William J. Richardson, Jr.
First Commander of Leaping Lena - which was
subsequently named Project Delta

(NOTE: The following article by Kevin Maurer was originally published in the Fayetteville Observer - Sunday, Jan. 28, 2007)

Former COSCOM commander Bill Richardson, who was a prisoner of war in North Korea for 34 months, continues to serve soldiers and other former POWs.

Only once did retired Col. Bill Richardson think he wasn't going to make it out of a North Korean prisoner of war camp in 1950. A prisoner at Camp 5 "outside Pyoktong near the Manchurian border" Richardson, who was already wounded, was hurt working outside the camp. Slowly, his legs started to grow stiff. His Achilles tendons turned blue and swelled thicker than his thumb. Soon, he couldn't walk. The guards dragged him to the hospital "called the morgue by the Americans" and threw him on top of dying prisoners who cursed and kicked at him in the small room. Sick from dysentery, he dragged his broken body outside to a dirt trough the soldiers used for a toilet. But the earth crumbled beneath him and he fell in. He yelled out and clawed at the walls of the trench as his paralyzed legs, like an anchor, pulled him toward the bottom. The filth was up to his chin when two fellow prisoners pulled him out. The commotion attracted the guards, who started beating Richardson. He lost control of his bowels and thought of giving up. Giving up meant death. "That was the first and last time I ever thought of dying," he said. Richardson eventually fashioned a pair of tree limbs into crutches and walked out of the morgue and two years later out of the prison camp. He made a pact with himself afterward to never look back. "There were guys that talked about nothing else for the rest of their lives," Richardson said. "never dwelled on that." The key was controlling his mind, a skill he says he turned into a drive to succeed.

A tough kid who grew up poor on the streets of Philadelphia, he built a military career that spanned almost four decades and included leading one of the most decorated special operations units in Vietnam and one of the Army's largest logistics commands. He also has a strong, 53-year marriage, five children and a successful construction and real estate company.
These days, Richardson is confident and candid, his manner leavened by a dry sense of humor.
A charismatic storyteller, he often re-enacts scenes from his life, including how he hobbled "back hunched and his feet shuffling" around the prison camp after his injury. His humor is complemented by the way he still cares deeply about soldiers and veterans alike. At 77, he works four days a week, serves as president of several veterans groups and shares his POW experiences with Special Forces students at Fort Bragg. "Before Korea, I was still growing up. When the war was over, I knew myself inside and out, he said.

A black and white picture from the Philadelphia Public Ledger shows a young Richardson returning home from Korea in 1953. He is wedged between his mother and father. His mother's face is buried in his neck. His father, on the verge of tears, is staring at the camera. Richardson has a smirk on his face and his khaki uniform hat is cocked to one side of his head. The homecoming was the start of Richardson's courtship of Claire, his wife of 53 years. Richardson's parents were divorced, and his father brought his new wife and family to the airport. Richardson had met his father's new wife "including her 16-year-old daughter, Claire" one Sunday just before he deployed to Korea. "I thought he was one cocky SOB," Claire Richardson said. "Plus, I had a boyfriend." Richardson, who had been stationed in Europe before getting orders for Korea, didn't think much of her at the time, either. "I had a girlfriend in Austria," he said. Still, he and Claire posed for a picture that Sunday before he deployed. He never saw the whole photo but he did see half of it a few years later in Korea. He had just been transferred between prison camps and was sitting with other soldiers from Philadelphia when one of them pulled out a photo. "This is my girlfriend," the soldier said as he passed it around.
When the photo got to Richardson, he saw it was a photo of Claire. It was torn in half and only showed her. "Do you know who is on the other side of this picture?" Richardson asked the group. The other soldiers shook their heads no. "It's me", he said.

Back at the airport, Richardson was face to face with Claire, now 20. "You don't remember me," she said. He looked her up and down. "I sure do, but there have been some changes," he told her. Claire knew at that moment she would marry Richardson. "He was a man of the world, and I was this little girl from Philly," she said. "I would have gone to hell and back for this man." The courtship lasted only a few months and the couple married in February 1954. Claire Richardson still has her half of the grainy black and white photo, showing a young Richardson in a crisp Army uniform a few days before he left for Korea. "It has always been hanging on the fridge ever since that cocky guy turned into Romeo," she said.

