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Veteran Profiles

Each of our veterans has his or her own unique story to tell about their experiences in the U.S. armed forces. We are pleased to share a few of them with you.

JAMES N. RIZZO ★ U.S. ARMY AIR CORPS ★ WWII

Nancy Angel, Honor Flight Chicago Veteran Interview Volunteer
(Flight Date: 04/12/2017)

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(Orland Park, IL) When Jim Rizzo was a junior in high school, the Army came to speak to the boys. They were told that if they enlisted, they could complete high school, and would be called up after graduation, so Jim signed up. Since he didn’t receive his notice immediately after graduation in June, he went to work for the post office.  One day in December of 1944, he delivered his own induction notice. He joined the Army December 20, 1944 and was sent to Keesler Field in Biloxi, Mississippi for basic training.

After completing basic, he was sent right back to Illinois and was assigned to Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, IL.  He was told his assignment was Power Plant, although Jim wasn’t quite sure what that meant. He soon found out that it had to do with motors when he was brought to a large room with about 50 motors; four men were assigned to each motor and instructed to remove the ignition wires. Jim and his group set to work. When a supervisor came to check on their progress, he said they were doing a pretty good job, and asked where they had gone to AM school. When they replied that they hadn’t gone to AM school (and, in fact, didn’t even know that it stood for Airplane Mechanics school), they were informed that they couldn’t go to Power Plant school if they hadn’t gone to AM school. So, they were re-assigned to Welding School, and spent the next 16 weeks being trained in welding. As it turned out, Jim never did any welding after Welding School. He also never saw any combat, but served in the important role of providing food and arranging much-needed entertainment for the troops overseas.

From Chanute, he was sent to San Antonio, Texas as part of 553rd Air Service group. He was there for several months for further training before being sent by train to Pittsburg, California near San Francisco. There he received his marching orders to be sent overseas, but was told to stand down as their ship was not there yet. Four days later, the bomb was dropped and the war in Japan was over! Jim and his buddies celebrated with the rest of the country and thought they’d be going home. That was not to be the case – they were shipped over to Japan on the USS General Weigel, arriving at Yokohama Harbor. The harbor and immediately surrounding area were intact, although huge sections of Tokyo had been destroyed by the bombing.

When they arrived in Japan, there wasn’t a need for welders. Instead, the Army was looking for cooks or bakers. Jim’s buddy, Alfred Dipoalo had been a butcher, so the Army said they could use him as a cook. He convinced Jim to come and join him, although Jim knew nothing about cooking. The base where they were assigned was an old Douglas aircraft plant, now being used to salvage parts from old trucks to make new, operational trucks. It was a large facility in which they were fortunate to have a big well-appointed kitchen. Jim learned about cooking from the army cookbooks and the Japanese cooks assigned to work with them. At the same time, the Army cooks were teaching the Japanese cooks different styles of cooking, adapting from cooking beans and rice to cooking roasts and potatoes. Realizing the monotony of eating the same foods cooked in large kettles day after day, Jim suggested they offer something a little special for the men on Sundays. They set up individual cooking stations and the men could order eggs individually cooked however they liked, instead of the usual scoop of scrambled eggs from a kettle. The men enjoyed this. One Sunday morning even the colonel, who usually ate with the officers, came in to see what they were doing. He commended Jim for their innovation and creativity.

One morning when Jim was working in the kitchen, a captain arrived early in the morning, looking for Lieutenant Miles. Jim told the captain when Lt. Miles would be arriving and cooked the captain breakfast. After his meeting with the lieutenant, the captain was talking to Jim and told him he was going to be opening a rest camp at the base of Mount Fuji. Jim asked if he would need cooks there, and informed him that he knew everyone on base and would be able to get him anything he needed. Apparently, Jim made an impression on the captain, because 2 weeks later he received notice that he was being reassigned to the rest camp.

RizzoJ170412IMG02The camp was in a building that had been a hotel, but had been gutted from the war effort so it took a lot of work and about 3 months from the time Jim arrived to get the camp ready to open. Once open, the camp hosted about 200 men per week, alternating weeks between officers and enlisted men. The schedule was set up by the general staff in Tokyo, with each division or battalion in the area getting a certain number of slots each week. The camp was located on a very picturesque site on a lake about half a mile from the base of Mount Fuji. It offered many recreational activities including canoeing, sailboats, hunting, skiing, mountain climbing, badminton, hiking, tennis and card games. And, of course, plenty of good food. Jim recalls cooking for Christmas 1945. They served some 500 men, cooked for 15 hours, and prepared 80 turkeys!

Jim had a full kitchen of employees, including six Japanese cooks hired from the Imperial Hotel. His main job was approving the menu and ordering the food for the meals. Once a week he had to drive to the commissary at Yokohama, roughly 51 miles away, to pick up food and supplies. The roads were unpaved and very rough, so travel was slow and often entailed flat tires – the round trip took about eight hours. Because the personnel at Yokohama were so helpful and essential to obtaining the necessary supplies, Jim suggested that one room at the hotel be set aside every week so that someone from the commissary could come to the camp each week, and it was implemented. On one of his weekly trips, Jim was talking to one of the commissary workers who asked him if he could use an ice cream machine at the camp, because he happened to have one on the dock. Of course, Jim was delighted to be able to offer ice cream at the camp and had the machine loaded onto the truck. Apparently, the commissary workers appreciated that weekly room being set aside for them! The engineering battalion that was supposed to have received the ice cream machine was not so happy when they couldn’t figure out what had happened to their machine.

One night at dinner, the major said that he needed someone to arrange for the entertainment for the troops at the camp. Jim thought he could manage that job since he was primarily supervising and planning versus cooking every day, so he volunteered. He was given a phone number in Tokyo to call each week to see what type of entertainment was available that week. He arranged for several varieties of entertainment for the visiting troops – magicians, acrobats, classical dancers, jugglers and musicians.

After several months at the camp, Jim had earned the 22 points needed for discharge, so he contacted the 5th Air Force headquarters in Tokyo to request his discharge. When he received his discharge papers, he was surprised to see that his Military Occupational Specialty had been changed from Cook to Entertainment Specialist (Who even knew that was an MOS?!)  During his travels home, he cooked on both the transport ship to San Francisco and the train to Chicago (which afforded him the perk of his own berth on the train).

A few weeks after returning to civilian life, his father helped him get a job in the printing business. 25 years later, computers eliminated the need for the printing plates they used, ending the operation of the presses, as well as Jim’s career in the printing business.  He had always wanted to own his own business, so he put his Army experience as a cook into practice and purchased a restaurant, and later a second restaurant, both of which were successful. By the age of 69, the restaurant business had become too much for him, so he sold his business and retired. After 5 years of enjoying golf and travel, Jim was bored with retirement and went back to work as a school bus driver. He is still driving a school bus today, at 90 years old!

Jim married Alvina in 1950. They had been married for 61-1/2 years when Alvina passed away. They have 3 daughters, and now also 7 grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.

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