Army Moves to Save Baron’s Legacy – Ernie Pyle’s Drinking Pal, Aristocrat, Artist, Spy and World War II Legend – | Candle Made Easy

The Army rescues a giant mural left behind by Baron Rudolph Charles Von Ripper before he went into battle against the Nazis and earned a Battlefield Commission, two Silver Stars and two Purple Hearts in the Italian Campaign.

Already a celebrated artist, Nazi concentration camp survivor, and then a 38-year-old Army recruit-in-training at Fort Bliss, Texas, von Ripper painted the 11-by-26-foot mural in 1943 around two windows on the wall of a library building the base as his gift to the diverse America of his imagination.

Whether he had permission to paint on the wall at the time was unclear, but permission was never a primary concern for Von Ripper, who lived the daring life that fascinated Ernie Pyle, World War II’s most famous correspondent.

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“He’s the guy they write books about,” said Pyle, who met Von Ripper in Italy and was impressed by his talents, both as an artist and a seasoned combat veteran of multiple conflicts.

Von Ripper was a true Austrian nobleman, the son of a general who was an aide-de-camp to the last Habsburg Austro-Hungarian king Charles I, but the ordinary GIs he served with in the 34th “Red Bull” Infantry Division simply called him ” Rest in peace.”

If they had ever forced him to fill out a résumé when he persuaded the army to draft him, ostensibly for “limited service” out of deference to his age and old war injuries, no one would have believed it.

At 19 he ran away to join the French Foreign Legion and served two years in Syria, where he was wounded in the chest and knee while fighting Druze rebels. After that it was back to Europe and jobs as a circus clown, miner, sawmill worker and anything else he could take up alongside his art studies, according to several stories and Pyle’s collection of dispatches entitled “Brave Men”.

The Texas mural, which has been fading for decades, showed a soldier and a sailor on either side guarding a multitude of Americans and holding up a map of the United States in the center.

The caption, written for the mural by Ripper, who became a US citizen during the war, read: “The liberty of our country and the way of life of the people – the soldier and the sailor protect.”

In an article published after the mural was completed, the El Paso Times noted that the Americans grouped in the center “represent the men who work with brawn and brawn, the thinkers, farmers, artists, musicians, doctors, lawyers , nurses, Negroes, baseball players, college boys and girls, men, women, children—everyone who makes a great free nation.

The article also quoted von Ripper as saying that he was homesick for Austria. “Of course I think tenderly of Vienna as it once was,” he said, “but now, even after the war, I don’t want to go back there because I can’t bear to think of the years of horror and hate that has been will follow the war.”

The army declared in 2019 that the mural would be preserved. However, the El Paso Historical Society has expressed concern that the “decommissioned” Building 7167 that houses the mural and the mural itself would be demolished if a proposed lease of the property to the City of El Paso went through.

Laura Cruz-Acosta, the city of El Paso’s strategic communications director, confirmed the city is in talks with the Department of Defense about the building, but when she received emails from last month asking if the mural’s status was part of the building Discussions she said: “No, we’re not at that point yet.”

Numerous inquiries to the Army, Fort Bliss, the City of El Paso, the El Paso Historical Society, and the Texas Historical Commission yielded no definitive answer as to what would happen to the mural. Then, earlier this month, a one-line statement came from the Fort Bliss Office of Public Affairs, indicating the mural would be saved.

“The Army has no plans and does not intend to transfer this property,” said Gilbert Telles of Fort Bliss Public Affairs in a statement. Fort Bliss also shared a detailed plan from the Base Directorate of Public Works for the mural’s preservation.

Hitler’s “Hymn of Hate” – the cover of Time Magazine

There was always an air of danger and possibly some international crime about Von Ripper. At one point he went to China ostensibly to film documentaries, but it was suspected a gun ran alongside. The story went that the gig in China fell through when its boss was shot dead during a bar fight in Shanghai.

Then it was on to Berlin, where he joined the anti-fascist art scene and published satirical sketches about the Nazis, which caught the attention of the Gestapo in 1934. He was beaten, tortured and then taken to a concentration camp. But he was still an Austrian royalty, and somehow the Austrians secured his release on the understanding that he would never return to Germany or any other place controlled by the Germans.

Von Ripper, now holding a grudge, went to Spain to fight in the civil war with the Republicans against Francisco Franco’s nationalists, who were supported by the Germans and Italians. He was serving as a gunner in a bomber supplied to the Republicans by the Soviet Union when his plane was shot down in 1937.

He managed to get out and parachute to Madrid with a leg riddled with shrapnel. Doctors wanted to amputate him, but he refused. In 1938, Von Ripper made his way to New York City, where he was welcomed into the thriving Greenwich Village artistic community.

At that time, a collection of his surrealist works entitled “Ecrasez L’infame” or “To Crush Tyranny” caused a stir in an exhibition in London that provoked protests from the Nazis. One of the works from the exhibition was later chosen by Time Magazine for the cover of its issue, which named Adolf Hitler “Man of the Year” for 1938 – for better or for worse.

The bad part came in Von Ripper’s portrayal of a mad Hitler at the keyboard of a giant organ, with his murdered victims spinning on a torture wheel above it. The caption for the cover read, “By the unholy organist, a hymn of hatred.”

Just a few years later, von Ripper joined the army, which trained him to become a medical assistant, but he landed a job as a martial artist, first in North Africa, then in Italy. There he met Pyle, who tried to describe his new friend and who served as his drinking buddy when Von Ripper wasn’t volunteering on dangerous patrols.

“He cursed profusely in English” and “was as at home discussing philosophy or political idealism as he was describing how best to take cover from a machine gun,” wrote Pyle in his 1944 book Brave Men “ via Von Ripper.”

“It was hard to reconcile the artist and the soldier in Von Ripper, but he was obviously a professional at both. A good soldier may have made him a better artist. I couldn’t imagine that he could be upset. He was so calm and brave in battle that he became a legend.”

Von Ripper’s exploits on the battlefield caught the attention of Major General William “Wild Bill” Donovan, head of the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA. Donovan broke him out and parachuted him to Austria, where he spent the rest of the war as a spy.

In 1944, the War Department held a martial arts exhibition that included several of Von Ripper’s works. In the exhibition catalogue, Von Ripper described how he viewed his work:

“A soldier-artist is a painter with a gun, a man who sometimes fights and sometimes paints. And he’s very fortunate in that: he can divert his efforts from destruction, from killing, which is the soldier’s job, to more creative ones work, to build, to make new things.”

Pyle noted the impact the war was having on Von Ripper’s martial arts. In his paintings and drawings, von Ripper’s dead men “look horrible, as dead men do. His living soldiers in foxholes have that ghostly look of exhaustion. His landscapes are sad and pitifully torn,” Pyle wrote.

After the war, von Ripper married a Californian and they settled in Mallorca, Spain, where he began designing jewelry, but again there was a touch of scandal. The Spanish government accused him of jewel smuggling, which his friends, including New York Times foreign correspondent CL Sulzberger, called a scam.

They said it was retaliation by the Franco regime for Ripper’s role in the Spanish Civil War. He was out on bail when he died of a heart attack at his home in Mallorca aged 55.

His obituary in The New York Times called him a “brave and colorful individual who had just cause to lead an almost one-man campaign against the Germans. He repeatedly led patrols against Nazi positions, and often went alone out.”

And the Army is now promising that another piece of his legacy, the mural at Fort Bliss, will live on.

— Richard Sisk can be reached at

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