DAYTON — Anna Lee Campbell raises her eyebrows across the table from her older brothers, Mike and John “Buster” Ripkowski. 

She leans in and whispers conspiratorially.

“I usually know what’s what, more than them,” the 90-year-old says as her brothers sift through a sea of newspaper articles, copies of letters signed by presidents past and decades-old photographs.

Photo of a copy of a newspaper article describing the Ripkowski as “America’s Most Patriotic Family.” The photo of the article was taken, Thursday, July 20, 2023, in Dayton. (Marie D. De Jesús / Houston Landing)

Anna Lee may be the youngest nonagenarian sitting in Dayton, Texas’ Old School Museum, an archival hub for this Liberty County town this Thursday morning, but she and her brothers Mike, 91, and Buster, 93, represent far more than a handful of old-timers reminiscing.

The trio are the last surviving siblings of the Ripkowski family, who sent 12 of their 16 children to serve in the U.S. armed forces, believed to be among the largest group of siblings in American history, according to remarks from late Texas Congressman Charles Wilson who honored the family in Congress on Nov. 17, 1989.

The nine eldest Ripkowski brothers — Bernie, Felix, Alex, August, Leon, Bill, Raymond, Herman and Franklin — served in and survived World War II, according to the Liberty County Historical Commission.

The remaining three, including Buster and Mike, as well as their youngest brother, Stanley, served in the Korean War and in peacetime, respectively.

Anna Lee and her older sisters, Kathy, Virginia and Pearline, helped their parents — first-generation Americans, Stash and Mattie Ripkowski — tend to 200 acres of farmland the family sharecropped in Dayton.

During World War II, the nine eldest brothers served across the world: from the Aleutian Islands to a march from North Africa to Sicily and throughout the Pacific Theater, without much of a second thought.

“We were ‘sposed to do it,” Mike says. “You didn’t want to, but you went.”

The Ripkowski brothers’ service to their country is the crux of their family legacy to many in Dayton, a town in Liberty County 38 miles northeast of Houston.

That sense of duty was ingrained in the 16 Ripkowski siblings who grew up in a five-bedroom farmhouse in rural Texas — with “as many as you could fit” to a bed, Mike adds — long before they were called to battle.

Growing up a Ripkowski

As children, the Ripkowski siblings picked cotton, milked cows, slopped the hogs and fed livestock. When their daddy, a 6-foot-2 son of Polish immigrants, told them to do something, they snapped to attention.

Stash and Mattie Ripkowski were devout Catholics and leaders in the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Liberty. 

Sundays were dedicated to making the trek from Dayton to Liberty by caravan — sometimes cramming eight people in a one-seater car, Anna Lee recalled, while her older brothers drove two more truckloads of siblings.

After church, baseball was the Ripkowski brothers’ second religion.

  • Anna Lee Campbell, 90, looks at photographs of her family displayed in the Old School Museum in Dayton
  • John Ripkowski, 93, observes photographs of his family displayed in the Old School Museum in Dayton
  • John Ripkowski, 93, and his brother Mike Ripkowski, 91, look at photos of their family
  • John Ripkowski, 93, looks at a photograph of his wedding day
  • John Ripkowski, 93, and his brother Mike Ripkowski, 91, observe photos of their family
  • Ripkowski Drive named after the Ripkowski family in Dayton

“They got ball from head to big toe,” Anna Lee jokes, pointing at Mike with a grin.

As kids, all 12 brothers dominated a local softball league as the Ripp Bros., with Stanley, the baby of the family, acting as ball boy.

Both Mike and Anna Lee remember their parents as strict, but loving. The siblings were taught to cook and drive tractors as early as 8 years old.

Electricity and indoor plumbing were luxuries of another class, but there always were biscuits after school and dinners of chicken fried steak and Polish duck soup.

“Above all else, we never went to bed hungry,” Anna Lee says.

