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Believe it!

TWO AND A HALF MILES is a long way for a person to fall and survive. But that, believe it or not, is what happened to Joe Frank Jones of the US Eighth Air Force. While returning from a bombing mission over Germany in his B-17, there was an unexplained midair collision. The bomber broke in half and Jones ended up in the tail. He remained there all the way to the ground. Then he got up and walked away.

It was quite a story, yet the miraculously spared airman was not the real star. The star was the storyteller, Robert Ripley. He was the famous one. Wartime Americans read his incredible Believe It or Not illustrated stories--and he said he could "prove every statement" he made--on the funny pages daily, listened to his radio shows, watched his short films, and visited his Odditorium museums in a handful of cities to witness some of the world's strangest artifacts. Jones won one of Ripley's weekly contests in 1945 for best war story, earning $100 and 15 minutes of fame. Ripley, meanwhile, was known the world over, had been voted most popular man in America by New York Times readers, and was one of the highest-paid talents in journalism.

Ripley's rise to celebrity and fortune began with his doing sports cartoons for newspapers in his native San Francisco Bay Area at age 16. A dozen years later, in 1918, his Believe It or Not cartoon premiered. By 1930, newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst had hired him for $100,000 a year to do the cartoons daily for the hundreds of newspapers fed by his worldwide syndicate.

By the time Europe erupted in war, Ripley was a household name, and he took to the airwaves to urge President Franklin Roosevelt, whom he once toasted as "that son of a bitch," to keep the United States out of the fight. Then came Pearl Harbor, and his argument was moot. The lifestyle of this globetrotter who'd visited 201 countries collecting oddities changed drastically due to wartime travel restrictions.

Ripley's first wartime venture was the radio show See All the Americas with Bob Ripley, a propaganda program funded by the US government (though Ripley was sworn to secrecy about that). His mission was to come up with Believe It or Not bits that promoted friendly relations between the United States and her Latin American neighbors. "If someone should ask me where I have derived the greatest content," he blurted, "I would have to say, truthfully, South America." (Truthfully, friends knew he preferred Asia.) The government canceled the weekly half-hour show in mid-1942 when Ripley revealed the location of a US fighter squadron in the South Pacific.

The next big thing for Ripley was the radio program Scramble, begun in 1943 to attract youngsters to military aviation. It was a vehicle for stories of his prewar adventures in far-off exotic lands. Cross-country trips speaking to Boy Scout troops, school assemblies, and junior aviation groups followed to help press home his point that flying was fun and exciting.

As the war started to wind down, Ripley started the show Rhythm, Romance, and Ripley, 15 minutes 5 nights a week devoted exclusively to "amazing wonders culled from a world at war." Still churning out 7 cartoons a week (though he had help from apprentices by then), he was itching to roam and escaped the States and his hectic schedule for Cuba at Christmastime 1944. There, he heard about a volcano that had sprung up in a Mexican cornfield. His response was to try to buy it--"I could have charged admissions and made money off it"--but the Mexican government nixed the attempt.

The war years were successful for Ripley, but difficult. He lost many close friends. Ties he'd forged in foreign countries in the twenties and thirties had frayed while he was stuck stateside for so long. Meanwhile, he found out his ongoing trouble with aching, swollen feet was caused by a heart condition. It would kill him in 1949.

Jones the lucky airman may be almost forgotten at this point in the story. But Ripley? As Max Schuster, co-founder of Simon and Schuster publishing, wrote, "After twenty-five years of awed and breathless admiration I am more convinced than ever that the greatest Believe It or Not of them all is the story of Bob Ripley." The fact that people still know the name of an amateur anthropologist three-quarters of a century after his death suggests Schuster was onto something.
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Title Annotation:HOME FRONT; Robert Ripley
Author:Zebrowski, Carl
Publication:America in WWII
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2015
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