Ray is shackled to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Frequently he fights to draw a breath through the ever-present oxygen hose draped around his head and hanging slightly below his nose. Despite all this, Ray may be the most comical resident of the Eisenhower unit, a locked-down ward for demented U.S. military veterans. My father spent the last four years of his life in the Eisenhower unit. The hospital neurologist, Dr. Dan, told me Ray served on a destroyer during World War II, the USS Sterett, so I find the ship’s history in the Department of the Navy’s Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships.
One day in early March, I take a copy of the history to the hospital to read to Ray. I hope he can remember life on the Sterett. I know he suffered a horrible head wound at some point during the war.
When I arrive, I see Ray in his wheelchair, sporting a lime-green plastic hat and matching Mardi Gras beads. Most of the residents and nurses are wearing different colored hats and beads today at the impromptu party. Ray cuts a dapper figure in a cardinal-red checkered shirt, burgundy v-neck sleeveless sweater, khaki pants, black shoes and perfectly groomed, slicked back, silver hair. His eyes are sea-blue and usually filled with merriment. Today he is breathing easily through the oxygen hose connected to a small oxygen tank, secured to the right side of his wheelchair.
Ray is nearly blind so he can’t see me coming. At the sound of my greeting, he looks in my general direction, laughs and says hello. I tell him I have the history of his ship with me, and ask if he would like me to read it to him. I decide to record our rambling conversation using a portable voice recorder.
I roll Ray’s wheelchair to a vacant area against a wall in the front portion of the unit and push a cloth-upholstered, wooden chair next to the wheelchair. I find it difficult not to laugh as Ray folds his hands and stares intently at me while wearing his tiny green hat and beads. The hat sits daintily on top of his head, and it isn’t nearly big enough to cover his head.
The sight of staff in work smocks and brightly colored plastic hats and beads provides a dreamy, surreal atmosphere. Prentess motors by with a carnation pink hat and pink beads. I can tell that it will be an interesting afternoon.
“Well, you want me to read this history to you?” I ask Ray.
“Yeah!” is Ray’s immediate reply in an expressive tenor voice. Ray’s speech has a unique, resonating sound, and you can tell he has spent a lifetime in Kentucky.
“If you want to comment on something as I’m reading, feel free,” I say.
“You tell me what it was really like on the ship, okay?”
I read from the Department of the Navy’s article that I copied from the Internet. “This is the second Sterett, DD four zero seven. The Sterett was laid down on 2 December 1936 at the Charleston Navy yard. She was sponsored at her launch on 27 October 1938 by Mrs. Camilla Ridgely Simpson, and commissioned on 15 August 1939. She underwent a post-shakedown overhaul and trials at Charleston until departing on 4 May 1940. Assigned to Destroyer Division 15, Sterett rendezvoused with Hammann at Guantanamo Bay, and the two destroyers steamed for San Diego via the Panama Canal. Sound right, Ray?”
“They arrived in San Diego on 23 May, and for a month, Sterett divided her time between training and plane guarding. On 26 June, she sailed for Hawaii with Enterprise and five other destroyers and arrived at Pearl Harbor on 2 July. She operated out of Pearl Harbor for the next 10 months, participating in a number of exercises and patrols. When Mississippi exited Pearl Harbor on 14 May 1941, Sterett was in her screen.
“The warships transited the Panama Canal and arrived at Norfolk on 28 June. Sterett next screened Long Island during the escort carrier’s Bermuda shakedown cruise. Sterett concluded 1941 engaged in neutrality patrols with Wasp. After the Japanese attacked the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Sterett sailed from Bermuda with Wasp and an assortment of cruisers and destroyers to counter possible action by Vichy French ships anchored at Martinique. Sterett spent the early months of the war patrolling off the eastern seaboard. In mid-January, she sailed to Argentina, Newfoundland, to meet Task Force 15 and escort a convoy to Iceland.”
“That’s where I got my European duty in,” Ray quips.
“And what exactly were you doing on the ship,” I ask.
“I was an engineer!”
“And what was your rating there?”
“Machinist’s mate, second class.”
“Okay. So, what does an engineer do then, down in the ship?”
“He runs the ship,” Ray explains. “See, the control comes from the bridge—from the captain down, or his substitute—and that’s radioed to us down there, see. And all of the controls all over the board and all, they’re radioed to us, and what we have to do, like they say, ‘speed to a certain knot,’ you know? All right, we have to get that ship going that certain knot right now, or anything else, you know, or stop, or back up, or stop or reverse.”
I continue reading. “The convoy was transferred to two British destroyers on 23 January 1942, and she put into Iceland on 26 January. Sterett returned to the United States at New York on 9 February and stood out again on the 15th to meet the liner Queen Mary off the Boston breakwater and escort her into the harbor.”
“Yeah, I remember that,” Ray recalls. “That was the fastest thing I ever seen, that Queen Mary. Yep.”
