Sebastiano “Frank” Ripa made the military his career. That career took him to three war zones — the European theater in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
Now the retired Marine Corps captain, who began his military service as a private in the Massachusetts state guard, is living in Washington.
Ripa is originally from Holyoke, Mass., a city in the Connecticut River valley strongly rooted in the textile and paper industries.
His service took him from the state guard to the Army Air Corps during World War II.
Ripa was assigned to the 91st Bomb Group in mid-1942 and received training on one of the most famous of World War II aircraft, the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress.
In September, Ripa boarded the Queen Mary, a luxury cruiseliner that had been converted into a troop carrier for the war.
The ship currently is a museum and hotel in Long Beach, Calif.
Ripa said his first 18 months were spent on the ground before he was assigned to a flying squadron, the 401st, as a flight engineer and top turret gunner.
On June 21, 1944, Ripa woke up at around 2 or 3 a.m., ate breakfast and gathered in the mission briefing room.
The wall map was covered by a curtain. As the commander drew back the curtain, the target for the mission was revealed — Berlin, Germany.
As the briefing ended, Ripa received his kits and rations including two candy bars and a pack of gum. He suited up — an electric suit and a fur-lined suit to help protect against the roughly 30-below-zero temperatures.
“Those airplanes were like wind tunnels,” Ripa said.
After takeoff, crews checked their bomb loads. Ripa’s plane wasn’t carrying any bombs, however.
Instead, it had canisters full of leaflets showing the positions of the advancing Allied forces and ration coupons for the people of Berlin.
The B-17s met resistance from a wave of German fighter planes. After the planes stopped, the flak cannons started, followed by another wave of fighters.
By the end of the day, the 91st had lost four aircraft and had 40 men missing in action.
“Seeing another plane go down, watching it spinning and knowing that the centrifugal force wasn’t going to let anyone trapped inside out — those weren’t fun times,” Ripa said.
The D-Day invasion had started two weeks earlier. On that day, Ripa said he was in London.
“They told me to go get my .45 and keep it strapped — the invasion had started,” he said.
Ripa completed 25 missions in all. He returned stateside on the U.S.S. Aiken Victory along with 300 combat flight crew members and 3,000 German prisoners of war.
He obtained the rank of tech sergeant prior to his discharge in 1945.
“I tried for four years to be a civilian,” Ripa said.
After a short stint in the private sector, he went back in as a tech sergeant in the Marine Corps in 1949.
After another 21 years and two more wars, he retired from the military.
“I had fun in the military. Everyone says ‘How could you stand it?’ but I’ll tell you what, I enjoyed it,” Ripa said.
During his career, Ripa was awarded 17 medals and 22 ribbons.
Among his citations are the Distinguished Flying Cross, an air medal with three oak leaf clusters, a Navy Commendation metal with Combat V, the Navy Achievement medal, a Combat Action Ribbon, a Navy Presidential Unit citation, a Navy Unit Commendation with two stars, an Army Presidential Unit citation, an Army Good Conduct medal with two-knot clasp, a Marine Corps Good Conduct citation with three stars, an American Defense Service medal, American Area Campaign citation, European-Africa-Middle East Campaign citation with four stars, World War II Victory medal, National Defense Service medal with one star, Korean Service medal with three stars, Armed Forces Expeditionary Service medal, Vietnam Service medal with three stars, United Nations Service medal for Korea, Korean Presidential Unit citation and Vietnam Campaign citation with 60-date bar.
Ripa recalled receiving his first air medal as one of the worst things that ever happened to him.
“When my father picked up the newspaper, that barber, that Italian guy, he went plum crazy,” he said. “He said ‘Why did you give up a great job on the ground?’ ”
Ripa said there’s one citation he’s not sure he deserved — the good conduct ribbon.
“But luckily I don’t have to argue with anyone I served with, I’ve outlived them all,” he joked.
Ripa said good behavior has never been his strong suit.
“When I was a kid I worked at a burlesque show. One night I saw a few of the school teachers come in with their boyfriends,” he recalled. “I told the whole school.
“I got pulled into the principal’s office and he broke a ruler over each of my hands. Then at (his father’s) barbershop, I got beat with a razor strap,” Ripa said. “Then at home, I got another strap from my mother.”
Still, he said the service was good to him.
“I slept on white sheets every night but one,” Ripa recalled. “And that was on a New Year’s Eve in Korea when they threatened to bomb.”
Ripa’s late wife, Ruth, hated the military, he said.
“But she loved the military balls,” Ripa said.
Ruth passed away last October, after a five-year illness, and was buried in St. Francis Borgia Cemetery.
Frank said he visits Ruth’s grave once or twice a day when he can.
The Ripas were married in San Francisco. It was there the Ripas made their home after Frank retired from the Marines.
Ripa said he got several offers to go into the civilian work force from a major he served under. One of the jobs would have taken him to Africa, another to Alaska.
“I told him ‘You’re talking to the wrong man,’ ” he said.
The third offer, the one Ripa finally accepted, was with GATX, a railcar leasing corporation.
During his time with the company, he worked with railcars, early computers, tractor-trailers, above- and underground mining rigs, off-shore oil drilling rigs and draglines in Florida state.
He retired from GATX in 1985.
The Ripas relocated to the area to be closer to Ruth’s sons, Frank said, noting that Ruth was originally from St. Louis.