WWII veteran lives to tell his story
He jumped into darkness to find an enemy ahead
Of the 16 million men and women who served in the Armed Forces during World War II, just 620,000 are living today.
On top of that, an additional 372 die each day, according to the National World War II Museum.
That makes hearing and telling the stories of these men and women more important than ever.
And a Warren County World War II veteran recently had a unique opportunity to tell his story.
According to the nursing home where he resides, John Rupczyk was recently interviewed by Rishi Sharma as part of Sharma’s Heroes of the Second World War project.
Sharma, who travels the country interviewing members of the Greatest Generation, started the project as a teenager and has been featured on CNN and CBS Sunday Morning, among other outlets.
But the real story here is the life of Mr. Rupczyk, who sat down with the Times Observer for a multi-hour interview back in 2014 at his home outside of Sugar Grove.
Rupczyk volunteered for the parachute infantry after he was drafted into the U.S. Army in March 1943.
Paratroopers were a revolutionary idea in the history of the U.S. Army. With the progress of aviation in the preceding 15 years, dropping men from the sky on strategic targets – or behind enemy lines – became a real possibility for the first time in World War II.
Given the complexity of the missions, the training requirements were high. Paratroopers were some of the best soldiers the country had to offer.
But to hear him tell it, they were crazy.
“Hell, we were young. We were stupid. You had to be kind of crazy (if) you don’t care too much to jump out of anything.”
Rupczyk was born in February 1924 at a house just four miles from his Page Hollow residence where, as of 2014, he had lived since 1946.
Living in Warren County, Rupczyk, now 94, said he knew “nothing” about what was going on in the world during the early years of the war. “We were young. We knew Germany was knocking the heck out of everything in Europe.”
Initially placed in the 66th Infantry when he was drafted, Rupczyk didn’t think basic training was tough.
He was then transferred to Camp Robinson, Arkansas.
“That’s where I volunteered for parachute school,” he said.
Rupczyk explained, “I had a good friend from Alabama. It was his idea.” He said the friend spent an entire Sunday trying to convince him to join the Airborne. When he eventually agreed, the friend went AWOL. “I don’t know whatever happened to him,” he said.
The training at parachute school was more challenging than basic.
“A lot of it, just physical training,” he said. “A lot of it was just physical exercise stuff, running up those mountains. They’re big. There was about 400 left with me, only half of us made it. They, every Monday morning for three weeks, they said ‘whoever wants to quit, do it now.’ (There was) always a bunch that got up and left.
A young man from Warren County wouldn’t have been very likely to have much aviation experience. That was the case for Rupczyk.
“I was never in an airplane until then,” he recalled. “Fort Benning, Georgia (was the) first time in my life I got (in) an airplane.” With seven or eight training jumps to complete, at the rate of about one a month, he “never landed in one for seven or eight times,” he said. “I always jumped out of them.”
Does jumping out of an airplane invoke fear?
“You don’t have time to think,” said Rupczyk. “You’re like a dog when it happens. They train ya’ and you react just like an animal. Before you know it you jump out that god darn door. Then you get that opening shock.”
From there, gravity does the rest.
Rupczyk explained that the training jumps were made at just 1,500 feet. Falling at 20 feet a second, it was a quick trip. He said “you could steer by pulling the riser with your hand but that speeded it up…. You ain’t going to have much time at 1,500 feet.”
“Nothing so beautiful in the world as being in a parachute coming down.”
With his jump wings in hand, Rupczyk was officially part of the 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team.
And his jump wings bought him a ticket overseas as the 517th sailed from Camp Patrick Henry near Newport News, Virginia on May 17, 1943, to the European Theatre of Operations.
He did not leave a girlfriend or wife stateside.
And that was a conscious choice.
“I just left friends,” he said. “I see guys that were married. They had an awful time. (I) said ‘I ain’t going to have that trouble.'”
Rupczyk said that he sailed on the George Bancroft, a Liberty ship, and traveled in a large convoy into the Mediterranean Sea. Once in the sea, “the Germans bombed us,” he said. “(It is a) good thing they missed my ship. There was 8,000 tons of ammo on my ship.”
Docking in Naples on May 31, Rupczyk said they didn’t waste any time getting off the ship.
“The Gerries were bombing us almost every day,” he recalled. The 517th was stationed close enough to the fight at Monte Cassino that “we could hear the big guns shooting in there.”
