North

Lynn

Quest to learn about a father lost in battle

North Andover High School students and staff and retired Army Colonel Robert Rhodes (kneeling) gathered at the grave of Corporal Homer Ricker, who was killed in the Battle of the Bulge, leaving behind his wife and two children in Lynn.
North Andover High School students and staff and retired Army Colonel Robert Rhodes (kneeling) gathered at the grave of Corporal Homer Ricker, who was killed in the Battle of the Bulge, leaving behind his wife and two children in Lynn.

The knock on the door came on a wintry night in 1945.

Two soldiers entered the Ricker family home at 91 Bay View Avenue in Lynn.

Seven-year-old Shirley sat at the kitchen table with her mother, Ethel.

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“They came and they informed us that, in fact, my father was dead,” recalled Shirley Ricker Theis, now 77, at her home in Candia, N.H. “I can remember vividly, my mother walking through the kitchen into the living room, picking up the phone, calling my aunt and saying, ‘Homer’s dead.’ ”

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Army Corporal Homer D. Ricker Jr., 31, was killed in action on Dec. 31, 1944, in the Battle of the Bulge, a little more than nine months after he was drafted.

A machine gun operator, “Rick” — as he was known to his fellow infantrymen — died from a gunshot wound to the head. Along with his wife and daughter, he left a 2-year-old son, John.

“My mother told me to take my brother upstairs for a bath, so I did,” Ricker Theis recalled. “My uncle came in. He stood me up on the closed toilet seat and I said, ‘Is Daddy really dead?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ It is still so vivid in my mind.”

A long silence fell over the Ricker home. Ethel opted to bury her husband in Europe, where he lies among 7,991 other World War II veterans buried at the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery and Memorial in Belgium.

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She later remarried, to a Navy veteran, and rarely spoke to her children about their father’s death.

“It just wasn’t discussed,” said John Ricker, now 71. “I must have been 10 or 12 years old before I could put the pieces together.”

“So many adults at that time didn’t talk about the war,” said Shirley. “I think my mother was just devastated by it.”

It would be decades before either Shirley or John would visit their father’s grave.

John made the journey with his wife in 1980.

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“I felt it was time to go. No one in our family had ever been,” said John, who lives in Kingston, N.H.

He found his father’s marble white cross headstone in Plot F, Row 15, Grave 8. “I remember saying, ‘Hi, Dad.’ That’s the first time I saw my father, that I recall.”

He found peace in the cemetery’s lush green fields.

“You don’t see a blade of grass out of order,” John said. “The rows [of headstones] are straight as a string. It’s extremely impressive.”

Shirley displays a photo of her father in his uniform and his medals in her home. She keeps a stack of letters returned to Lynn — many of them unopened — after her father’s death. “He wasn’t over there very long,” Shirley said in a quiet voice. “He went to boot camp, then directly overseas. Then he was killed.”

She learned more about her father’s military service with help from a childhood friend, retired Army Colonel Robert Rhodes. The two grew up near each other in east Lynn, near Flax Pond.

They knew each other from church and Lynn English High School, where they were one year apart. But they lost touch after Rhodes enrolled in the US Military Academy at West Point, the start of a long Army career.

Shirley went off to the Katherine Gibbs School in Boston, and moved to New Hampshire. They became reacquainted in the late ’90s, after John got in touch with Rhodes’s sister in Florida.

Rhodes, 78, a trustee of the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge, offered to help Shirley learn more about her father’s service.

“I asked Shirley, ‘How much do you know about your father?’ ” Rhodes recalled. “She said, ‘We don’t know anything because we never talked about it.’ But she said her family was ready to know more.”

Rhodes identified Ricker’s unit, the 134th Infantry Regiment of the 35th Infantry Division. The group is credited with rescuing 81 French children, ages 2 to 6, from bombardment by the Nazis in September 1944.

Rhodes found maps of the thick Belgian forest where Ricker served. He put a notice in the Bulge Bugle, the veterans group’s quarterly newsletter, asking if anyone recalled Homer Ricker’s service. “People just started passing on information to me,” Shirley said.

At age 65, she joined the American War Orphans Network. “When you lose someone to war, and there’s no conversation about it, it leaves a hole in you,” she said.

In 2002, accompanied by her two daughters, Shirley made her first visit to her father’s grave.

“I knelt down at his cross and I remember thinking, I don’t think I’m going to be able to stand up,” Ricker said. “It was a gray day and it was on the verge of a little sprinkle. I stood up, all of a sudden, the clouds broke. And I felt the heat of the sun on my shoulders.”

Kathy McCabe can be reached at katherine.mccabe @globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKMcCabe.