WASHINGTON — Ralph Cupper enlisted in the Army at age 17 in 1944, preferring not to wait until he was drafted to serve his country.
The Brecksville, Ohio, resident recently visited the National World War II Memorial with other veterans and reflected on his time in the war.
“Everybody was patriotic at that time,” he said. “I didn’t even finish high school. I went straight into the service … and I got shipped off to the Pacific.”
The cultural environment back then was very different from today’s, he said. The military wasn’t just a way to pay for school or get a career jumpstart – it was a rite of passage for people who considered themselves patriotic. It was a duty to serve when called, he said, and when Japanese bombs hit Pearl Harbor, that was more than enough of a call.
“At that time, everybody wanted to serve their country,” he said. “We were attacked. It’s different today. I don’t think people realize what we went through, or what our thinking was at that time.”
Cupper called himself a “young buck,” eager to get into the fight and immature about a lot of things when he joined the service. But after a few weeks on a boat to Okinawa with the 7th Infantry Division and the ensuing fight he lived to tell about, he said, he was changed.
The war helped to mature him, Cupper said, noting that he saw a lot of gory things, was wounded, and lost friends during the campaign in the Pacific.
“It matured me. It scared the hell out of me,” he said. “I think you just grow up a little in the service.”
It’s important for young servicemembers to get to know “the older fellas” when in combat, he said. They’ve lived through more, he explained, and can help younger servicemembers stay safe under fire, especially in modern asymmetrical combat.
“It’s a different world. It’s different combat. It’s a different [type of] war altogether,” Cupper said. “Basically, if you’re in the infantry, you need to keep your [rear end] down. You have to listen to the older fellas. When I went in, the older fellas had been in a lot more combat than I had. You learn how to survive.”
Though he was wounded in combat, he said, he counts himself lucky that he wasn’t hurt worse or killed, but he added that’s a small price to serve the greater cause. His reward, he said, is the appreciation he’s shown to this day, some 64 years after he left the Army.
“I didn’t realize [the National World War II Memorial] was as great a thing as it is,” he said. “I think it’s a great tribute to the men and women who served in World War II.
“They’re honoring what we’ve done. I didn’t realize that so many people would honor you the way people have today. I’ve been crying almost all day since we left Cleveland.”
(“Veterans’ Reflections” is a collection of stories of men and women who served their country in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and the present-day conflicts. They will be posted throughout November in honor of Veterans Day.)
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)