Leaving High School to Fight in WWII

Airdates: April 5, 6, 8

This is Living Stories, featuring voices from the collections of the Baylor University Institute for Oral History. I'm Kim Patterson.

During WWII, hosts of teenage boys longed to join the fighting in Europe and the Pacific, among them Chester Rutigliano and four friends in Ridgway, Pennsylvania. In 1943, though still in high school, they decided to volunteer for military service.

The friends were dismayed to learn that one in their group, Jimmy, didn't have marks high enough in history to leave school for the war. Rutigliano recalls talking to their teacher about the matter:

"I said, ‘Aw, come on. Let him go. We're going to fight for our country and all that.' If I would've knew what the heck it was all about: (laughs knowingly) go and fight. So he said, ‘All right, I'll give him an oral test, and if he pass, he can go.' He said, ‘Jimmy, come on over here.' He said, ‘Jimmy, who crossed the Delaware River back in 1776?' ‘Oh! George Washington.' ‘Good, you pass. Get out of here.' (interviewer laughs)

With an OK from the school, Rutigliano told his father they were going to Erie for their physicals:

"'Look,' he said, ‘you can't go.' I said, ‘Why, Pop?' ‘Well, you're in a school. You go right down there to the draft board and tell them that you're in a school, you can't go.' I say, ‘Pop, you better sit down. I got some news for you.' So he sat down. He said, ‘What?' I said, ‘I volunteered for the service.' ‘Well, you stupid jackass!' He grabbed me and slapped me against the wall. I thought he was going to kill me. He said, ‘You don't know what this is.' Said, ‘I was in World War I in the Italian army, and I know what it's all about—the war. All right. Now when you go to Erie and take a physical, you make sure you get in the army. I don't want you in the air force and get killed up in the air. I don't want you in the navy, get drowned in the ocean. I want you in the army because if you get killed, we can pick you up.' I said, ‘Okay, Pop.'"

All five friends passed the physical. When it came time for assignments to military branches, Rutigliano wanted to fulfill his father's wish:

"And the guy gets up; he said, ‘All right, these are the guys that go to navy, and these are the guys go to army.' And who they call? ‘Chester Rutigliano, navy.' I said, ‘Hey, wait a minute! Wait a minute!' ‘Why?' I said, ‘I volunteered for the army. I want the army. I'm not going to go to navy.' He said, ‘Well, you qualify. We need you.' And there's one kid says, ‘Hey, how about he takes my spot, and I'll take his? I want to be in the navy, not in the army.' I said, ‘How about it?' He said, ‘Well, okay.' So we switch. (interviewer laughs) And that's how I got into the army."

After the war, Rutigliano returned to Ridgway with a Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Good Conduct Medal, and a ranking as staff sergeant. He also brought home a question for his father:

"‘Now tell me, what did you really do when you was in Italian army?' He looked at me, started laughing. I said, ‘What are you laughing?' He said, ‘I hate to tell you this, but all right I'll tell you.' He said, ‘I was a cook. And I was way back. We cooked the food, and then they have guys take it up to the front line.' He said, ‘I never seen that—' ‘Yeah,' I said, ‘But the way you told me—' (laughter) He said, ‘I thought I'd tell you that, you'd be scared and one day you'd go to Erie for your physical, they might see that you're no good, they'll throw you out, see. I was hoping that they'd throw you out.' I said, ‘No, Pop. I turn out good; that's why I went in, see.'"

In 1965, Rutigliano and his family moved to Del Rio, where he worked for 18 years at Del Rio National Bank. Through the years, he kept up with his high school friends who volunteered with him during WWII, as well as those he fought with in the 87th Infantry Division, Company M.

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