“After two trips between Boston and Casco Bay, Maine, Sterett joined Wasp as part of her escort duty with the British Home Fleet.”
“The Wasp was a carrier,” Ray explains.
“The task group entered Scapa Flow, Orkney Islands, on 4 April minus its commanding officer, Rear Admiral John W. Wilcox, who was lost overboard during the passage.”
Ray nods his head and says, “Yeah, and he was on the carrier. And how he got on that carrier deck and got lost, nobody knowed. Nobody seen it; don’t know what happened.”
We return to the action. “The destroyer was with Wasp on her second run to Malta, 29 April to 15 May, and after returning to Scapa Flow, headed for the United States. The task group made Norfolk on 27 May 1942. On 5 June, Sterett put to sea bound for San Diego, where she arrived on 19 June. She stood out again on 1 July as a part of Task Force 18, and steamed, via Tongatabu, to the Fiji Islands. She was assimilated into Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner’s South Pacific Amphibious Expeditionary Force and practiced invasion techniques at Fiji until 1 August. Sterett spent the rest of 1942 and all of 1943 supporting the Allied forces as they struggled up the island staircase formed by the Solomons Islands and the Bismarck Archipelago.
“The Solomons invasion fleet, guarded by three carrier task groups led by Saratoga, Enterprise, and Wasp, arrived in the Solomons late on 6 August. Early the next morning, the carriers catapulted their planes into the air for strikes on enemy installations and troop concentrations, and afterward the fleet softened the beaches with its big guns. As this overture neared its end, the Marines stormed ashore at Guadalcanal, Gavatu, Tulagi, and Tanambogo.
“Meanwhile, Sterett and the Wasp carrier group zigzagged into a rainsquall, successfully dodging an 18-plane raid launched from Rabaul on New Britain. For the next three days, the Wasp convoy guarded the supply lines to Tulagi. From there, Sterett sailed east of San Cristobal to screen Long Island, while she launched thirty-one Marine planes for use on Guadalcanal. Rejoining Wasp immediately, Sterett remained with her until 10 September 1942. Five days later, the carrier Wasp, Sterett’s long-standing companion, was at the bottom of the Pacific.
“So, I guess it was lost or it sank,” I say, as I take a break from reading.
Ray has stared into space the entire time I read about his ship. I later learn that he came aboard Sterett in the first half of February 1942–in time to sail across the northern Atlantic chasing the faster Queen Mary.
After Ray agrees that the Wasp was sunk by the Japanese, I continue reading.
“For the next month, Sterett escorted convoys and reinforcements to the Solomons and between the islands of that group, splashing at least one Japanese bomber. Following duty escorting Bellatrix and Betelgeuse to Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides and guarding the latter all the way to Noumea, New Caledonia, she returned to Guadalcanal accompanying two transports, McCawley and Zeilen, loaded with troops and equipment. While the transports unloaded, Sterett fired on enemy bombers and shore batteries harassing Henderson Field on Guadalcanal.
“The destroyer returned to the New Hebrides and, after refueling, put to sea on 31 Oct. to protect still more reinforcements to Guadalcanal. The convoy arrived at Aola Bay early on 4 November. Sterett covered the establishment of the beachhead and later joined San Francisco and Helena in a highly successful shore bombardment. Two days later, she retired to Espiritu, Santo. There, she met another convoy and escorted it to Lunga Point, Guadalcanal. As the troops were landing on the morning of the 12th, Sterett took up station to meet expected air raids. Just after noon, she received word that a large flock of Japanese planes had been spotted by a coast watcher on Buin. In less than an hour, the attackers swooped in low against the dark background of Tulagi and Florida islands. Sterett, directly in the line of the enemy’s approach, shot down four torpedo bombers while dodging at least three torpedoes.
“By 1450, 32 of the attackers were splashed by antiaircraft fire and American aircraft. The remainder retreated. The transports resumed their unloading, and Sterett enjoyed relative quiet for the rest of the day. That evening, after shepherding the transports east to safety, Sterett joined the van of the cruiser-destroyer force under the command of Rear Admiral Callaghan and steamed back through Lengo Channel to intercept Vice Admiral Hiroaki Abe’s raiding force. Sterett and her colleagues in the van, followed by five cruisers and a rearguard of four more destroyers, passed Lunga Point abeam, increased speed and, upon reaching a point about three miles north of Tassafa-ronga, changed course.
“As the warships sped toward Savo Island, their radar screens were dotted by echoes from the enemy ships. Helena reported first contact at 0130 on the 13th, and soon all American ships were receiving reflections from the Japanese ships. The two forces were closing on each other at a combined speed in excess of 40 knots.”
Things are sounding serious from the narrative. Ray is hunched over in his wheelchair, squinting at a point to the left of my voice as I read the account of preparations for a famous World War II sea battle.