Richardson's first post after Korea was as a company first sergeant in the 364th Infantry Regiment at Fort Dix, N.J. He worked his way up to command sergeant major in the regiment.
Now 24 and married with children, he had reached the top of the enlisted ranks and needed a new challenge. Helicopters were the Army's new toys, and Richardson put in his application for pilot school. He passed all of the tests and was preparing to go to Fort Rucker, Ala., for training when his physical uncovered his night blindness, caused by a vitamin deficiency in the prison camp. When the doctors told him, he shrugged. "I'll get a waiver," he said. The doctors refused to give him one and his pilot dreams were dashed. A major in the 364th urged him to go to officer candidate school instead. At first he laughed it off because he had only a ninth-grade education, but the major wouldn't stop badgering him. He finally took and passed the high-school equivalency test, and the Army approved his application to officer candidate school. Richardson graduated and was soon on his way to the 82nd Airborne Division. He served in Germany with the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment before coming back to Fort Bragg in 1961 to join the Special Forces.

When he arrived at Special Forces headquarters, the deputy commander called him into his office. "Yarborough doesn't want you," the commander told him. Lt. Gen. William Yarborough "architect of the Special Forces” was building the unit from scratch and wanted the Army's best. Since Richardson hadn't completed college, Yarborough apparently didn't think Richardson was smart enough. But the deputy commander, a friend of Richardson's, vouched for him. Richardson went on to serve with both the 5th and 7th Special Forces Groups. With war raging in Southeast Asia, he found himself in Laos and finally in Vietnam. His first command in Vietnam was Project Delta. He was the unit's first and third commander. "I know I was selected because of my past combat experience," Richardson said. Formed in 1965, Project Delta used Vietnamese troops and later teamed with U.S. troops, for reconnaissance missions along the Ho Chi Minh trail. "He was only a captain, but he was the right man for the job," said Paul Payne, Richardson's sergeant major when he commanded Project Delta. "He knew what the mission was and he knew how to get it done." Richardson's first stint with the unit was successful. He was the first to infiltrate and recover teams from North Vietnam. Richardson was working at Special Forces headquarters when he took over Project Delta the second time. "Meet me at the airfield," he was ordered by his commander. Richardson was going to Saigon to brief the embassy about Project Delta. The Army was giving him command again. Richardson could hand-pick the unit. Payne remembers how Richardson was a good judge of character who cared deeply for his soldiers. "He had that natural intelligence. That common sense," Payne said. "He was able to overcome stuff a common individual would not be able to comprehend." Project Delta was one of the most highly decorated special operations units in Vietnam. The unit captured vast amounts of equipment and supplies and identified major enemy installations and supply routes.

After 14 months in Vietnam, Richardson returned to Fort Bragg. He was promoted to major and, in the late 1960s, graduated and then taught at the Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. He also finally earned a college degree. His was in social psychology, from Park College in Missouri. Richardson's career took him back to Fort Bragg, to Iran and finally, in 1980, to the 1st Corps Support Command (COSCOM). One of the Army's largest support units, the post was Richardson's final major command and the most challenging. "I turned them from a bunch of oil-soaked hats to the topnotch logistics unit in the Army," Richardson said. He commanded the unit for 52 months, but believes he was more cheerleader than commander. He came up with the motto: "The sun never sets on 1st COSCOM." Under his command, COSCOM soldiers deployed to four continents, built the bases for the U.S.-led Sinai peacekeeping force and provided all the logistics support for 6,000 soldiers who invaded Grenada.

Richardson retired in 1985, but he never stopped serving. He is the commander of the organization for former POWs in Fayetteville and the national director for the American Ex-Prisoners of War. He also sits on the board of directors for the Former POW foundation, a charity that raises money for military-related organizations such as Fisher House. The house provides a place for military families to stay on Fort Bragg when there is a crisis. This summer, Richardson also became the national president of the 1st Cavalry Division Association. But it is being with soldiers that Richardson likes the most. In November, he and three other former POWs met with students in the Army's Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape "SERE" course. Standing in front of the stage, Richardson told his story with humor and grace. He told them about death marches and dysentery. Starvation, lice and beatings. When he got to the part about his decision to live or die, Richardson had every student's attention. "You've got to control your mind. It can tell you things you don't want to do," Richardson told the students. A simple lesson and one Richardson still follows. "The sun isn't setting for me yet," he said. "Life is made to live."

Name: Bill Richardson
Age: 77
Family: Wife, Claire, 73, and children Bill, 52, Lynn, 50, Kathy, 48, Mark, 45, and Jeff, 39.
Career highlights: Served with the 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division in Korea. Captured near Unson, North Korea, and was a prisoner of war for 34 months. Served with both the 5th and 7th Special Forces Groups and was the first and third commander of Project Delta in Vietnam. In 1972, he commanded the 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment. In 1975, he went to Iran and helped set up the Army assistance program for the Shah's government. In 1980, he took over the 1st Corps Support Command (COSCOM).
Education: Bachelor's degree in social psychology from Park College, Mo., in 1971. Graduate of the Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kan.