The AFS Exchange

Interview with an Ambulance Driver

November 07, 2021 AFS-USA Season 1 Episode 5
The AFS Exchange
Interview with an Ambulance Driver
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

This episode starts out with a brief history of the American Field Service. Next, we hear from Steve Riford, one of the AFS Ambulance Drivers during WWII. Steve shares stories of his time with the American Field Service- from boat rides and bagpipes to loud cannons and lost windshield wipers. After volunteering with AFS, Steve became a member of the New York State Assembly and the New York State Senate.

Guest: Steve Riford, WWII AFS Ambulance Driver

AFS Archives: afs.org/archives

Kate M.
Hello and welcome to The AFS Exchange. My name is Kate Mulvihill. The AFS Exchange is a podcast by AFS-USA where we open the door to hear from members of our AFS family. This is a place to have conversations, exchanges, with AFS host families, students, volunteers, and educators.

During these exchanges, we will hear from our guests on how their lives have been impacted by AFS. What lessons have they taken away from their experience abroad, or their experiences with hosted students in the United States?

Kate M.
The episode this month is going to be a little different. Combo history lesson and storytelling through interview. AFS primarily offers international exchange and educational programs for high school students. But... AFS did not start out as an exchange organization. Its original name was the American Field Service. 

So… what is a “Field Service?” And how did we get to where we are today? It is time for a little history lesson.

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After the outbreak of World War I in 1914, staff at the American Hospital of Paris converted an unfinished school, the Lycée Pasteur, into a temporary military hospital. This type of hospital was called an ambulance, or an ambulance, in French. But, we’re going to stick with pronouncing it the American way for this episode.

Anyway, this temporary American Ambulance Hospital was used to treat wounded soldiers returning from the front. About 6 months into the war, in January 1915, an American named A. Piatt Andrew volunteered to go to France to assist at this hospital. Also, let’s just clarify that the United States hadn’t officially entered the war, but some Americans were volunteering with the Allied Powers.

Now I should say, A. Piatt Andrew was not just any old chap. Prior to coming to France, he had been the director of the United States Mint and assistant professor of economics at Harvard University. 

In March of that same year, he became the Inspector General of the Hospital’s Transportation Committee. Andrew remarked that there was a lot of time spent transporting wounded soldiers back and forth from the front via train to the various hospitals throughout Paris. 

In April, 3 months after his arrival, he negotiated with the French Army to have some ambulance sections of the hospital work closer to the front lines of battle. These ambulance sections came to be known as the “American Ambulance Field Service.”

“American” because, well, they were from the United States, “Ambulance” because they were volunteering with the military hospital, and “Field Service” because they were stationed in the field. Indeed, they were picking up wounded French soldiers from the front lines of battle. 

To quote A. Piatt Andrew, they wanted “to pick up the wounded from the front lines… to look danger squarely in the face; in a word, to mingle with the soldiers of France and to share their fate!”

When the United States entered the war in April 1917, the French army requested that the Field Service provide drivers not just for medical support, but also for the transportation of supplies. Shortly afterwards, the word “Ambulance” was dropped and the group was known simply as the “American Field Service.”

The first World War ended in November 1918, after which AFS became sponsors for the French Fellowships, which were graduate student scholarships for study in France and the US. 

But... this isn’t where they switched from providing support during wartime to coordinating international exchange programs. In 1939 after the beginning of World War II, old and new volunteers of the Field Service were called upon to support the French troops under the leadership of Director General Stephen Galatti. After just a few months of the Field Service’s time in France, large parts of the country were invaded by Nazi Germany. The drivers then aligned with the British Military and the French Free Forces.

In addition to the British and the French, these ambulance drivers served alongside Polish, Australian, New Zealander, Indian, and South African troops. The Second World War was happening, well, all around the world. Ambulance drivers were stationed in a number of countries, including in the Middle East, North Africa, Italy, Germany, India, and Burma. 

By the end of the war in September 1945, the 2,196 ambulance drivers had carried more than 700,000 wounded. This includes the evacuation of the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp in Germany, where the drivers helped distribute meals and supplies and assisted with the evacuation of over 11,000 former prisoners to a displaced persons camp.

