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Three-time war veteran shares his photos

By Bethany Crudele, CNN
  • Peter Ruplenas is a retired combat cameraman of WWII, Korea and Vietnam
  • Army Headquarters reviewed his shots regularly to see if the U.S. had hit their targets
  • Ruplenas says best part of the job was photographing young American GIs

(CNN) -- In his West Virginia home, Peter Ruplenas, a three-time war veteran spends his days thumbing through his personal photography collection.

His compilation is vast and includes countless photographs of B-24 bombers, soldiers in the field and the aftermath of war.

He holds up a photograph of himself taken by fellow photographer Dick Durrance during the Vietnam War. In it, Ruplenas trudges through a rice paddy after returning from a sweep in Cu Chi, Vietnam. He struggles to carry all his gear, but his grip is firm on his 35-millimeter camera.

The photograph captures Ruplenas at the peak of his 29-year photography career and brings him back to a time when he says he was fearless. "The minute I took the first picture I was completely relaxed."

"I feel pretty proud of what I've done," says Ruplenas, a 91-year-old retired combat cameraman of World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

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He joined the Army in 1941 and within weeks of lacing up his boots, became a combat photographer.

Combat photographers have long-served a tactical and strategic purpose -- their primary objective is to gather military intelligence. While some, like Matthew Brady and Robert Capa, have had storied careers, thousands of others worked in obscurity, their identity hidden behind the lens.

Veteran Navy combat photographer Johnny Bivera says military photographers provide a valuable legacy. People like Ruplenas provide our society "with documentation about a time and place in our history that has long changed and moved on."

Ruplenas recalls the nervousness he felt on D-Day in World War II, one of his first assignments.

Video: Facing enemy fire, behind the lens

"I hitched up a ride and a pilot let me go with him, I photographed the dozens and dozens of landing craft going in shore. We didn't drop one bomb because our targets in France were covered by fog and rain."

His company commanders soon realized his talent and encouraged him to take more photographs. Army Headquarters began reviewing his shots regularly to determine whether the United States had hit their hopeful targets.

"I love photography," says Ruplenas.

"Anytime they had accidents, disasters, bombings, I flew out and photographed it."

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Despite his deep appreciation for the job, he says the Korean War was the most difficult to cover. In addition to frostbite and seven days behind enemy lines with an all Korean guerilla group, he says it was the weather that proved to be most trying.

"It went from 60 to 70 degrees when we first landed to 32 below. I worked day in and day out, hardly any days off because I loved my job."

Throughout his photography career, Ruplenas mentored younger soldiers as they trained in his shadow.

He did not like to get overly technical about photography. "If anyone walked up to me and asked a technical question, I'd say ask the next guy," he says, laughing.

But, says Ruplenas, "I could tell you the best angle and the best way to get those photographs."

He says the best part of the job was photographing young American GIs and feels privileged to have had encounters with movie stars like Bob Hope, Tony Bennett and Patti Page during his military travels.

Ruplenas has also encountered younger veterans in recent years who remember his work and credit him with helping them find a profession in photography.

"It makes you feel pretty good," he says.

Ruplenas retired from the Army in 1970 and says he now enjoys spending time with his granddaughter and seven adopted alley cats.

He also loves going through his collection of photographs.

"When you hit 91 years old and you've gone through three wars, you ought to ... just relax."

And while he doesn't photograph as much as he used to, Ruplenas insists, "without a camera, I'm nothing."