Athens man receives Legion of Honor medal from French government

Richard “Dick” Pipitone was raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., in a neighborhood where most residents in those years came from Irish, Jewish and Italian backgrounds.

 

“We loved it very well. We had no problems,” he said recently from his home in Athens, where he has lived since 1953.

This man from a hard working middle-class family, where his father was a women’s clothing designer and his mother a seamstress who worked from home, would one day build a career himself in wholesale and retail clothing, but a mission would happen in his life that left a lasting impression.

In 1943, Pipitone, who had enrolled at Georgia Tech in Atlanta to study aeronautical engineering, joined the U.S. Army Air Force. He would become the bombardier on a B-24 Liberator bomber nicknamed “Chuck Wagon.” They flew 30 combat missions during World War II over France and Germany.

On Sept. 25 at the State Capitol in Atlanta, the French Consul General Louis de Corail honored Pipitone with the Legion of Honor award, France’s highest recognition of military service. Pipitone was one of seven WWII veterans honored. The others were Donald Seesenguth, Alvin Werbalowsky, Bernard Parker and Joseph Benator. The award was presented posthumously to veterans Edward Mercker and Bruce Estes.

Now at age 95, Pipitone still walks about 2 miles every morning to keep his body conditioned. He is the only one left of the “Chuck Wagon” crew as the pilot, Charles “Chuck” Neundorf, died last year. Neundorf made a career of the military and he retired as a lieutenant colonel.

Pipitone observed the war during those days from the bombadier position, where his job was to coordinate the targets and drop the bombs. Somehow the plane avoided being one of the many bombers shot down by the Germans.

“We’d have plenty of flak around us, but it depended on how deep we went into Germany,” he said about the anti-aircraft gunfire. “We had fighter planes attack us and we were lucky enough to fight off the fighters.”

“We got hit by flak on occasions and it was like rattling a tin can,” he said.

“We were very successful at times, but sometimes the weather was so that we couldn’t see the target. We’d have to dump the bombs, but we’d look for an open target.”

The Germans surrendered on May 8, 1945, but Pipitone said they could tell two months earlier that the enemy was headed for defeat.

When the Germans surrendered, Pipitone returned to the U.S. wondering if he would be sent to the Pacific, where war raged with Japan.

“The government had to make decisions on all these people coming back from England,” he said.

But Pipitone’s days in bombers were over. After the war, he decided to move back to New York, where he began working in the wholesale clothing business.

He married Sally Sperazi of New York and in 1953 they moved to Athens with their two daughters, Kathy and Mara Leah, both who have since died. Pipitone’s wife died in 2015 after 63 years of marriage.

Pipitone had his own retail outlets in Athens for many years, but circa 1978 he began working in business brokerage and later real estate.

Pipitone grew up in Brooklyn, where his elementary school was less than two blocks away and Ukrecth High School was only a few blocks away. Using Google maps, Pipitone said he was able to see his old neighborhood on the Internet.

“I saw dramatic change,” he said.

During those years after the war, the subject of his service rarely surfaced with family and friends.

“I never spoke or talked about it,” said the man who seven decades later was honored by the French.

 

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