That was a feat all three surviving siblings speak of with deep pride, given that they came of age during the Great Depression.

Defying the odds

The Ripkowski brothers flirted with death over their 60 combined years of military service.

Brother Raymond was a flight engineer and photographer with the U.S. Army Air Forces — the predecessor of the U.S. Air Force — who crash-landed in New Guinea after his plane was crippled on a bombing mission.

According to family lore, Raymond regained consciousness to a doctor looming over his hospital bed who declared, “This one isn’t going to make it.”

Nearly 80 years later, younger brother Mike remembers Raymond immediately bristling at the death sentence: “Rip said, ‘Like hell I ain’t!’”

Another brother, Alex, did not write home for six weeks. 

Buster and Mike remember their mother fearing he was dead. She wrote a letter to one son a day, every day. Alex, however, had stopped responding because he was forced to hide from the Germans in a foxhole for nearly two months.

After the war, Stash Ripkowski died in 1946, and Alex took his place as the head of the household, requiring his younger siblings to go to school and help around the house.

“Alex was like a guardian to us,” Anna Lee says fondly, pointing to Alex’s smile in a photo of all the siblings taken after Buster’s wedding in 1955. 

One of the siblings’ favorite wartime stories is their brother Leon’s strict adherence to military code.

Leon was stationed across Africa and England in the U.S. Army’s infantry before being reassigned to the military police in France, and took his duties at a checkpoint so seriously that he even stopped Gen. George Patton at the gate and made the famed leader identify himself.

Afterward, Patton complimented Leon for his due-diligence, Mike says.

A composite of newspaper clips and archival photos of the Ripkowski family
This is a composite of newspaper clips and archival photos of the Ripkowski family whose 12 sons served in the U.S. armed forces from WWII through the Korean Ward and peacetime. The veteran brothers were honored over the years by then Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson and former presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Thursday, July 27, 2023, in Houston. (Marie D. De Jesús / Houston Landing)

Legacy of service

Over the decades, the brothers have been honored in remarks by then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson and Congressmen Wilson and Ted Poe. They have been granted a special dedication by the Texas Senate. 

Former presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush wrote letters directly to the family, thanking them for their service to the nation.

In 2014, Dayton City Council named a street Ripkowski Drive, after a Liberty County Historical Marker was placed at the Dayton Community Center and 12 trees were planted in honor of the veteran brothers.

None of that is as important to the three surviving siblings as the legacy their parents imparted on them as children: to do good works, respect one another and God and live life in service to their community.

  • An undated photo of Mattie and Stash Ripkowski.
  • A copy of an obituary for the Ripkowski matriarch, Mattie Ripkowski
  • Every Ripkowski brother received an America flag from the U.S. government courtesy of former Texas Rep. Charles Wilson in 1990

“I’m not too much of a speaker,” Buster says. “But we all got along good.”

“We all pulled together,” Anna Lee adds.

The trio count their blessings in the form of their many grandchildren and great-grandchildren, the majority of whom remain in Texas and live near Liberty County.

“All those kids turned out to be good citizens,” Mike offers. “Nobody in jail or prison. We did pretty good.”

After a morning spent reflecting on the past, Mike is eager to get back home. There are Astros games to watch, you know?

He gingerly pushes back his chair and stands up. Buster neatly folds the portrait from his wedding, an obituary for their mother and a smattering of newspaper clippings, and slides them into a manila folder. 

Anna Lee watches as Mike walks from the table and peers over the exhibit dedicated to their family inside the Old School Museum.

After a moment, Mike ushers his siblings toward the door.

The 91-year-old still drives — whether his kids want him to or not — and leads his older brother and younger sister out of the museum. As he eases the car out of the parking lot, Anna Lee and Buster offer slow waves goodbye.

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Céilí Doyle covers the region’s suburbs and rural communities for the Houston Landing. She comes to Texas by way of the Midwest, most recently working for The Columbus Dispatch in Ohio through the...