Edward W. Riepl
Ensign, United States Navy
Photo courtesy of Gerald Riepl
Ensign Edward W. Riepl is shown on May 25, 1942, upon
his graduation from Corpus Christi Naval Air Station.
Arlington burial lays questions to rest
HERNDON, Kansas -- Ringing the old church bell, Don Grafel's thoughts raced back to his childhood and the memory of a fallen hero, Ensign Edward Riepl.
They were two of several youngsters from Herndon who worked and played hard and enjoyed life despite the hardships of the Great Depression and Dirty Thirties.
Only the good memories rose to recollections this past week as he pulled that old rope 58 times in Immanuel United Church of Christ, once for every year Riepl, a Navy co-pilot, was lost in the South Pacific during World War II.
The Department of the Navy buried Riepl's remains April 21 in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.
"He was a pretty good friend to me," said Grafel, 75. Riepl was seven years his senior. "I always looked up to him."
The 24-year-old pilot left Herndon for good in the summer of 1942 but was never forgotten in this dwindling northwest Kansas community. Not many residents today were there when the tall, slender and athletic Riepl frolicked with a small band of ornery, but good-natured farm kids on the banks of Ash Creek, which meandered through the Riepls' family farm.
It remains a special place to Gerald Riepl, Cimarron, Edward's youngest sibling.
"I still go to the farm whenever I'm up there," he said. "I think about what it was like as a kid growing up."
He's thought a lot about that place and his late brother in the six years since loggers found the plane on the island of Espiritu Santo in the South Pacific. It apparently had crashed during bad weather. DNA testing confirmed Ensign Edward Riepl was in the wreckage.
The ceremony in Arlington was closure for his family and a bunch of old chums.
"The way it was done was really nice," said Gerald Riepl, 75. "My brother's finally back home."
A typical farm family
Don Grafel lived a half-mile north of the Riepl farm. Edward was the fourth in a family of six. Gerald was the baby.
Farther south lived John Grafel Jr., Don's cousin.
"We were neighbors about a mile across the creek, as the crow flies," John Grafel said. "We walked to school together, played football, played in the band.
"Our folks were good friends. We always had get-togethers, especially on the Fourth of July."
They fished, swam and trapped wild game in the creek, often playing the role of mighty pioneers out to win the West.
"We shot a lot of Indians on the bank," John Grafel said.
Sons of hard-working and strict parents, they helped feed livestock and tended the crops. Everybody milked cows by hand in those days.
Those were hard times, he recalled, especially during dust storms.
"When a dirt cloud came in, us bigger boys would have to take the little ones home so they wouldn't get lost," John Grafel said.
Times were hard, said Gerald Riepl.
"We didn't have much, but we had a nice place to live," he said.
Dreams of flying
Edward graduated from Herndon High School in 1935 and went to work for Don Grafel's father, Henry.
"At harvest, he pitched (wheat) to a threshing machine," Don recalled.
Needing two years of college to enter the Navy Air Corps, Edward enrolled in a junior college at McCook, Neb., where he played football and basketball. He was good enough to be invited to play football at the University of Wyoming, Gerald Riepl said, and may have shelved his Navy plans if not for a motorcycle accident that injured a knee and ended his sports career.
"It looked doubtful for a time whether he would ever be able to get into the Navy," Gerald Riepl said, "but he did."
He joined in February of 1940, less than two years before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. He graduated from flight school at Corpus Christi Naval Air Station in Texas in May 1942 and returned to Herndon on leave. That week was the last anyone in Herndon would see him.
He left Pearl Harbor on July 13, 1942, and was reported missing August 6, Gerald Riepl said.
There was speculation as to how Edward died, that he was lost at sea. Gerald said it was his first or second mission as the co-pilot of a PBY patrol plane. He was a member of Patrol Squadron 23 that had participated in the Battle of the Midway islands before Ensign Riepl joined it. The day after the plane was reported missing was the beginning of the invasion of the Solomon Islands.
The plane was discovered 25 miles from the air base where Riepl was stationed.
Hard words to hear
Gerald remembered the day his parents, Matt and Susie Riepl, received word. Gerald was 17 at the time.
"We got a phone call from the depot agent in Herndon, and they said we had a telegram," he said. "I knew that it was about one of my brothers."
By then, Francis Riepl, now 79 and living in Polson, Montana, also was in the Navy and stationed in the Pacific. But the dreadful news concerned Edward.
"It was pretty devastating to me," Gerald said. "He was always kind of my idol."
The deep sense of worry, and later, the grief from losing a child, was shown by their mother, he said. John and Don Grafel said they remembered their mothers going to the Riepl home to console Susie Riepl.
"The whole county was shocked, saddened," John Grafel said. "Their family was heartbroken."
The Riepls' parents died in the mid-1970s, never knowing what happened to their eldest son.
"It was one thing that always bothered her, that she never knew," Gerald said. "We had a stone put up in the cemetery, so she had some place to put flowers."
The wreckage was found January 14, 1994, and the family was notified May 19, Edward Riepl's birthday.
"We always flew a flag on my brother's birthday," Gerald said.
Family members provided blood samples to help the Navy determine some of the remains were Edward's.