The following year in 1946, AFS president Stephen Galatti along with drivers from both wars established the American Field Service International Scholarships. During the 1947–48 school year, a small group of students came to study in the United States. These students came from Czechoslovakia, Estonia, France, Great Britain, Greece, Hungary, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and Syria.

Why international scholarships? Well this secondary school student exchange program was intended to perpetuate international friendships in peacetime. In 1950, the first group of American students went abroad for a summer, thanks to exchanges set up by AFS Returnees. This summer program then expanded into longer stays abroad, including the opportunity to attend schools.

So, what was it like for international students coming to the US in the 1950s and 60s?? Well they took long bus rides across the country at the beginning and end of their programs, seeing many American sights and getting to know each other. Students would also often meet with US presidents in Washington DC before heading back home at the end of their stay abroad. One of the most well known meetings is that with John F. Kennedy in 1961. Here, JFK made public remarks to 1200 AFS students in the Rose Garden. I’m including a few minutes of the recording here. 

John F. Kennedy
I want to first of all say that I'm a great admirer of the American Field Service, a good many young Americans who I knew in the days of the Second World War served with distinction and showed the hand of, I hope, compassion, certainly friendship to those on both sides. And what is more important, they learned from that experience a valuable lesson. And because of that, and their continued interest in our country, and in the cause of peace, you are here. 

I hope that your experience here has taught you a valuable lesson. And that is that there are no simple problems. That as we look in the United States around the world at so many different people in so many different countries, we build up in our own mind as stereotypes and prejudices, and sympathies and affections. 

And I'm sure you have learned how far removed we may be from our real understanding of the life of your people. 

You will go back to your countries, and they have stereotypes and prejudices and ideas about the United States. It is going to be your destiny, I hope, to serve in the interests of peace, as a bridge between the best parts of my country and your people. 

I hope that you go from here, not merely as a friend, but understanding our faults, and our assets. But most of all, understanding what we're trying to do and what we're trying to be. And that we recognize that we have in this country, great unfinished business. We want your friendship. And I hope that you 1200 will be the seed which will build a better life for all of our people. 

Kate M.
There is so much more I could say about the history of AFS! There are links in the show notes to resources where you can learn more about our 100-year history.

And now I am so happy to share with you the story of Lloyd Riford, who goes by Steve, one of the ambulance drivers who set sail in March 1943. Upon returning from war, Steve became a member of the New York State Assembly and the New York State Senate, before retiring to Hawaii. But let’s start at the beginning.

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Steve Riford  
My name is Lloyd Stephen Riford. I live in Kihei, Maui, Hawaii.

Kate M.
Steve was born on February 29th, 1924. Yep, that’s right, a leap year baby.

Steve Riford 
I only have a birthday every four years. So although chronologically, I've had 97 years, I’ve only had 24 birthdays.

Kate M.
Steve was born on a farm in Auburn, New York, which is about in the middle of the state. He would work on the farm growing up, raising guernsey cattle and processing milk. The family would also distribute the milk around town, which a job that Steve started doing when he was 16 years old.

Steve Riford
With the glass bottles. 

Kate M.
Steve went to school at the Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire then to college at Princeton where he studied politics. That’s where he was when he decided to volunteer for the American Field Service.

Steve Riford
There was a member of the faculty at Princeton who had been in the American Field Service in World War I. He enlisted a number of us, maybe as many as 15 or 20 from Princeton in 1942 after the war started and that was when I joined. I signed up in, I think, October of 1942. 

Kate M.
Steve received orders in March 1943, and departed on March 31st from New York City on a hospital ship called The Atlantis. He was 19 years old.

Steve Riford 
There were about, I think, 30 bound for the Middle East and 30 bound for India, a total of about 60 of us, plus a complete United States Army hospital staff and some equipment. It was very peaceful. We had a very smooth crossing. The ship was not very fast. Of course being a hospital ship it was all brightly lit at night with huge red crosses on it. 

