Service & Sacrifice

‘The Blue Devils’

The post-WWII occupation of Italy, as remembered by Wilho Ritola, U.S. Army veteran

MARQUETTE — When Wilho Ritola, now 93, joined the U.S. Army in June 1946, the lifelong Republic resident found himself rapidly propelled into a new way of life.

“I enlisted at 4’o clock one afternoon in Marquette,” he said. “I was on the 400 train on the way to Chicago the next morning.”

Ritola, who enlisted with a friend, would go through training at the Fort Sheridan Army base in the Chicago area before being assigned to Camp Kilmer in New Jersey, where he took his heavy equipment operator training. He spent nine weeks there learning how to operate a motor grader.

“When I got through with the training there were some disturbances going on in the Balkan country,” Ritola said.

Wilho Ritola is pictured in his U.S. Army uniform. (Photo courtesy of Wilho Ritola)

Although World War II in Europe came to an end in May 1945 and Japan’s surrender was formalized in September 1945, the official declaration by the United States of the cessation of all hostilities in World War II didn’t come until Dec. 31, 1946.

Reinforcements were needed in Europe, as Italy and Yugoslavia had disagreements as to the locations of their borders in the wake of World War II.

Ritola would be one of the men sent to the region, but came home to his family in Republic for about three days before he embarked on the long journey overseas.

He boarded a ship in Staten Island, New York, that would cross the Atlantic Ocean and journey on to Europe.

“That was a rough trip,” Ritola said. “The weather we had, there was three days we had to stay in the ship and couldn’t come up on deck.”

But at last, when the ship reached Azores — an archipelago in the mid-Atlantic Ocean — the weather conditions began to improve.

“It was a beautiful day when we went into the Mediterranean,” Ritola said.

He still remembers a breathtaking sight: The sun was shining over the Rock of Gibraltar, a massive limestone promontory at the Strait of Gibraltar, which is the only entrance to the Mediterranean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean.

The journey overseas would finally conclude when the ship landed along Italy’s west coast near Pisa, where the Leaning Tower of Pisa is located.

Ritola, who was assigned to the 88th Infantry Division’s 350th Infantry Regiment, had his work cut out for him in Italy.

A page of Wilho Ritola’s photo album depicts some of the sights and scenes — and vehicles — from his deployment to Italy in the late 1940s. (Photos courtesy of Wilho Ritola)

After serving in World War II and fighting its way to the northernmost portion of Italy, the 88th Infantry Division served on occupation duty in Italy to guard the Morgan Line.

“I heard they called us the Blue Devils in World War II,” Ritola said of the 88th Infantry Division.

The Morgan Line was established after World War II in June 1945 as temporary boundary between Yugoslav and Allied military administrations in the Julian March region — which is now an area that is divided between Italy, Croatia and Slovenia — due to conflicts regarding borders and territorial claims.

“They had taken some Italian property during the war, they were resisting on that,” Ritola said, noting that the 88th Infantry Division was tasked with taking the Yugoslav forces “back into their own borders.”

Ritola was part of an infantry outfit, although his “enlistment number called not for infantry soldier,” he said.

“My job was driving trucks, jeeps and whatever smaller equipment they had,” Ritola said. “They never had any graders.”

Although it wasn’t the heavy equipment operation work that he’d been specifically trained for, Ritola said he enjoyed the work and “put lots of mileage on the trucks.”

And that statement might be an underestimate. A photo taken by Ritola during his deployment shows a sign indicating over 98,000 miles were driven in 84 days without any accidents.

“They had to have trucks to haul ammunition and stuff on to the front lines,” Ritola said.

However, Ritola’s time with the 350th Infantry Regiment would come to a close.

“We had a lot of good people in our service,” he said. “Then they decided that they didn’t need all those troops there, so they sent the 349th (Infantry Regiment) home — and the 350th (Infantry Regiment) — and I transferred to the 351st (Infantry Regiment.)”

The 88th Infantry Division’s 351st Infantry Regiment was established as the Trieste United States Troops, or TRUST, in May 1947.

The mission of TRUST was to maintain order in the territory and support the polices of the Allied Military Government until other governance could be appointed.

TRUST was established in accord with the Treaty of Peace with Italy, which had created the Free City of Trieste as a sovereign state under direct responsibility of the UN Security Council. The treaty allowed for the United States, the United Kingdom and Yugoslavia to each station 5,000 troops in the free territory.

The treaty would be implemented in September 1947, establishing the Free Territory of Trieste an independent, neutral zone.

When Ritola was sent to Trieste, his work continued to be in the motor pool.

“I put lots of miles on those (vehicles), servicing, all kinds of things, checking out troops, hauling lots of rations,” he said.

The region’s terrain provided unique challenges.

“That’s mountainous country,” Ritola said. “It’s not fast driving. It’s medium driving. You couldn’t go fast, or you’d be in the ditch all the time.”

The atmosphere in Trieste, Ritola said, was welcoming to American troops.

“We were liked in Trieste, the people liked us,” he said. “Every time we went downtown, they were all the time so cordial and all that with us and we enjoyed that.”

And meanwhile, there was another contentious situation brewing to the south.

“In Italy when we were having trouble with the borders, they were going to send us to Greece. They were having the same problems there, but that all got canceled out,” Ritola said of the Greek Civil War, which reached its height from 1946-48, but ended in 1949.

But soon enough, it was time for Ritola to head back to the United States.

“That’s when my time was starting to come up,” he said.

The journey home began with a complex navigational situation from the Gulf of Trieste — known as an extremely shallow bay of at the northernmost portion of the Adriatic Sea — out through the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean.

“They have to have what they call a pilot for the ship. There’s a lot of shallow spots they have to get around so they don’t get hung up in the water,” Ritola said.

The journey took six to seven days, he said. When he returned to the United States, Ritola went back to Camp Kilmer in New Jersey and received his discharge.

Then it was time to return to Marquette County, where Ritola would seek work with Cleveland-Cliffs Inc. When he first applied, there wasn’t any work available, but was told he would be contacted if the situation changed.

Several months later, Ritola got some good news.

“I got a card from CCI to report to Cliffs Shaft Mine, just like that, Monday morning,” he said.

Ritola would work at the Cliffs Shaft Mine for eight years.

“I worked for the underground. It was nothing for me to go even underground, it never bothered me one bit,” he said.

And then an opportunity arose for Ritola to pursue a longtime dream.

“The Republic Mine open pit started opening up,” he said. “Well, what I always wanted to do was operate heavy equipment, so I asked for a transfer from the underground to the open pit,” he said.

While supervisors cautioned Ritola that he could “be given any kind of a job,” he started off driving ore haulage trucks.

“That was a start right there, I was on the trucks for about 18 months and finally the mine started operating more and more and more,” he said.

And at last, the moment Ritola had been waiting for arrived.

“The mining super called me down, he said, ‘Why don’t you go up to that shovel up there and this guy will teach you how to operate that shovel…. I finally got permanently operating … I stayed 25 years operating the shovel — the mining shovel for loading trucks … Then I retired, and here I am,” Ritola, a member of the D.J. Jacobetti Home for Veterans in Marquette, said with a smile.

Ritola, a lifelong Republic resident who was one of eight children, raised his own family in Republic. He and his wife had two sons and a daughter.

“If any one wants quiet and tranquil living, there’s a place to go live: Republic,” Ritola said.

Wilho Ritola holds a family photo that was taken in his childhood. Ritola, a lifelong Republic resident, was one of eight children. He raised his own family in Republic. He and his wife had two sons and a daughter. (Journal photo by Cecilia Brown)

Cecilia Brown can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 270. Her email address is