A SOLDIER’S STORY
EDITOR’S NOTE: Republic native George F. Ritola was one of 10 military members from that small town who died serving this country during World War II. His family’s search for the whole story of his death during battle only recently came to a conclusion. In the first of a two-part series, the family’s quest for answers is detailed. Part two will appear in Monday’s Mining Journal.
REPUBLIC – George F. Ritola went missing in action Jan. 23, 1945, his family back in Republic was told.
And that was all they were told for several months, George’s younger brother Wilho remembered.
“Our parents were then told a few months later that he was killed in action,” said Wilho, now 85. “But they didn’t receive official notice until a year after that when they were told some of what had happened to him.”
It wasn’t until George’s namesake, Wilho’s son George, filed a Freedom of Information Act request in 1998 that more of the story of the soldier’s last hours were known.
And it wasn’t until just recently that the complete story – including photos of the very spot where George died – was shared with the Ritolas.
George F. Ritola was the oldest of seven children born to Aura and Alfred Ritola, who lived in Republic, actually in a part of the community known as Park City, a neighborhood that exists no more. The homes there moved during the heyday of the Republic Mine.
“George was a good big brother,” said Wilho, who was younger by five years.
Asked to share some memories of his older sibling, Wilho said, “George never was a basketball player, but he liked to be with the team. He was the team’s manager. And he was in the Boy Scouts. He was a Scout leader, too.”
Mary Ann (Ritola) Voegtline, who was just 7 when her brother died at war, said, “I just remember him coming home on furlough. George had worked at the Star Cafe before he left to join the Army and I remember when he was home, we went to visit there and he carried me up the stairs.
“And I remember bringing him to Channing so he could catch the train,” she said. “It’s crazy. Some people remember lots from the time they are 4 or 5. I don’t remember much at all.”
George had graduated from Republic High School as the president of the Class of 1942. He took a factory job in Detroit and was working in the Motor City when he received his draft notice.
“I imagine my parents were worried,” Wilho said. “George was the first in our family to be in the war.”
George was sent off for training, but kept in touch.
“He used to write to us sometimes,” Wilho said.
George was training in languages when he first became part of the U.S. Army in 1943.
“He was learning to speak Russian,” Wilho said. “I think he wanted to be an interpreter. But then his unit became attached to the engineers because of the push toward Normandy. They needed soldiers to go to Europe.”
George was sent to Camp Shelby, Miss., as part of the 290th Combat Engineers.
“It wasn’t long before they were sent to England,” Wilho said. “And then they were sent into combat, right to the front.”
His unit was part of what became known as the Battle of the Bulge. George Ritola was out as part of a patrol seeking to gather intelligence on the enemy when he went missing.
“They sent the notice home that he was MIA. We knew they were in the southern part of the Battle of the Bulge,” Wilho said. “Then his status was changed to KIA. But it wasn’t until years later that his body came home.”
In fact, Wilho himself had joined the U.S. Army in 1946, when he was 18, serving as part of the occupational force in Europe. In 1949, he was leaving the service to return home to Republic.
“George’s body came home in May 1949,” Wilho remembered. “In those days, the body was viewed at home. A large group marched with George’s body from Park City, where our house was, into Republic, which was about a mile. The military sent an escort for George and the escort just happened to be from Iron River, so I gave the guy a ride home after the funeral.”
Sadly, the family endured another tragedy just months later when 11-year-old brother Arthur died from appendicitis.
The Ritolas went on, mother Aura passing away in 1961 and father Alfred in 1972, but there was a lingering uncertainty about the oldest child that haunted them.
“I always wondered what had really happened to him, too,” Wilho said.
Wilho’s son George had always been interested in his uncle’s case and did quite a bit of research into what happened. He wanted to find out all he could, so he sent in the FOIA request. Much to his surprise, the Army responded by sending a thick file folder detailing his uncle’s service, 140 pages in all.
“George was wounded while on patrol and a local farmer helped him, taking him to his farmhouse,” nephew George shared. “That same day, there was a lot of fighting with tanks and artillery in the area and the people there had to evacuate. George was left behind.
“The farmer was finally able to go back home two weeks later and found that the house was burned and George’s body was there,” he said. “The farmer buried him.”
A year later, George’s body was dug up and brought to a cemetery where other American servicemen were buried, awaiting positive identification. When the farmer had buried George, he had removed both sets of dog tags, which was not protocol.
“The local people were saying who he was, but without the dog tags, the Army had to wait for dental records, because they were the only thing they could go by to make the positive ID,” nephew George said. “When the dental records were matched up, that confirmed it was him.”
The Ritola family now knew some of what happened to George, but it wasn’t until early this year they got the rest of the story.
Renee Prusi can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 253. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org