Kate M.
They first sailed to Sierra Leone which is on the west coast of Africa, about halfway down the continent. They then stopped in Namibia, and Cape Town and Durban in South Africa. Steve and some other ambulance drivers got off the hospital ship there before it sailed on to India. 

Steve Riford 
We were the first Americans, I think, to come to Durban and we got a royal welcome in Durban… Well, they had parties for us which we enjoyed.

Kate M.
From Durban, he then transferred to a Norwegian Cruise ship that had been taken over by the British Navy, sailed up the east coast of Africa to Asia dropping off more people and supplies. Then up the Red Sea to Ismailia in Egypt, which is where the Red Sea ends at the Suez Canal. So effectively they sailed from New York, around the bottom of Africa, to Asia, then up to Egypt.

Steve Riford
We landed there on June 12, 1943. 

Kate M.
So that’s about... 75 days of travel. And after about 10 days in a British training camp in Egypt, the group of ambulance drivers split in two. Half to Tunisia, half to Lebanon. At the time there was no fighting in Lebanon  but the ambulance drivers still helped the British troops in other ways.

Steve Riford 
It was a very interesting place to be stationed. We were there working with various units of the three British divisions over there. I was stationed for quite a while at a place where they were evaluating ammunition that had been captured in the western desert. They would make a big pile of ammunition during the week and then blow it up on Saturday morning.

Kate M.
And during his downtime in Lebanon, Steve had a... brief career as a soccer player.

Steve Riford
It was largely East African troops from Kenya and Tanzania. There were only 10 Caucasians there, I made eleven. My predecessor was Ward Chamberlain who was quite a factor in the AFS after the war. He was three years ahead of me in prep school and college. He was an all American soccer player and a great singer. So when I relieved him the five sergeants that were doing the work of the ammunition examining knew all the Princeton songs from Ward Chamberlain, and they thought everyone from the United States went to Princeton and everybody was an accomplished soccer player. I had never set foot on the soccer field, but I made the 11th Caucasian, so I was pressed into service as a soccer player. I was a complete disaster in the first game that was played with a neighboring British camp, and so after that they played with 10 men.

Kate M.
While Steve was in Lebanon he came down with something and was in the hospital for a few months, then was released and hitchhiked to Israel. 

Steve Riford
When I was discharged from the hospital, l hitchhiked to Haifa, which is as far as the railroad went, and eventually got on a train back to Cairo and found there were still three American field service people in Cairo. Everybody else had gone to Italy.

Kate M.
Steve and his group hopped on a ship in January 1944 and traveled to Taronto in the boot of Italy. From Taronto they were in a train about to take off for Milan when they realized that a number of their belongings had been stolen out of the train baggage car.

Steve Riford
..
.including some bagpipes that some Indian soldiers had given to me as a going away gift. That broke my heart because the bagpipes were just great. But some Italian has my bagpipes.

Kate M.
Steve was pretty broken up over the loss of his bagpipes, but his fellow ambulance drivers didn’t seem to be too upset.

Steve Riford  
The rest of the unit stood up bravely to the loss of my bagpipes. They had heard me practicing. I tried to play on the ship but they asked me not to play anymore.

Kate M.
In Spring 1944 Steve was in Cassino, a region of Italy between Naples and Rome. He was one of a few ambulance drivers there, working out of a “main dressing station” and taking wounded back to the casualty collection station.

Steve Riford
I stayed there for about a month and a half, I guess. Then I was a relief driver. Drivers had to take their ambulances in once a year to get them inspected to see if they’re taking good care of them and doing the maintenance and so forth, and I would relieve a driver and stay at his station for two days while he was getting inspected. So I got around the front quite a bit. 

Kate M.
There were a number of battles fought in Cassino during the Spring of 1944. 

Steve Riford
And there were several attacks and the bombing of the monastery at Cassino. And the big attack came at 11pm on May 11, 1944. 

Kate M.
That morning Steve was at an artillery regional aid station, where he was relieving a driver. While he was there, the colonel Montgomery let the whole group know what was going to happen at 11 o'clock that night. A few hours later...