"When I first heard they found the plane, I made up my mind we wanted him buried in Arlington," Gerald Riepl said. "We had several options."
More than 40 family members, friends and some war veterans acquainted with Edward Riepl attended the service at Old Post Chapel.
Gerald Riepl and three of his four sons followed a caisson pulled by six black horses 1.5 miles to the grave site, where there was a rifle volley, a bugler and a military band. Gerald Riepl was given the flag that had been draped over his brother's casket.
The group burial service was later Friday for Edward Riepl and seven other Navy servicemen who never returned from their mission.
Edward Riepl's gravestone in Herndon is decorated every year by friends and family, John Grafel said.
"I talked to his brother Francis about it,"
John Grafel said. "He said, 'At least we know where Ed is and it's settled.
We're happy about it.' "
The family of a Kansas man who had been missing in action for nearly six decades finally will be able to bury him, thanks to modern science.
Edward Riepl, a native of Herndon who disappeared in a mission over the South Pacific in 1942, will be buried in April 1999 in Arlington National Cemetery.
Pentagon officials say advances in DNA genetic research helped them to positively identify Riepl's remains. He was among 15 U.S. servicemen missing from World War II and the Vietnam War whose remains recently were identified through DNA.
More than 78,000 Americans still are unaccounted for from those two wars.
But since the early 1990s, the Department of Defense DNA Registry has conducted a program to catalog the DNA of present and past members of the armed forces.
In Riepl's case, DNA was extracted from his bones and matched with blood from his brothers.
Gerald Riepl, one of Edward's brothers, said he is thankful science made it possible to write the last chapter in his brother's story.
"He was a number one guy," Gerald Riepl said. "He played football and sports. Everything he did was number one."
Gerald Riepl remembered his brother's last visit to Herndon, a small town in extreme northwest Kansas. It was a two-week furlough that ended only a few weeks before Edward, a Navy pilot, disappeared.
He showed off his uniform, posed for family photos and talked about going off to war.
"This was his first flight out on an assignment," Gerald Riepl said. "He was really anxious to go. Back then, they never found a sign of anything. They assumed he'd gone down at sea."
But on May 19, 1994 -- Edward Riepl's birthday -- Gerald Riepl was told that loggers had found the wreckage of the crash.
"The plane had been burned up pretty bad," said Gerald Riepl, who now lives in Cimarron. "All the dog tags were taken."
Had he lived, Edward Riepl would have been 81.
After his last visit home, Ensign Riepl left Hawaii on July 13, 1942, for duty in the Pacific.
Edward Riepl, then 24, was among eight Navy sailors who failed to return from a patrol mission in bad weather. Their plane crashed over Espiritu Santo, an island in the New Hebrides in the South Pacific Ocean.
The family was notified that he was missing in action August 6, 1942.
The next day, his mother, Susie Riepl, received a letter from her son. It was written July 31 and said, in part: "I certainly must write Gerry a personal letter soon or he will decide not to write. Hope this is all over before he has to go. Don't let him go until he has to. Bye for now; be good and write often. I'll be thinking of you.
"Lots of love, Ed"
November 17, 1999
World War II SERVICEMEN IDENTIFIED
Remains of eight servicemen who were missing in action from World War II have been identified and are being returned to their families for burial in the U. S.
They are identified as Lieutenant Maurice S. Smith, Lodi, California; Ensign Edward W. Riepl, Herndon, Kansas; Petty Officer First Class Clifford M. Pindell, Washington, D.C.; Petty Officer First Class James W. Pearson, Alliance, Nebraska; Petty Officer Second Class William R. Pipes, Chickasha, Oklahoma; Petty officer Second Class Merlin J. Rich, Wheeler Township, Michigan; Petty Officer First Class William H. Osborne, Martinsville, Virginia; and Petty Officer Second Class Vernon H. Stolz, Saginaw, Michigan, all U. S. Navy.
On August 6, 1942, these crewmen were flying a routine patrol mission whose search sector took them over the island of Espiritu Santo, New Hebrides. The weather was reported as adverse, and the aircraft never returned to its home base in New Caledonia. Searches failed to uncover any traces of the PBY-5 Catalina aircraft or crew.
In 1994, the U. S. Embassy in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, notified the U. S. Army Central Identification Laboratory Hawaii (CILHI) that relic hunters had discovered the crash site of an American aircraft on Espiritu Santo (now part of the Republic of Vanuatu.) A CILHI recovery team excavated the site in March and April 1994 and recovered human remains, personal effects, and crew-related items among fragments of the aircraft wreckage.
Over the next five
years, CILHI specialists applied the latest forensic identification tools
to the effort of identifying these crewmen. Among the tools used
was that of mitochondrial DNA, in which a blood sample from the maternal
blood line is compared to the DNA from a bone fragment of the deceased
serviceman. Mitochondrial DNA tests are conducted by the Armed Forces
DNA Identification Laboratory in Rockville, Md.
ENS US NAVY
WORLD WAR II
DATE OF BIRTH: 05/19/1918
DATE OF DEATH: 08/07/1943
BURIED AT: SECTION 60 SITE 7823
ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY
Posted: 24 December 1999 Updated: 15 April 2001 Updated: 28 April 2003 Updated: 6 January 2007