Veterans’ Reflections: Service Was ‘Rite of Passage’

WASHINGTON — Ralph Cup­per enlist­ed in the Army at age 17 in 1944, pre­fer­ring not to wait until he was draft­ed to serve his coun­try.

World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., July 21, 2010
Army World War II vet­er­an Ralph Cup­per stands at the World War II Memo­r­i­al in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., July 21, 2010. Cup­per dis­cussed his time in ser­vice and what it means to be a World War II vet­er­an.
DoD pho­to by Navy Pet­ty Offi­cer 2nd Class William Sel­by
Click to enlarge

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) 

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