This veteran followed his ancestors in defending the United States of America by serving in the Navy for nearly a decade.
James Riggins was born in New Jersey in 1961. He lived there until he was eight and then moved to Orange County, Calif. He grew up in the Huntington Beach area with his four siblings. At 17, he decided to go into the military. At the end of 1978, Riggins took a test to graduate high school early and his mother had to sign permission for him to join the military since he was only 17 years old. On Jan. 4 1979 Riggins went to boot camp in San Diego to join the Navy.
Riggins’ grandfather was in the Navy, as a Fighting Seabee in a Construction Battalion in World War II.
“We always had this connection, him and I,” Riggins shared. “My family’s been in the military since our history just looking through our ancestry. In the U.S. my family’s been involved in all of the wars in this country and overseas.”
Riggins went on to explain that his grandfather was in WWII from the beginning to the end in the Pacific fighting the Japanese. He was severely wounded at Guadal Canal and Okinawa which earned him 2 Purple Hearts, and he received 2 Silver Stars for heroism during all the campaigns he was in. Riggins’ father served in the Air Force. He was in the Navy for eight years and his son served in the Navy for five years on submarines.
Boot camp lasted eight weeks to weed out the people who wouldn’t make it, couldn’t follow orders or that weren’t physically fit enough, Riggins explained.
“I used to get in trouble a lot because I would laugh at things. So I did push ups the whole time through the boot camp. They would just call my name out and I’d start doing them,” Riggins said. “Back in that day, everybody had long hair, mustaches, and beards. And then everybody gets all that shaved off, and you all look the same, with your bald heads.”
When Riggins first went into the Navy, he went through submarine school in Connecticut. He turned 18 during submarine school and went to school in San Diego to complete BEEP school and Sonar A school to become a sonar tech. He was assigned to his first submarine, the USS Finback- SSN670 in Norfolk, Virginia in October 1979.
“It’s extremely important on submarines that everyone is qualified in all systems. You actually have a qualification card that they give you when you come on board and it has every single system on the submarine listed,” said Riggins. “At sea, on a submarine the only thing that keeps us from having to come into port is us running out of food. The submarine itself can stay out there indefinitely. With a nuclear reactor, we don’t run out of fuel and we can make our own water and oxygen. “
Aboard the U.S.S. Finback, Riggins said he was lucky to meet people right away that were very seasoned that taught him a lot. They taught him how important it was to learn as much as he could so he could help other shipmates and stand any watch that he needed to.
Riggins met his best friend, Scott Zanke aboard the U.S.S. Finback during his first year in the Navy. The submarine was in a shipyard undergoing a major overhaul when he got on board, so Zanke and Riggins ended up being assigned as roommates in an apartment close to the shipyard in Newport News, Virginia. Zanke was two ranks ahead of Riggins and had already been to sea and qualified on the submarine. Zanke taught Riggins and introduced him to many people. He also later became Riggin’s best man in his wedding.
“We were extremely stealthy and extremely dangerous to other countries. At the time I was in was the height of the Cold War. When I first went in president Carter was in office. Shortly there after was the hostage situation in Iran when they took our hostages. Then president Reagan was elected and it was like the next day they released the hostages because they knew that he meant business,” Riggins shared. “In my opinion, and I know a lot of other’s, president Reagan’s attitude converted the military to a very lax post-Vietnam era to a very professional military. And it weeded out a lot of people that didn’t buy into that, that needed to be out. The military got a lot of funding at that point, and pay was raised, which was extremely low.”
The two things that can sink a submarine very quickly are flooding and fires aboard a Navy ship. Sailors had to be submarine qualified, through a series of system quizzes and drills on the ship. Seamen are trained to handle all systems and Riggins said it takes about a year to become qualified.
“We’ve been to the brink a few times in situations that we were in. The submarine I was on was very active. We did a lot of patrols and missions. One of the missions we would do is make sure no submarine or ship came close to our Boomer submarines. If they got into the area, we would chase them off because that boomer has to be stealth where no one knows where it is.”
