- Associated Press - Sunday, July 23, 2017

TULSA, Okla. (AP) - Once inside the “locked ward,” Melvin Rippetoe was always on his guard.

“They heard voices,” he said, “and you had to be careful walking among them. Because if you were walking behind them and they heard these voices and these voices were cursing them, they turned and swung at you.

“You just really had to be careful where you were in the locked ward.”

The Tulsa World (http://bit.ly/2uADsxk ) reports that as a Navy hospital corpsman during World War II, Rippetoe, now 92, worked for more than a year in a hospital psychiatric unit for Navy and Marine servicemen.

The “locked ward,” as it was called, was a secure area for those suffering the most serious mental breakdowns from combat.

“Battle or combat fatigue” was the term used at the time, Rippetoe said, adding that it was a catch-all that covered all forms of mental distress of fighting men.

“They say war is hell. And it is,” said Rippetoe, who assisted staff psychiatrists as they evaluated the patients.

“These young men had been in some perfectly safe job. Then they took them and trained them to kill people. . And that really works on your mind, on your psyche.”

Rippetoe was later sent to the Pacific to work in the sick bay of a ship. But the physical wounds he patched up there were minor, he said, compared to those of the locked ward.

“I never saw a battlefield, but I saw the results. And they weren’t pretty. These poor (young men) had lost reality. I really felt sorry for them.”

As reality checks go, none had been bigger for Rippetoe and other Americans than that of Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941.

A senior at Central High School in Tulsa, Rippetoe, 17, had been visiting his girlfriend, Helen, in Claremore that day.

He was on his way back to Tulsa on a train when he heard the news about the Pearl Harbor attack.

The next day it was the talk of the school, he said.

“A lot of the guys were wanting to enlist. And some of them did. Didn’t even wait till graduation.”

But Rippetoe “wasn’t that gung-ho” about going to war.

He was still 17 for one thing. Mainly, though, it was about not wanting to leave Helen.

“That was more on my mind than anything.”

The two had grown up in the same neighborhood in Tulsa. Rippetoe first met her as he was returning from his Tulsa Tribune paper route one evening.

After he graduated from Central in May 1942, Rippetoe and Helen got married. He was 17, she 16.

He couldn’t put off the war forever, though.

In October 1942, two weeks after Rippetoe’s 18th birthday, he received his draft notice.

Because Helen was pregnant by then with their first child, Carol, he was granted a deferment until the birth. He was finally inducted on June 17, 1943.

Rippetoe was given a choice to take the Navy over the Army, and he jumped on it, he said.

That was about the only choice the military ever gave him, he said.

Hospital corpsman school in San Diego, for example, would definitely not have been his first option.

But after boot camp, he found out that was where he was bound.

“They sent me to school to become a neuropsychiatric technologist,” Rippetoe said.

“Really that just meant I had the keys to the ward.”

Assigned to Oak Knoll Naval Hospital in Oakland, California - where at 16 months he would spend the bulk of his military service - Rippetoe worked primarily in the psychiatric wards, including the locked ward, which held about 40 of the most disturbed patients.

Milder cases were kept in the two “open” wards, he said.

Psychiatric patients at Oak Knoll were a mix of Navy and Marines, many of them fresh from combat, Rippetoe said.

“I asked them where they’d been, those who were lucid enough,” he said. “I don’t remember any specifically, but many of them had been on these little islands in the Pacific. They told me about the bloody landings.”

The psychiatric patients were at Oak Knoll primarily for evaluation. That would take about three months, and then from there would be sent to other facilities for treatment.

The most disturbed patients in the locked ward - those who presented a danger to themselves and others - were put in what were called “quiet rooms,” Rippetoe said.

A roughly 8-by-10-foot space containing just a bed and a urinal, each quiet room had door with a window in it. Every hour Rippetoe or another corpsman would walk by and check on the patients.

They had to be alert for suicide attempts, Rippetoe said.

“There had been suicides at Oak Knoll before, but they never had a successful one on my watch,” he added proudly.

But that doesn’t mean they didn’t try. In one disturbing incident, Rippetoe said, “I had put this one fellow in a quiet room. When I went back and looked in the window he was lying on the bed on his back - and blood was spurting out of his throat.”

Rippetoe got help and they went in.

The man, it turned out, had cut his own throat with a pen knife.

The blade on the knife was so short, though, the cut wasn’t deep. They were able to save the man’s life.

Rippetoe doesn’t know how the man had concealed the knife.

As soon as patients arrived, they were searched thoroughly, he said, and their clothes were exchanged for pajamas.

Part of evaluating the patients, Rippetoe said, was trying to determine who was “gold-bricking.”

That’s what it was called when someone tried to “fake insanity” to get out of fighting, he added.

Rippetoe took notes for the psychiatrists as they interviewed the new arrivals.

“You could usually tell the ones who’d really lost connection with reality,” he said. “But some were pretty good at faking it.”

Some of Rippetoe’s toughest memories from Oak Knoll came from the two months he was assigned to the burn ward.

Patients there were being treated for severe burns, many of them pilots who had crashed while training at the Naval air field in Alameda.

Rippetoe can still smell the burnt flesh.

Part of his job, he said, was to hoist the men into special tubs of water for baths.

“They were in a lot of pain. Just touching them they’d scream,” he said.

After two months, Rippetoe said, he was more than ready to go back to the psychiatric wards.

In late 1944, Rippetoe learned his turn had come to go overseas.

He was being sent to the Philippines, where he would be assigned to the USS Dobbin, a destroyer tender with a large sick bay.

The voyage across “was the one time in my service I was actually in any danger,” he recalled. “We were in a convoy, and had to sail in zig-zags to avoid Japanese submarines.”

He would remain on the Dobbin eight months through the end of the war in August 1945. Among his duties, Rippetoe took X-rays and tended to some of the more mildly wounded.

In a photo he still has from that stint on the Dobbin, Rippetoe is sporting something that seems out of place in a military portrait.

A thick black beard.

“Every ship was different. Our captain allowed sailors to grow facial hair. Several of the guys had beards,” he explained.

Rippetoe’s beard was his first.

After the war ended, “the captain came on the loud speaker and said the beards had to go. So we had a cutting-off party.”

After his discharge from the Navy, a clean-shaven Rippetoe arrived back in Tulsa on Dec. 30, 1945.

It was his first time to see his second daughter, Melody. Helen had given birth six weeks earlier.

Reunited with his young family, Rippetoe went back to work, while taking night classes at the University of Tulsa via the G.I. Bill. It took him eight years at three nights a week, but he earned an accounting degree.

He and Helen would go on to raise three daughters. The couple is still together, and in June celebrated their 75th anniversary.

Summing up his thoughts on the war, Rippetoe emphasizes the importance of the home front.

“This was all-out war. And everybody did their part. If you weren’t ‘in the war,’ you were still ‘in the war.’ Wives who stayed behind worked in factories. Children saved stamps in books to buy war bonds.”

Rippetoe accepted his part in the war without complaint.

Working with the psychiatric patients didn’t bother him, he said.

“It was just a job. I was too young to know any different.”

But he still thinks about those young men from time to time.

“I have often wondered what happened to them.”

___

Information from: Tulsa World, http://www.tulsaworld.com

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