officer (Bn-3); he was promoted to First Lieutenant on February 28, 1942. While training in the spring and summer of 1942, he showed an aptitude for intelligence work and earned a promotion to Captain.
Ringer and his section got a crash course in practical experience after landing on Guadalcanal. Patrols brought in bundles of paperwork and the occasional prisoner, to be interrogated by Lt. Ralph Cory. The map making and lithographic section was humming as the deficiencies in the original maps became more and more evident. Between leading patrols himself and overseeing the work of his section, Captain Ringer had his hands full when he was informed that a Japanese prisoner had told Lt. Cory that a group of his countrymen were not far away and could possibly be induced to surrender.
Ringer soon had another visitor – Colonel Frank Goettge, the division’s chief intelligence officer. He was accompanied by a salty First Sergeant, Steven Custer. Goettge had heard about the prisoner, and was determined to act on the information. Custer had a plan for a heavily armed, fast-moving patrol with experienced fighters which sounded good to Ringer; Goettge, however, wanted to kill two birds with one stone and gather as much intelligence as he could along with the prisoners.
Captain Ringer watched as more and more of his men were picked to go on the patrol, each one a specialist replacing a fighter. Ringer himself would come along as second in command; Cory would act as interpreter, and even the job of prisoner bodyguard – an easy task for the most junior private – was given to a trained intelligence man, Platoon Sergeant Denzil Caltrider. The reorganization took hours, causing Custer’s original timetable to be thrown off – and a certain amount of “resentment and foreboding” on Ringer’s part. (2) Worried, Ringer found Captain Lyman Spurlock of L/3/5 and asked if he could send a relief patrol if something went wrong. Spurlock demurred, saying “It would be difficult at night.” (3)
Shortly before dusk on August 12, 1942, twenty-five Marines and one Japanese prisoner boarded a boat that would take them to Point Cruz and the beginning of the patrol. Most of the men, including Goettge, seemed to view the expedition as an adventure; aside from Custer, few shared Bill Ringer’s concern.
A series of delays meant that the boat would not be able to reach its intended landing site until far too late. Goettge chose another landing site, ignored the prisoner’s protests, and made for shore; the boat promptly ran aground, more time was lost and more noise created as the Marines splashed on the sandbar trying to release it. The Japanese troops manning the beach defenses – dedicated fighters, not the demoralized construction troops the Americans were expecting – allowed the Marines to get ashore before opening fire.
Frank Goettge was killed with the first shot – and Captain Wilfred Ringer of Brookline, Massachusetts, was in command. He dragged the mortally wounded Custer to the perimeter – there was no cover on the beach – and yelled an order to call back the boat. One of the corporals ran into the surf and fired wildly in the air at the still visible boat, but to no avail. The Marines were trapped.
Date Of Loss:
Soon, Ringer himself was wounded. Lieutenant Cory was down with an agonizing stomach wound. Dr. Malcolm Pratt, the regimental surgeon, was shot while tending to a wounded man. Every few minutes, a Marine was hit. Ringer found Corporal William Bainbridge and asked if he thought he could make a run for help along the beach. Bainbridge thought so, and Ringer sent him racing into the darkness. (Bainbridge was later found shot to death a few hundred yards from friendly lines.)
An hour later, Sergeant Charles “Monk” Arndt tugged on Ringer’s sleeve and said he thought he could make it back by swimming. Then Corporal William Spaulding’s gun jammed. Ringer sent him back, too, and pulled his dwindling command in tighter and tighter.
By dawn, almost every Marine was dead or wounded. Ammunition was running low – Goettge had told his troops to pack light. With the cover of darkness dissipating and zero cover on the beach, Ringer thought his four survivors would have a better chance of survival in the trees. As they rose to run, all but Platoon Sergeant Frank Few were cut down by a Japanese machine gun. As Few ran for the ocean and swam away, he was chased by a group of Japanese soldiers, whom he saw hacking at the American bodies with sabers and bayonets.
Several days later, a patrol from the 5th Marines reached the site of the ambush. Several reported seeing scattered remains, but were ordered not to disturb them. One Marine Gunner, Bill Rust, found “an oversized, handless arm” sticking out of the ground. He thought he had found either Goettge or Ringer – both had been large men – but mindful of orders, he tried to push the image from his mind.
No trace of Wilfred Ringer’s body has been found.
Next Of Kin:
Wife, Mrs. Ruth W. Ringer
Status Of Remains:
Buried on Guadalcanal
Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, Philippines.
(1) Hammel, Eric. “Guadalcanal: Starvation Island” pg 133
(3) Jersey, Stanley Coleman. “Hells Islands: The Untold Story of Guadalcanal” pg 197.
(4) Hammel, 143. Rust’s patrol also located and buried Corporal Bainbridge; the location was marked but later lost in the tide of battle.