Riggins said he spent a lot of time in the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean, especially during issues with Iran and Libya back in the day. He also spent a lot of time in the Caribbean. Riggins recalled sleeping in a torpedo room on his first ship to avoid sleeping in the bunks that everyone shared. He would grab a mattress, sheet and pillow and would sleep between two torpedoes.
When the ship was shorthanded on store keepers, they asked Riggins to help out. He found he was very good at it and enjoyed it. The supply officer asked Riggins to change to become a store keeper.
After six months, Riggins was designated as a store keeper, he went to junior submarine store keeper school, then senior submarine store keeper school and then nuclear weapons supply school. He also received sub safe level 1 qualification to handle sensitive items from suppliers to make sure they were correct and tested before giving them to a maintenance person. Riggins became a store keeper during his second year in service, and remained a store keeper for the rest of his career in the Navy. Riggins was an 19-year-old seaman when he passed the board and became submarine qualified as an SN/SS.
During his time on the U.S.S. Finback, Riggins met his wife, Robin, playing frisbee football on the beach. He married his wife in 1981. The following year he was interviewed by some people from the Pentagon and was assigned joint services working for the Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger’s staff. He worked in joint service for three years, also working for the Office of Information. While there he also went to many minor schools and leadership management training school. He also went to store keeper independent duty afloat, which meant he was a qualified supply officer that could work by himself without anyone else. He was promoted to E5, and was in transit to his next submarine when he found out he’d passed the test to be promoted to E6 as a first class pety officer.
Riggins was then assigned to U.S.S. Gato SSN615 in New London, Connecticut in 1985. He moved into an apartment off base. He served as the store keeper department head for that ship. Riggins qualified on the U.S.S. Gato within two months and became a qualified Chief of the Watch in the operating room. U.S.S. Gato spent a lot of time off sea during the heat of the Cold War in the North Atlantic. Their submarine got a lot of recognition and awards during Riggins time aboard. Riggins was honorably discharged in January 1987 after qualifying as an SK1 [SS].
“If I re-enlisted, I would have to re-enlist for four years which would put me at 12 years. If I had 12 years, I would have to do 20 years for retirement. That next four years, I knew I would spend at least the first two years at sea. I had just gotten done with two years at sea. By the time my eight years were up my children were two and three. Being at sea all the time I never saw them,” Riggins said
“Back then, there was no way to communicate with home. You couldn’t get letters, there was no email at the time, you couldn’t make phone calls and you know that if something bad happened they would probably notify the captain and depending on what we were doing the captain may or may not tell you... That always bothered me if something bad happened.”
Riggins was later awarded a letter of commendation from the U.S.S. Finback Commander, two letters of commendation from the U.S.S. Gato Commander, and dolphin pins on his uniform for his submarine qualifications. On both ships Riggins served on they went under the ice in the Artic so he received Blue Nose certificates, and they did a ceremony aboard both submarines. He also received a Joint Service Commendation Medal and the Secretary of Defense ID Medal. He wore that medal proudly since it carried a lot of honor. Riggins also received two good conduct medals for not getting into trouble and two sea service deployment medals for classified missions. He also has two Admiral letters of commendation.
When Riggins got out of the Navy, he moved back to California where he worked with his brother, Alan Riggins, in construction as general contractors for a year and a half to get settled and make a living. He then worked for a medical company start up subsidiary of a French company. The first day he was interviewed, he went through consecutive interviews at the company until he was hired the same day by the president.
“They hired me that same day because of my military and submarine background,” Riggins said.
Riggins went on to work as the Senior Operations and Supply Chain Leader - Senior Vice President for four Global Medical Device Manufacturers in the U.S. for 30 years. He has served as the adjunct for American Legion Post 136 in Mount Pleasant for the last two and a half years.
If you are a veteran or know someone who is a veteran who would like to get involved with American Legion Post 136, visit alpost136.us.