Jim Rigger, who shared story of family pocket Bible carried in military service for decades, dies at age 96
Editor’s note: We’re including this slightly edited version of a story, written by former Times editor Sue Ann Jones for the Nov. 2, 2016 edition of the Ozark County Times, in honor of Junior “Jim” Rigger who died May 6, 2023. His obituar,y is published on page 8 of this week’s edition.
When 16-year-old Dora farmboy Jim Rigger headed to Gainesville that day in 1943, planning to join the Army, he carried a small New Testament “pocket Bible” with him. It was the same little New Testament his dad, James Rieger, had carried in World War I. And it would be the same Bible his brother Joseph carried when he served in Germany in the army of occupation. Jim’s son-in-law, Ronald Bruffet, would take it with him to Vietnam, and Jim’s son Larry Rieger would carry it throughout the world as he served in the Air Force.
Back in 1943, when Jim Rigger hitched that ride to town, he had no way of knowing that he – or the Bible – would make it home from World War II. He certainly couldn’t have known that future generations of his family would also carry the pocket Bible during their military service. On that day, all he knew was that the Bible was in his pocket, and once a week the draft board in Gainesville put draftees and volunteers on a bus to Fort Leonard Wood. Sure enough, when he got to town, the bus was waiting.
“You’re sure you’re 18?” the draft board member asked him.
“I probably weighed 135-140 pounds. I bristled up like a statue and threw my chest out. I hadn’t hardly even shaved yet,” Jim said. “The guy told me, ‘Sign here, and you have to have someone else sign too.’ I told him my parents were dead, and I was on my own. The guy said, ‘Well, sign here and get on that bus because it’s leaving.’”
In Fort Leonard Wood he volunteered for “immediate induction,” he said. “That gave me a way to get things a little more confused for them.”
Besides stretching the truth about his age, Jim created confusion as he enlisted because of the spelling of his name. Now [in 2016] 90 years old, he can’t quite remember if it was a typographical error on his birth certificate or his own deliberate misspelling as an underage enlistee that created the conflicting spellings. But somehow he ended up as Army recruit James Rigger despite being born as the son of James and Florence Orwick Rieger. The situation caused countless problems over the years and eventually required him to file a sworn affidavit with the county court. He continues to use Rigger has his name today but always explains he’s really a Rieger.
An official hillbilly
Jim claims status as “an official hillbilly,” and for that, he said, “You have to be born in Ozark County in a one-room log house with no doctor – that’s me.”
He was one of six boys born to James and Florence Rieger. The youngest son died as an infant in 1939. The boys’ mother died the next day – and their father died in 1941.
The orphan boys managed on their own for a while. Then the oldest, Lloyd, went to work in a CCC camp, and the youngest two went to live with an aunt and uncle, Stephen and Sarah Rieger. The fourth brother was taken in by Troy and Flo Sanders.
That left Jim on his own. He was 15. “I was too old to be young, too young to be old and too big to be little,” he said.
He rode the bus to Idaho, where an uncle told him there was work. Among other jobs, he washed dishes and peeled potatoes in a restaurant. He returned to Missouri and worked for Frisco Railroad in Springfield – until the foreman found out his age. “Come back when you’re 18,” he said. That’s when Jim decided to volunteer.
Over the side on rope ladders
Assigned to the Third Army’s 80th Infantry, he soon found himself on a troop ship off the coast of France.
“It was right after the big D Day invasion,” he said. With the Bible in his knapsack, he “went over the side on rope ladders to get to the LST. The only training we got was that they told us, ‘When the water brings up the LST, jump.’ Some of the guys got crushed between the two ships.”
They went ashore near Le Havre. “I went into the water about waist deep, holding my gun over my head,” he said.
We can only assume that the Bible’s pages today still carry a whiff of saltwater.
Jim and his fellow soldiers fought their way inland to “join up with Patton’s Third Army.” Even now, more than 70 years later, “it’s hard to think about some of the things that happened,” Jim said, “seeing some of my buddies get blown to pieces. I still have nightmares. It brings tears, even today. There was a time, about a month, when we had nothing to eat but K-rations. Another time we advanced too fast and got into a pocket, and we thought we were going to be captured. We ran out of ammo. It was terrifying.”
Only 12 original members of his 220-man company “made it all the way through,” he said.
Among the commendations he earned is a Purple Heart for wounds inflicted when his wrist and knee were “split open with shrapnel” and some teeth were knocked out. He’s not sure where it happened, “maybe Belgium,” he said.
After the war ended, his homecoming was bittersweet – because he had no home to go to. The family’s house had been sold after the boys’ parents died.
A tradition of service
All four of Jim’s brothers also served in the military. The oldest brother, Lloyd, born in 1923, served in the Pacific with the Navy during WWII.
Another brother, Joseph Rieger, carried the pocket Bible when he served with the army of occupation in Germany at the war’s end.
A few years later, younger brothers Clinton and Norman Rieger served on the Navy ship Pickaway; the two brothers were at sea several months before they found out they were on the same ship, Jim said.
Honor and duty
Jim brought the Bible to the Times office in 2016 to share the family heirloom’s story. Its publication data identifies the Bible as a “Pocket Testament” printed in 1919 and distributed by the Pocket Testament League, an international group still operating today that was started in 1893 by teenager Helen Cadbury, daughter of Cadbury chocolate founder John Cadbury. The group’s website, ptl.org, says it has distributed more than 110 million Pocket Testaments since its beginning.
Jim Rigger’s Pocket Testament was well-worn. Some pages were marked. Others were dog-eared. The pages of Acts 3 were stained with dark brown splotches. Could they have been blood? Jim didn’t know.
His favorite page was the one where he and his dad, his brother, his son-in-law and his son all signed their names, confirming their connection to the powerful little Book, he told the Times.
In more recent years when Jim wore his veterans cap, he was often received thanks for his service from friends and strangers alike. “It was my duty and my honor to serve,” he told them. “This is the greatest country in the world, and I want to see it stay that way.”