Photo courtesy of Kathy S. McBee
Service Number: 281346
Birth and Early Life:
Ken Ritter was a native of West Virginia. Born on November 14, 1922, he grew up in Barbour County on the family farm. Ritter finished one year of high school before leaving the farm for Baltimore, where he enlisted in the Marine Corps.
Enlistment and Boot Camp:
Ritter joined the Corps on January 24, 1940. He trained at Parris Island, and in February was sent to the Service Battalion at Quantico, Virginia.
Service Prior to 1941:
From March to September, 1940, Private Ritter served at the Navy Yard in Brooklyn, NY, and then at the Naval Ammunition Depot in Dover, New Jersey, where he was promoted to Private First Class. It wasn’t until October 1941 that Ritter wound up in an infantry regiment – Company D, First Battalion, 5th Marines.
Ritter’s unit had been groomed for service as an independent, commando-style unit; on January 7 1942, they officially became the First Separate Battalion – then the First Raider Battalion on February 16.
The Raiders moved from Virginia to Tutulia, in Samoa, where PFC Ritter practiced training with the BAR. He was assigned as an assistant BARman and transferred to Company C, where he teamed up with a gunner from Philadelphia named Joseph Rushton. (1)
Ritter’s first exposure to combat took place on August 7, 1942, when his company invaded the island of Tulagi and destroyed the Japanese garrison there. A month later, they took a short boat ride to Guadalcanal, where they raided a Japanese supply depot near Tasimboko. From there, they marched inland and took up defensive positions around a ridge that, while nameless when they arrived, would soon be known as Bloody Ridge.
Ritter was suffering terribly by September 12 – not from wounds, but from a bad case of dysentery. The heat and exhaustion didn’t help either, and as Company C moved into their nighttime positions, Ritter simply collapsed along the trail. Robert Youngdeer, a friend of Ritter’s from another company, saw the ailing Marine. “As I went by, he looked up and smiled real weak-like,” Youngdeer remembered. “He didn’t have anything to say.”
Date Of Loss:
Ken Ritter eventually found the strength to catch up to his squad, which had taken up a position in the jungle that could only be reached by crossing a slippery fallen tree. Nobody needed to tell them that they were virtually bait in a trap, but as night fell the Marines were grimly determined to hold on as long as they could.
Not long after dark, a Japanese battalion attacked to company and began rolling up the Marine positions. After losing a machine gun protecting their flank, Rushton and Ritter’s platoon was ordered to fall back. They crawled on their hands and knees towards the fallen tree, hanging onto a telephone wire as a guide. When they got to the crossing, though, they found the Japanese had turned the flank and they were trapped. Not knowing what else to do, they hit the dirt, all the while hearing the Japanese killing wounded Americans with bayonets and sabers.
One Imperial soldier stepped on Rushton; another drew his sword. Rushton jumped up and was shot down by a short-range blast, but still managed to fire his entire magazine. “At this point people were crawling in all directions, mainly away from the log crossing,” he said. “It wasn’t long before they were overrun by the swarming attackers of the main charge. It was horrible and frightening hearing our small group of overrun Raiders screaming as the bastards bayoneted and hacked them with their Samurai swords.” (3)
Ritter had been wounded in the back by the same blast that had wounded Rushton, and he clutched at his friend. “He was in great pain and shock and asked me not to leave him,” said Rushton. The two quietly tried to crawl away, but Ritter was too badly wounded to move on his own. Rushton dragged him along with one arm, and carried the BAR with the other. For hours they inched along, hoping to find a shallow part of the lagoon.
The two Marines were in the middle of a swamp near the northern portion of the lagoon when three Japanese jumped out at them. Somehow, Rushton killed two and frightened the third away, but not before Ritter was stabbed in the leg by a bayonet.
Ken Ritter had stood illness, fear, and a debilitating wound as stoically as he could, but the last intensely painful injury was too much. In delirium, he began to scream and call for his mother. Rushton, afraid more Japanese were around, quickly covered Ritter’s mouth with his hand. (4)
The two hid in the swamp, unable to move, as Ritter’s life ebbed away. Just before dawn, the twenty-year-old Marine died of his wounds. Carefully, Rushton concealed his friend under a large fern, then began making his way back towards the ridge. (5)
Next Of Kin:
Father, Mr. Fred L. Ritter
Status Of Remains:
Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, Philippines.
(1) PFC Ritter moved between companies several times, from D Company in January, to E Company in April, and finally C Company in July. Some accounts list him as a member of Company E, however Rushton was in Company C during the fight for Edson’s Ridge.
(2) O’Donnell, Patrick K. Into the Rising Sun. pg 47
(3) Alexander, Joseph H. Edson’s Raiders: The 1st Marine Raider Battalion in World War II. page 153.
(4) Alexander, pg 154. For years after the war, Robert Youngdeer recalled hearing the screams of tortured Marines during the battle; he believed he could hear his friend Ken Ritter above the gunfire and commotion.
(5) Rushton hid Ritter’s body to keep it from being found by the Japanese, who had a reputation for defiling dead Marines. However, he was evacuated within minutes of reaching Marine lines, and search parties never located Ritter’s remains.