Back during Memorial Day 2014, I wrote a piece on five brothers who served in World War II. I was impressed by the Bailey boys, from my neck of the woods in Western Pennsylvania, and still am. Imagine my surprise when a reader responded with a package of clippings informing me of his family, which had seven brothers in the war. Yes, seven. His name is Ted, and his parents were Stella and Walter Pietkiewicz, Polish immigrants in Pittsburgh.
I wrote up that story, thinking no family could out-do the Pietkiewicz crew. I soon learned I was wrong.
That article led to a bunch of mail composed by computers and typewriters alike. One was sent by Stanley Freedman reporting the seven sons of Fanny Greco. They lived in Providence, Rhode Island. All served in World War II.
Another came from Tina Link of Delphos, Ohio, who told me of her maternal grandmother, “Mrs. John Bohnlein,” as the attached September 1945 newspaper clip identified this selfless mother, who likewise lent seven sons to the cause.
Then followed an email from Shayne Ghere informing me of Roy and Lillie Ghere. They parented 17 children in tiny Arcola, Illinois. Seven of their boys served in World War II.
All of this prompted me to dig a bit, and I thus learned of still other cases, such as the seven Powell brothers of Hillview, Illinois.
So, there it was. The bar was set. Seven brothers in World War II must be the record, right? No.
James Yetzer of St. Mary’s, Pennsylvania threw me for a loop, letting me know that his mother gave birth to 18 children, 10 of which served their country, two of them in Korea and eight in World War II. Yes, eight brothers in World War II. James, who fought in Korea, is the last surviving member of his family.
Not to be outdone, Stan Zabka, a 91-year-old retired songwriter living in Grass Valley, California, mailed me his story. Stan is quite accomplished, with film credits to his name and even an appearance on the Johnny Carson show (click here to watch), for which he was a producer. (He has a fun memoir on his life in music, television, film, and the war.) Stan told me of the eight boys in his family that served in World War II, including himself. Of his parents’ 12 children, Stan and two brothers remain.
Alas, one of these enthusiastic correspondents told me that the Guinness Book of World Records lists the most boys from one family in the war as nine—a family from London.
But alas, the Ripkowski family would have a beef with the folks at Guinness.
One descendant of this prolific group, Robert Ripkowski, emailed to inform me of his incredible family. Stash and Mattie were hardworking Polish-Americans who settled in New Waverly, Texas, where they planted the 200-acre land and raised 16 children. Twelve of those children were boys, nine of which—yes, nine—served in World War II. And all came home.
None of the Ripkowski boys had any regrets. “We did it to serve our country,” said Mike. Franklin added: “I wish every person in America would go into the military for one year. It would make a better person out of all of them.”
What to make of all these families who contributed so many sons to this noble cause? It’s a remarkable phenomenon that hasn’t been given due attention. If you ask people about a bunch of brothers in World War II, they might know about the famous Sullivans, the tragic source of the classic film, “The Fighting Sullivans.” All five of these farmboys from Waterloo, Iowa died together when their ship was torpedoed in November 1942. (One of Stan Zabka’s seven brothers, ironically, had the task of drafting the letter informing the Sullivan parents that their five boys had been lost at sea, the very letter to which FDR affixed his signature.)
Or, modern audiences know of Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” about a search led by actor Tom Hanks and team for James Ryan, whose three brothers were killed in combat.
Mercifully, none of the families I’ve discussed here lost three boys in the war. Nonetheless, their contribution was obviously significant. It is our task today to honor them. As Shayne Ghere, descendant of the 17 children (now all deceased) of Roy and Lillie Ghere of Arcola told me, “it’s now up to the grandchildren to keep up the values and legacy they left us.”
It is indeed. And we can do that first and foremost by not ruining the great country they were willing to give their lives for.
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