Air Corps sergeant Dick Ruppert kept U.S. bombers and fighters on target during war in the Pacific

Dick Ruppert of Venice, Fla. was a member of the 145th Army Airways Communication Squadron. His unit provided technical ground support for a directional flight system used by the Army Air Corp to vector bombers and fighters to Japanese targets in the Pacific in World War II.

A staff sergeant, his job was to keep communications up and running between pilots and the radio towers providing guidance to the target. Toward that end, he and a couple Air Corps buddies served for months hidden away on a beautiful, uninhabited desert island covered with coconut palms. They were hundreds of miles from the front lines and equally as far away from the outside world.

“My first assignment was to an island called Aitutaki in the Cook Island Chain,” the 95-year-old former sergeant recalled more than 70 years later. “It was one of a group of islands used by the U.S. to attack Saipan. I was only there about four months when I received orders to return to Hawaii.

“They sent me to Fui-Fui, down near the Marshall Islands. A month later I relocated to Tubuka, a speck in the sea about the size of seven football fields. It was 15 miles from Fui-Fui.

“In the center of this very tiny island stood five, 135-foot-tall communications towers. The towers were for guiding our airplanes to enemy targets. The towers put out a signal beam flown by our pilots,” Ruppert explained.

Pilots listened to the dots and dashes from the tower on their head sets. If they flew at a certain heading the radio beam transmitted a two letter code. If they strayed from that flight path it would reverse the code. On target the beam produced a steady DAW on their headset, which meant the pilot was on target.

“Most of the time there were only three of us on the island. Every night I’d walk the island beach picking up can goods scattered along the shoreline from our ships sunk by the Japanese,” he said.

“One night I was walking around the island and came across an American-built landing craft. It didn’t belong to us and no one knew where it had come from. I dropped to the ground and crawled back to our communication shack,” Ruppert recalled.

“We called headquarters on Fui-Fui 15 miles away, but nobody answered. I couldn’t get a call through.

“The three of us decided the landing craft was trouble. We drew straws to see which one of us was going to drop the hand grenade into the bunker where our equipment was to keep it out of the hands of the Japs.

“Two of us, armed with our M-1 rifles weighed down with bandoliers of M-1 ammunition over our shoulders, patrolled the island looking for the enemy. We found nothing. Finally we got in communication with our people on the main island. They sent the Navy over to pick up the abandoned boat. A short while later we learned that boat had broken its moorings and drifted 900 miles across the Pacific.

“Later on the belt on the generator that supplied us with power broke. I called the main island and they sent us a replacement belt. Three or four hours later I heard this P-38 ‘Lighting,’ twin-engine figure plane above us.

“The guy in the P-38 came flying down between the steel towers, slides back his canopy and threw out the belt. I caught it on the fly. With the replacement belt we were back on the air.

“Our sergeant decided to build a row boat. He wanted a little 16-foot plywood boat for fishing. We arranged one night to have a truck go by and drop two of us off at the Navy’s supply depot. We stole some of the their plywood and the fishing skiff was built.”

This is the start of construction on a 16-foot, wooden row boat Dick’s sergeant decided to build on Fui-Fui to go fishing with. The plywood was stolen from the Navy’s supply facility. Photo provided

Ruppert wasn’t there. He had been granted a little R & R and was relaxing on Waikiki Beach.

“We had a little place we could go on the beach at Waikiki. It was on the other side of the island from the Navy’s ‘Royal Hawaiian Hotel’ digs.

“I’d take a swim and stay over for the night. For 50-cents I got a bunk and meals. That’s the way it worked.

“On Aitutaki Island boredom was a big thing. One night we decided to shoot all the white lizards on the island,” he said. “After finishing our beers the three of us were lying on our bunks with our M-1 rifles between our legs shooting at the lizards on the ceiling. The next days we had to climb up on the roof and patch up all our bullet holes.

“By this time I’d already been to Aitutaki. I thought I knew the ropes by then,” Ruppert recalled. “When I got to Fui-Fui the first thing I noticed, their outhouses smelled to high heaven. I thought I’d give them a demonstration on how to clean their outhouses.

“I took some gasoline and fuel oil and poured it down the outhouse hole and then I lit it. I did this a couple of times. All of a sudden there was a huge explosion,” he said with a chuckle. “The outhouse was blown up in the air two or three feet.

“Behind the outhouse for a distance of maybe a half mile flames kept coming out of the ground. They’d shoot up and then they’d go down.

“What happened? An old underground pipeline had rusted out and exploded during my demonstration. I wanted to go hide some place. The good thing, nobody was hurt.

Sgt. Dick Ruppert of Venice enjoys a Waikiki adventure during the Second World War. He served with the 145th Army Airways Communication Squadron. Photo provided

“It wasn’t long afterward they sent me to Tepuka, the little island with the five radio towers. My job was to keep the radio station up and running. The island was so small there were never more than three of us. I was on the island for six months. I never saw any Japs.

“Then I got orders to go to Pearl Harbor. I was stationed at a place called ‘Kappa Gulch.’ It was an underground radio station housed in a concrete bunker. This is where they broadcast from during the Japanese attack on Pearl.

“I was in charge of one of the three shifts at the station. On top of us were pineapple fields. I could pick up ’Tokyo Rose’ on my radio every night. I stayed there until the war in the Pacific ended.

“This one particular time, before the end of the war, the guys on the main island of Fui-Fui got 10 or 15 pounds of steak and six or eight cases of beer. The food was brought in for the officers of the 145th Squadron, but there wasn’t enough to go around.

“Someone suggested: ‘Why not give the steak and beer to the three guys on the little island 15 miles away?’ We ate steak and drank beer for three days.

“One day my buddy and I were swimming on the reefs off Tubuk. All of a sudden he started acting strange. There was this big fish near him. It must have been five feet or more in length and looked like a giant Amberjack. It swam passed me and disappeared.

“All the next week I went out to the reef looking for the big fish but found nothing. I decided to made a bigger spear for my speargun out of a welding rod. Then I went back out looking for that monster jack. Nothing.

“A few days later I spotted the big jack again. I waited until he got about three-feet from me and I shot him in the head. The monster then swam off with my spear stuck in his head. I never saw it again.”

Tell me about coming home after the war in the Pacific?

“I could fly home or take a boat back to the USA. I booked a plane for home, but I got bumped and some officer took my seat. The plane crashed and all aboard were lost.

“I came home aboard the carrier ‘Saratoga.’ Five thousand happy people landed in San Francisco. It only took us five days to go from Hawaii to California.

“I remember sailing under the ‘Golden Gate’ and looking up. There was this little girl with her dog on the bridge high above. She was waving to us.

“I was sent back to Fort Knox, Ky. where I was discharged from the Air Force. I decide to go back to work with Colonial Radio in Buffalo, NY. I had worked for them before the war. Colonial made everybody’s car radio. I worked there 32 years and retired at 55 in 1977.

Ruppert and his first wife, Doris, moved to this area 36 years ago. They had three children: Richard, Dwayne, and Doreen. Doris passed away in 2009. A year later he married Jean, his second wife. She’s 90 and he’s five years older. They’re both still going strong.

Name: Richard O. Ruppert
D.O.B: 17 May 1922
Hometown: Buffalo, N.Y.
Currently: Venice, Fla.
Entered Service: 6 Nov. 1942
Discharged: 29 Dec. 1945
Rank: Staff Sargeant
Unit:  145th Army Airways Communication Squadron
Commendations: World War II Victory Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Theater Ribbon, Good Conduct Medal.
Battles/Campaigns: Pacific War, World War II

This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Jan. 15, 2018 and is republished with permission.

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