Steve Riford
It was a nice night, clear and deadly silence, and at 11 o'clock every one of these little modern aid cannons fired at the same time and the ground just rocked. We thought about what the bombardment must be like on the receiving end. 

Kate M.
The Germans were firing back, and Steve and his group spent time in a cave for a few days.

Steve Riford
We didn't have any wounded. I didn't have much to do. And the second day Bob Byron who was in charge of our platoon-- an awfully nice guy-- made his regular weekly visit, he visited every post once a week, bringing mail and PX supplies and stuff like that. Making sure everything was okay. And I was the last one he visited. The Germans were shelling the bridge. Just once in a while they would fire a shell at it. He just happened to be crossing the bridge when a shell hit and he was killed instantly. I was the last one to see him. That really upset me. He was a wonderful guy. 

Kate M.
Shortly after, Steve’s enlistment was up, and he returned to the United States. But, the trip took longer than it should have...

Steve Riford
We were in a convoy and the ship broke down. The engine failed on about the fourth day and the convoy sailed on without us. We were sat in the water for days. There were 40 American Field Service guys and 40 petty officers from the cruiser Philadelphia… while the ship was dead in the water all of the American Field Service guys went up on deck with their sleeping bags and the sailors thought that was pretty humorous. They weren't nervous at all. We were pretty nervous because we were used to being able to dig in. 

Kate M.
Well, the engine finally got going again and they docked in Norfolk, Virginia. But… Steve returned to Europe not too much later.

Steve Riford
Then in December of 1944 when the Battle of the Bulge started, everybody thought the war was going to end pretty quickly and it didn't. I had gone back to Princeton and I decided I didn't want to stay at Princeton. I wanted to get back on the Field Service. Well, I signed up and they sent me to France.

Kate M.
Steve’s headquarters was in Strasbourg, France, but he was working with a unit across the border into Germany. 

Steve Riford
It was very fluid, we went back and forth for a couple of weeks.

Kate M.
Every week, one of the drivers would go back to Strasbourg to headquarters to get the mail and supplies. 

Steve Riford
My turn came on the seventh of May. I went to Strasbourg and I had engine trouble and had to spend the night, and the next morning, May 8th, I was headed back, we were in the town of Wangen, toward the Swiss border. 

Kate M.
Now, if it’s been a few years since you took a World History class… you may not realize the importance of May 8th, 1945. It is the day that the Germans surrendered. Steve can still remember vividly where he was when he learned that the war in Europe was over.

Steve Riford
I was going up a hill and it was raining a little bit. My windshield wiper blades on the passenger side of the ambulance flew off and landed in a ditch. I was only going five miles an hour, so I figured I could find it all right. I got out and was crawling around the ditch looking for the windshield wiper blade and a convoy of American trucks went by, and they were going about as fast as I had been, about 5 miles per hour.

I said, what’s going on? And the guy said, “Der Krieg ist vorbei,” which is German for “The war is over.” And that's how I found out the war had ended in Europe. 

As far as I know, that windshield wiper blade is still in that ditch and I joined my unit.. And then we took a ship home, and that was my career with the American Field Service.

Kate M.
And that was Lloyd Steve Riford, AFS ambulance driver, New York State assemblyman and senator, and current resident of Kihei, Maui, Hawaii. 

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Kate M.
I hope you have enjoyed this episode of the AFS Exchange and learning more about the history of AFS. If you are interested in learning more about the ambulance drivers, check out afs.org/archives.

Thank you to Steve Riford, our guest, and his son Tom Riford for getting us in touch with his father. 

Let us know what you thought of this episode by sending a message to [email protected] 

If you enjoyed this show, please rate and review us on Apple Podcasts, or subscribe on Spotify.

Keep an eye out on AFS-USA’s social media- you will be hearing more from The AFS Exchange soon!

This podcast was created by Kate Mulvihill. Social media by Julie Ball and Sara Ahmed. Editing support provided by Annelise Depman.

AFS History
Steve Riford Interview