“We were just training,” Rupczyk said of most of the 517th’s time in Italy and Sicily.
But then did eventually join the advance north of Grosseto, in central Italy.
They “put us in combat for 18 days to see what it was like to get shot at,” Rupczyk said. “When we started losing guys, they pulled us out.”
The training continued through the summer months and, while the men did not know it, they were preparing for Operation Dragoon, the Allied invasion of southern France.
D-Day for Dragoon was August 15 with the invasion to commence, H-Hour, at 8 a.m.
Just like the Normandy invasion two months earlier, airborne infantry was dropped behind the lines before the infantry assault, to secure key roadways, bridges, and objectives.
“We loaded into planes at one o’clock in the morning (and) jumped at 4:40 in the morning. It was quite a long ride,” said Rupczyk.
And they didn’t receive any advance warning.
“They didn’t tell us until the night we were going to jump,” he said. “They told us where we were going. You can’t tell what you don’t know. That’s what they told us.
“It was just a night jump. We were loaded with ammo and everything. The only difference, I was in the second wave, we was not very high. We no sooner left the plane than we were on the ground.”
He said that the combat jump was well under the 1,500 feet they jumped at during training and was “probably just high enough to get the opening shock” and ensure the parachute opened.
But even though the specific site of their jump was a secret, the men had a pretty good idea.
“We were guessing,” he said. “We all were quite sure either Yugoslavia or France.”
Both locations would have forced the Germans to fight on another front, stretching their resources even further.
Rupczyk said Dragoon “was supposed to be the same day as Normandy. (They) didn’t have enough ships. We had to wait while Normandy took first place.
“There were three divisions that came in after we jumped,” he said.
At least at the outset, German resistance was not too stiff.
“We didn’t have too much trouble,” he said of the enemy on the day of the invasion. “They caught up with us on the third day, 20 to 25 miles inland.”
Rupczyk and the rest of the 517th then moved inland up the Rhone River valley through France, liberating a host of towns along the way from Fayence, Callian and Saint-Cezaire to Saint-Vallier, Grasse, Bouyon and La Roquette, pressing into Peira Cava near the coast during 94 days in the Alp Mountains.
A Bronze Star citation details Rupczyk’s involvement there.
“Staff Sergeant John Rupczyk, Jr. … for heroic achievement in action near Piera Cava, France, 23 September 1944. Staff Sergeant Rupczyk was a member of a patrol which was assigned the mission of destroying enemy replacements situated on the slope of a heavily mined hill. While crossing the mined area, three members of the patrol were seriously wounded by exploding mines. Alerted by the noise, the enemy opened fire compelling Staff Sergeant Rupczyk and his men to seek cover. From his position, Staff Sergeant Rupczyk saw that his three wounded comrades were lying dangerously exposed to enemy bullets. Disregarding his own safety, he crawled across the field, feeling his way among mines and tripwires until he reached the side of the nearest casualty. After removing the injured man to safety, Staff Sergeant Rupczyk repeated his performance in rescuing the other two wounded men. The courage and devotion to duty displayed by Staff Sergeant Rupczyk are in keeping with the finest traditions of the military service.”
The unit was eventually pulled off the line and assembled, along with all other Allied airborne troops, into the XVIII Airborne Corps and moved to Sissonne, France.
“They weren’t going to use us until Spring,” he said. The unit was then moved to Belgium to “clean out four or five buildings. They never told us it was a town.”
Just days later, on the night of December 15-16, the Germans offered one last-ditch offensive to break out of an ever-tightening Allied perimeter.
What ensued is known as the Battle of the Bulge.
On December 21, the 517th received an order to move and join the fight in Belgium. “It was cold,” Rupczyk said. “But I got shot the first time we was in there. I wasn’t out there very long.”
On Christmas, the Germans took the city of Manhay.
According to the 517th unit history, “the fall of Manhay… sent shockwaves throughout the Allied Command” because of how the Germans were now free to attack. “Urgent directives descended… demanding that Manhay be retaken at all costs.”
In that effort to re-take Manhay, Rupczyk was wounded.
“I was wounded the 27th of December,” he said, “right in the Battle of the Bulge.”
But while he claims he wasn’t out there very long, a citation awarding him the Silver Star says otherwise.
