Who was George Ritola?

MARQUETTE – Local World War II history researcher Loraine Koski found quite a bit of information about Republic soldier George Felix Ritola, who was killed in action in France on Jan. 23, 1945.

Her findings provide a profile of a young man gone two months before his 22nd birthday, a casualty of the Battle of the Bulge.

Born April 13, 1923, George was the oldest of seven children born to Aura and Alfred Ritola in Republic. He was a member of Boy Scout Troop 15 and acted in plays called “Up Caesar’s Creek” and “Hooray for Youth.”

He participated in forensics and in choral groups.

George was elected class president his senior year and gave a speech at Class Night on May 20, 1942. He graduated from RHS on May 22, 1942, then moved to Detroit later that year to take a job with Briggs Manufacturing Co.

He entered the Army on April 16, 1943, sent initially to Fort Sheridan, Ill., then to Atlantic City, N.J., then attended New York University to study languages as part of his Army training.

From there, he was reassigned to the 290th Engineer Combat Battalion, going to Camp Shelby, Miss., for further training. His unit went to Camp Shanks, N.Y., on Oct. 15, 1944, then on Oct. 22, 1944, he and is battalion sailed past the Statue of Liberty, bound for England.

The 290th was quartered in Tiverton, Devonshire, starting Nov. 2, 1944, receiving further training there before being transported to Le Havre, France, on Dec. 31, 1944. After debarking, the men marched eight miles in the snow and mud, then were relocated by motor transport to an assembly area at Forges De Eaux, France, where they stayed for four days in the hail and snow.

On Jan. 6, 1945, the battalion loaded onto trains and were taken 200 miles to Melsheim in Alsace, France, followed by a six-day truck ride to Orbey, also in Alsace, relieving a battalion from the Third Infantry Division and being attached to that division for a short time. Next, the 290th’s men were assigned to the 28th Infantry Division’s 112th Infantry Regiment, which dispatched patrols from among the 290th’s roster.

On the morning of Jan. 23, 1945, two daylight patrols were sent out from the 290th to penetrate enemy lines and bring back information. George was a member of one of these patrols, which were pinned down by German weapon fire.

Some 11 patrol members were reported missing in action, George among them. Some had been killed instantly: George was taken in by the Michel family, who in turn had to leave him behind when the small village of Le Chene was evacuated.

When they returned several weeks later, the Michel family found their house had been mortared by the Germans and had burned. George’s remains were found amid the rubble.

George was first buried by the Michel family, then his remains were taken to a temporary American military cemetery in St. Avold, France.

Honoring his parents’ wishes, George’s remains were returned home from Europe on the Army transport called Haiti Victory, which carried 5,328 deceased American servicemen who had originally been buried in temporary military cemeteries in France, Belgium and Holland.

George’s casket arrived in Ishpeming May 27, 1949, then was brought to his family’s home in Park City (Republic) on May 29, 1949.

On Memorial Day afternoon, May 30, 1949, funeral services for George F. Ritola were held in his family home at 1:30 p.m., then at Republic’s Finnish Lutheran Church at 2 p.m. Following military rites conducted by Republic’s veterans’ organizations, George was laid to rest in the Republic Township Cemetery.

Renee Prusi can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 253. Her email address is rprusi@miningjournal.net.