Tommy Ritten waited until he was 18 to join the United States Marine Corps because he didn’t want his parents to feel guilty if they allowed him to join as a minor and something bad happened to him.
It was 1951, and the U.S. had been sending troops to East Asia — and Ritten found himself there, too, as a truck mechanic and driver in the Korean War. The teen from North Miami was stationed with the First Marine Air Wing in Kunson, Korea, where he worked on vehicles and worried about snipers during convoys because the mechanic always rode in the last truck.
“I was just a scared 18-year-old,” Ritten said. “We had to hit the foxholes two or three times a night. They would get signals and alerts that we were fixing to get hit. Never did. We were in a pretty safe place.”
In 1953 — 70 years ago — Ritten was on a ship headed to Korea for his second tour with the Marines. He had served three years in the military — part of that as a truck mechanic and driver in the Korean War — and re-enlisted so he could continue fighting in the East Asian country.
He would never make it back to Korea.
“I was in Hawaii, and when we were passing by the (U.S.S.) Arizona, we heard over the PA that there was a cease-fire. The U.S. had everything on the water headed that way.”
Ritten reached the temporary rank of sergeant while in Korea.
“I got paid for it,” he said. “That $125 a month looked good.”
The military medals Ritten received for his service are displayed in a shadow box that also contains his uniform photo, an American flag, his dog tags, two commemorative war coins, a few uniform patches and a Catholic prayer book. The case hangs on a wall in the 91-year-old’s Ocoee home next to a rifle and bayonet like the one he carried in the war. The wall also is decorated with 8x10 framed photographs of family members who have served in every war and conflict since World War I, beginning with an uncle and continuing with a cousin, brother and two sons. A collection of Korean War ballcaps completes the display.
LIFE AFTER THE MARINES
When Ritten returned home after the military in 1954, his parents were living on a farm in Orange Lake, and he found work in the area as a dump truck mechanic. The job took him all over the state.
Later that year, he married his wife, Jannette, and the two made their home in Jacksonville to be close to his next job with a paving company. The Rittens moved to Ocoee in the early 1960s, and he started Ritten’s Wrecker Service, located at Franklin Street and Bowness Road in Ocoee.
He owned that company for about a decade and had dreams of handing it to one or more of his and Jannette’s seven children one day. When Joan, Craig, Lisa, David, Michael, Jimmy and Paul showed no interest in the business, Ritten sold it.
“I didn’t want to hold them back,” he said. “They all got a good education. One went into the Air Force, two of them were playing football in college, one went in the Army.”
Ritten shared his love of fishing, hunting and camping with the children, and they made many excursions to North Carolina, as well as to Osceola and Seminole counties.
Several of them still live in the Central Florida area. Ritten also has 14 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Ritten received several invitations to return to Korea to reunite with other war veterans, but he said he always was too busy with work and family to travel overseas. He said he never had any desire to travel back to Asia.
He does have mementos of his time there, including a hardback photo book issued to all war veterans by the former president of South Korea. She also sent face masks to veterans during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ritten used to belong to a Korean War veterans group in Clermont, but he stopped going when the membership dwindled from 65 members to just one.
“If you talk to a Korean veteran, he’s going to be 91-plus,” Ritten said.
He spends his days tinkering in his yard and piddling around in his house. He gets together with his children. He frequently visits Jannette, now his ex-wife, who lives in an assisted-living facility.
Family is everything, he said.