Millions of men enlisted to fight overseas, over 750,000 of which were Texans.
Families sent fathers, sons, and brothers halfway across the globe in opposite directions to defend their country on two fronts. Some families sent more than one person, a phenomenon depicted in the blockbuster Saving Private Ryan.
But one family sent nine of their own, more than any other family in the country.
Enter the Ripkowski family of Dayton, Texas.
Born in New Waverly, Texas as first-generation Americans, Stash Ripkowski and Mattie Olbrych wed and had 16 children from 1914 to 1936.
On a 200-acre plot of land, the Ripkowski’s made their home in Southeast Texas and worked as sharecroppers during the Great Depression.
Little did they know their parent’s homeland, Poland — infamously invaded by the Germans in 1939 and made the unfortunate site of six of the deadliest concentration camps: Chełmno, Sobibór, Bełżec, Treblinka, Majdanek, and Auschwitz-Birkenau — would become a central part of the global conflict to come.
Most know the story behind the “date which will live in infamy,” December 7, 1941, but for those at the time, it was even more of a shock than history books can accurately convey.
For many families across America, Uncle Sam came a-calling. And many families answered that call.
From oldest to youngest, the Ripkowski’s who served in World War II were: Felix, August, Raymond, Bernie, Alex, Leon, Franklin, and Herman.
Felix fought on two continents on both sides of the Mediterranean Sea; August served in the Pacific aboard the USS Reno; Raymond, a gunner in the Air Force, crashed in New Guinea during a bombing run but survived and recovered; Bernie was stationed in the Aleutian Islands (the site of very crucial but largely overlooked combat) and Alaska in the Army; Alex fought in Europe with the Army; Leon faced combat in Africa and Europe with the Army, during which he received five campaign stars; Franklin served in the Merchant Marine in the Atlantic and was later drafted again to fight in Korea; and Herman served in the Army’s 78th Lightning Division, the first division to cross the Rhine River into Germany in the waning months of the war.
The three youngest brothers — John, Mike, and Stanley — also served in either peacetime or Korea, bringing the total number of Ripkowskis who served in the military to a whopping 12.
And by the grace of God, every one of them returned home alive.
In 2007, the family was honored by then-Congressman Ted Poe, who stated, “If you looked up the word ‘patriot’ in the dictionary, you would most likely find a photograph of the 12 Ripkowski brothers in Dayton, Texas.”
According to the record, Franklin said of their service, “Medals didn’t interest us. Our minds were on doing our jobs and doing it better every day.”
He further added, “To this day, it makes us feel proud to be Americans when we see the beautiful Stars and Stripes fluttering in the breeze.”
That’s perspective, underappreciated today, from a man who sacrificed more than most both then and today, and who served by the side of some who sacrificed even more.
Mike added, “We did it to serve our country. We’re just hard-working country folk.”
“They are an eternal example of the service and sacrifice given to protect freedom for our Nation. They’re a good example for all of us, especially our younger generation,” Poe continued.
“And that’s just the way it is.”In 2014, the family was honored with a historical marker by the Liberty County Historical Commission.
And recently in May, Franklin passed away, leaving John, Mike, and Anna Lee as the only survivors of that Ripkowski generation.
This simple country couple, whose family only one generation before immigrated from a country with a rapidly waning window of freedom to one which offered them nothing more than the promise of that recognizable freedom and opportunity, returned the favor by sending most of their sons off to serve their country in one of its most dire times of need. And to a conflict that would be centered on access to the same such freedom for millions of people around the world, no less.
According to Bernie, their father, Stash was a “tough, hard-working Polish immigrant who instilled the same sense of responsibility and duty in his children.” Stash passed away in 1946.
America has survived — nay, thrived — because of that sense of responsibility and duty passed from generation to generation.
The Ripkowski’s are one example, although not an insignificant one, of many such people for whom this nation has to thank for reaching its 243rd birthday — the greatest experiment in self-governance, warts and all, that has ever existed.
Dayton’s Ripkowski Drive is still there to this day, and the 12 trees planted on the Community Center grounds honor the memories of the brothers for whom they were planted.
Twelve men, among those giants on whose shoulders Texans stand today.
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Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.