Back during Memorial Day 2014, I wrote a piece on five brothers who served in World War II. I was blown-away 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 for The American Spectator last year, in which I also noted other families that I since learned about that had at least five boys in World War II.
I thought 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 letter was sent by Stanley Freedman informing me of the seven sons of Fanny Greco: Benjamin, Earl, Harold, Henry, Joseph, Ralph, and William. They lived in 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: Frank, George, John, Joseph, Louis, Robert, and Thomas.
Then followed an email from a fellow named 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: Bobby, Donnie, George, Harry, John, Jim, and Russell.
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, of which 10 boys and four girls lived to adulthood. All 10 of the boys served their country, two of them in Korea and eight of them in World War II. Yes, eight brothers in World War II: Boyd, Casper, Harry, Howard, Jack, Leo, Richard, and Thomas. James, who fought in Korea, is the last surviving member of his family. He is the one who has lived to tell.
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 wonderful work for and an appearance on the Johnny Carson show (click here to watch). He was a producer for the Carson show. (I discovered that 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 Stan himself, who went on to fight in Korea and the wider Cold War. 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 serving in the second world war as nine—a family from London. I was told that that’s the official record.
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 plowed and planted the 200-acre land and raised 16 children. Twelve of those children were boys, all of which served in the U.S. military, making up half the post in nearby Dayton, Texas. And nine of the boys—yes, nine of them—served in World War II.
And all came home. Raymond had a close call, with his plane going down during a bombing run in New Guinea. Bernie was in the Aleutians, which experienced hellacious (and still unappreciated) combat. Mike was in Okinawa.
None of the Ripkowski boys had any regrets—quite the contrary. “We did it to serve our country,” said Mike. John agreed, saying simply: “You had to serve your country.” 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.”
To my knowledge (thus far anyway), no American family surpasses the Ripkowski boys. Nine in World War II.
What to make of all these families who contributed so many of their sons to this noble cause? I think it’s a remarkable phenomenon that hasn’t been given due attention. If you ask people about a bunch of brothers serving in World War II, they might know about the famous Sullivans, five of them, who were 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 parents of the Sullivan brothers that their five boys had been lost at sea, the very letter to which FDR himself affixed his signature.)
Or, modern audiences know of the fictional Steven Spielberg film, Saving Private Ryan, about a search led by actor Tom Hanks and team for James Ryan, whose three brothers had been killed in combat.
Mercifully, none of the families I’ve discussed here lost their boys in the war. Nonetheless, their total contribution was obviously significant. And 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, Illinois told me, “it’s now up to the grandchildren to keep up the values and legacy they left us.”
It is indeed. We can do that first and foremost by not ruining the great country that they were willing to give their lives for.
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