“Sergeant John Rupczyk, Jr.,… for gallantry in action at Manhay, Belgium, 27 December 1944. When a heavy concentration of supporting artillery fire fell short and into his company, causing casualties and confusion, Sergeant Rupczyk, although himself wounded, quickly organized his squad and moved forward to the objective. When forced to take cover by an enemy machine gun, he single-handedly silenced the weapon and killed three of the enemy. Sergeant Rupczyk led his squad through the town, captured or killed all the enemy in his sector, and then placed his squad in a defensive position on the opposite side of the town. Only after this action and after checking with his flank units to make sure that the line was completely held, did he allow himself to be given medical aid.”
Rupczyk said he was “hit right in the hand.” He explained that the impact “shot the rifle right out of my hand. (It) laid on the ground in three pieces.”
“Airborne squads are small, 12 of us in there. About 30 in my platoon,” he said.
Four of those men emerged from the Bulge uninjured.
“I was in the hospital until almost Spring,” he said. He spent a week in a hospital in Belgium before flying back to England.
Once his wound sufficiently healed, Rupczyk said the war was “coming to an end. (I) didn’t have to go back to the front. We were ready to go but then Patton and them crossed the Rhine and they were going so fast that they didn’t need us.”
“We were going to make a jump on a Sunday morning in Germany,” he explained, “and the sandtables they had they had buildings on there. And we asked questions, where are these things. They actually said they didn’t know. What it actually was (was) a concentration camp. Thank God I didn’t have to see that.”
Rupczyk said he was back in France on Victory in Europe, V-E, Day. “The guys just went right to their regular day’s work,” he said.
But there was still a chance the 517th could have to go fight in the Pacific Theater.
“I fought in the Mediterranean Theatre and the European Theatre,” he said. “So we had a choice if we wanted to go to the Pacific or stay in Europe. (I) volunteered for the Pacific. The regimental commander said ‘No, these guys seen enough.'”
Rupczyk was discharged on November 28, 1945.
“They started kicking guys out in a hurry,” he said. “The government didn’t want to pay no Army wages. They talked to us. They wanted the guys to sign up and stay in. I’m glad I didn’t. Right after that, Korea hit.”
Coming back home, there weren’t any big celebrations.
“Just came home,” he said. “Neighbor said ‘Hi’ and that’s it.”
Rupczyk went to work at the Youngsville Furniture Factory and eventually moved to the Jamestown Metal Corp. fabricating steel.
He met his wife, Ann, in 1948 at a square dance in Busti and they were married October 6, 1951. They had two daughters.
“He’s my hero,” Ann, who passed away in December 2017, said of her husband.
In addition to the Silver Star, Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster and Purple Heart, Rupczyk was awarded the Good Conduct Medal, American Defense Medal, Victory Medal, E.T.O Ribbon with arrowhead and four combat stars, the French Croix and the Belgian Croix.
“You do a lot of things you don’t even think about,” said Rupczyk of his service. “You just do it…. A lot of it is how aggressive you feel. Some guys could do it. Some couldn’t.”
A Warren County family immersed in the war effort:
June 23, 2014 — He wasn’t the only member of his family who served.
John Rupcyzk’s father had served in the Russian military for two years before coming to America around 1908.
With prior military experience, it would have been understandable for John’s father to be fearful about his son’s service. But “he never said anything,” John said. “I don’t think, he didn’t know what we were doing. (He) didn’t know I was in the Airborne. He never asked.”
His mother wasn’t without fear.
The “only thing she told us. She was in Poland and, of course, the armies over there training right in the street. She was worried. She said the officers over there had riding crops and they were beating the guys over the face with the riding crops. She thought the same thing was going to happen here but it didn’t.”
Three brothers also served with Rupczyk during World War II.
“My twin brother (Fred) was in the Normandy thing,” Rupczyk explained, noting Fred “never got a scratch” while serving in the 5th Ranger Battalion.
His oldest brother, Stanley, served as a cook at Santa Anna, California throughout the war.
But the family didn’t make it through unscathed.
Another brother, Marion, was killed while serving in the 28th infantry in Europe during the Battle of Hurtgen Forest.
And, just recently, a man from Missouri contacted Rupczyk about Marion.
“A Frenchman found his helmet,” John said, and “sent a picture a few months ago. “He got the helmet over in Europe.”