Ralph W. Mueller: From printing to surgery in one quick enlistment

U.S. Air Force  Korean War   St. Charles, IL   Flight date: 05/09/18

By April Horner, Honor Flight Chicago Veteran Interview Volunteer

The very first thing Ralph Mueller will tell you is, “I loved my time in the service!” Listening to his story, it’s easy to understand why. Ralph was born in Chicago and grew up in Winfield. After graduating from West Chicago High School, he worked in a print shop until he joined the service on a whim in March, 1951. It was a nice day and Ralph and two high school buddies were walking around Wheaton, not knowing what to do with themselves. One buddy suggested, “Hey, why don’t we join the service?” So that’s exactly what they did at the Wheaton Post Office. When he got home and told his parents he had joined the Air Force, Ralph says they almost had a heart attack. Their reaction did not deter Ralph; he wanted to go to Korea.

After completing Basic Training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, Ralph asked to specialize in photography, printing, or dentistry, but none of these had openings. Ralph was offered surgery, and he was fine with that. He was sent to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio for two months of surgical training. There he learned about the instruments and procedures related to assisting surgeons. Practical nursing duties, like making a hospital bed and caring for patients was also part of his training, as well as general maintenance of a surgical unit. Despite having no medical background, Ralph was enthusiastic about his new assignment and says “when you love something, you can learn anything.” After a 25-day furlough, Ralph traveled to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, sailed to Bremerhaven, Germany, and ultimately ended up in Allied-occupied Germany at the sprawling Rhein-Main Air Base near Frankfurt–a long way from Korea.

Ralph began his three-year tour of duty with the 60th Troop Carrier Wing (60 AMW), 60th Medical Group (60 MDG) in August, 1951. The 50-bed hospital unit where Ralph worked served every kind of patient from U.S. combat soldiers to military families and support personnel. On a typical workday Ralph assisted during operations such as appendectomies, hernias, hysterectomies, and ingrown toenails. The very first operation Ralph participated in was on a woman with a breast infection. Ralph at nineteen years old, kept thinking about how he wouldn’t dare kiss a girl on their first date, and here he was holding a woman’s breast to assist the surgeon!

From the very start, Ralph loved being in surgery and watched with rapt fascination as service members and civilians went under the knife. About eight months into his tour, Ralph was promoted to Staff Sergeant in charge of surgery, scheduling surgical assistants, on-call duty assignments, and overseeing general operations and supplies. The benefit of this position was that he could schedule himself as surgical assistant on operations that interested him. One of his favorite operations was thyroid surgery because there were so many “bleeders” he was constantly busy slapping clamps into the surgeon’s hand. Hernia surgery was another favorite. But what Ralph really enjoyed was assisting on appendectomies. He says he watched so many appendectomies that, at the time, he felt confident he could perform one on his own, if needed.

Ralph’s experience was more than just the routine surgical work. On March 22, 1952 a KLM passenger plane crashed in Frankfurt near the base. An alert came over the PA and Ralph thought it was a practice drill until he saw the many burn victims being brought in. Sadly there was little the doctors could do, and 45 of the 47 people on the flight died.

In 1953, the 1454th Medical Air Evacuation landed at the air base and one of the Medevac crew asked Ralph if he knew anyone who’d be interested in flying an evacuation mission. Ralph jumped at the chance. A couple days later he was onboard a mission that flew to the Azores to refuel, then on to Westover, Massachusetts to bring injured soldiers back to the states. He then got a 25-day leave and went home to surprise his parents on their 25th wedding anniversary. On the return flight to Germany, they flew the northern route via Newfoundland, so he got to see a good bit of the world, including his family, by volunteering to fly with the 14th 54th.

In 1954, the Americans and the British were conducting joint paratrooper maneuvers in the English countryside and needed a support MASH unit. Of course Ralph was up for the experience. While there, Ralph was invited to ride in the cockpit during an exercise. The plane got caught in turbulence and was going up and then suddenly dropped down. When Ralph saw the pilot getting upset he decided he didn’t need to go on any more exercises.

Ralph and his buddies worked hard, but they also enjoyed plenty of liberty. They toured all over Italy in a 1948 Chevy. They rode the gondolas in Venice, climbed to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, visited Naples, Capri, Sorrento, Montecito, and the Anzio Beachhead. But Ralph’s most cherished memory is his trip to the Netherlands when he met the love of his life in the Keukenhof Flower Gardens. Once Ralph set eyes on Rosina Wilhelmina Scutigliani, “Scuti” as he calls her, he knew he had found the most beautiful flower in the garden. After a year and a half of three day passes to see Scuti, they were married on May 28,1954 by the local Burgermeister. Yes, Ralph loved his time in the service for so many reasons, and finding Scuti was the biggest one.

Leaving the Air Force was bittersweet for Ralph. In January, 1955, back at Mitchell Air Base on Long Island, he was in charge of the eye, ear, nose and throat clinic when he was offered a promotion to Technical Sergeant. He really loved his work but he loved Scuti more and he knew the Air Force could send him anywhere in the world. Scuti couldn’t speak English very well, couldn’t drive, and didn’t know anyone. Ralph didn’t want her to be alone so he turned down the offer and was discharged in March, 1955. Scuti and Ralph had a wonderful life together for over 60 years. He worked in printing for a while, but switched to a long career in excavation and paving construction. Together they raised two sons, Thomas and Robert. Ralph’s biggest project now is writing his autobiography, filling the handwritten pages with all the cherished memories of his life. He says he’s almost finished, but he’s saving a chapter to write about his Honor Flight Chicago trip.

For your service to our country we say thank you Ralph. We hope you love your much deserved Honor Flight.