“Sounds like a big battle brewing,” I say.
“It was, it was,” Ray confirms.
“The American warships threaded their way into the enemy formation, and a deadly crossfire immediately engulfed Sterett. At 0150, Admiral Callaghan ordered odd ships in column to open fire to starboard, and even ships to engage the enemy to port. Sterett fired on a cruiser to starboard, and in turn, took a terrific pounding from battleship Hiei on her port side. Soon Sterett’s first target was enveloped in a large explosion and sank, a victim of the combined fire of the Americans.
“At this point, the battle degenerated into a swirl of individual duels and passing shots. Sterett turned now to the giant tormenting her port side, let fly four torpedoes, and peppered her superstructure with 5-inch shells. Though the battleship neither sank nor sustained severe damage, Sterett had the satisfaction of scoring two torpedo hits before a third target crossed her bow. At the appearance of an enemy more her size, Sterett tore into the destroyer with her guns and launched two torpedoes. Before the Japanese destroyer could fire a single shot at Sterett, she was lifted from the water by the exploding torpedoes and rapidly settled to the floor of the ‘Ironbottom Sound.’
“By this time, Sterett had undergone a brutal beating from Hiei and various other enemy ships. Thus, at 0230, with the Japanese retiring toward Savo Island, Sterett, her aft guns and starboard torpedo tubes out of commission, began to withdraw. She had difficulty overtaking the rest of her force because of her damaged steering gear and the necessity to reduce speed periodically to control the blaze on her after deck. However, by dawn, she was back in formation on the starboard quarter of San Francisco.
I look up, and seem to land back in the Eisenhower unit after being afloat in a tumultuous sea.
“So, Ray, do you remember that battle,” I ask as I stop reading. The smallish destroyer engaged a Japanese destroyer, larger cruiser and hulking Japanese battleship that night. It was a significant battle, and it must have been terrifying for those who participated.
“The only thing I know of, me and my crew came up out of the engine room, off a watch, and we was in that below deck,” Ray recalls. “We couldn’t see any of it, but we come up out of the engine room, and the cruiser, Hammann, I think it was, with the five Sullivan brothers blew up (actually the Juneau; see description of sinking below). We was all sitting in a bunch, right there on the deck, then the torpedo—we didn’t see the torpedo—but they was one that hit the ship, and it just went down; they didn’t have a chance of getting off, or getting anywheres.”
“And you saw that happen,” I ask. Ray was now talking about the tragic sinking of the Juneau where all five Sullivan brothers were killed. A torpedo disabled the Juneau during the battle I read about earlier. The next day a Japanese torpedo struck the ammunition storage area of the light cruiser and it blew up in a catastrophic explosion. All five brothers from the Sullivan family of Waterloo, Iowa were killed.
“Oh yea, we sat there watching, and we was talking about what a beautiful ship it was,” says Ray. “And it was! It was streamlined, it was big.”
“What kind of a ship was it?”
“It was an aircraft carrier; it was built to shoot down airplanes. It had five-inch guns all over that thing,” Ray explains.
The engaged veteran wants me to read more.
“Before heading for Espiritu Santo on the 13th, she delivered her parting shot to the enemy by depth-charging a sound contact, possibly the submarine which, about an hour later, would sink Juneau. Sterett arrived in the New Hebrides on 14 November, underwent emergency repairs, and departed from Espiritu Santo 10 days later.”
“So what would you fellows do when you were in port like that for 10 days, during emergency repairs?” I ask Ray.
“Well, we had pumps and things, you know, we’d have to put new field, ah, ah,” Ray says as he struggles to find the right word, “fuel or oil liners in the pumps, you know, were throwing out water, and we’d have to stop that. Different things. And see we carried a distilling plant on the ship and we’d have to make water on the whole ship for bathing, for everything. And so, we always had to work on her fuel…” Ray has trouble remembering the word he wants to use. After a pause he says, “It had to be in top shape all the time, because see, the water, the ship run on steam and it run on distilled water from the dehydration. We had to keep it A-1 shape at all times, and we’d have to check it from one end to the other, and if we was in a place where they was rusted. Distilled water, why we’d fill everything we had, and that way, we’d be a little bit ahead.”
“Well, did you get to have any fun on the island where you were docked? They let you off the boat, didn’t they?” I ask.
A resident shouts on the other side of the nurse’s station. Ray yells at me over the racket, “I wasn’t on my island.” The shouting abruptly ceased.
“I want to tell you, where they come from, I don’t know. I went over there and I found the prettiest tomato patch that I’d ever seen in my life. Great big, red, ripe tomatoes, I don’t know where they’d come from,” Ray says laughing.
I laugh with him and wonder how we got on the subject of tomatoes. Ray has dementia so I am fortunate he is relatively lucid today.
Ray continues. “Nobody else does, some of them natives had them. But we don’t know where or when. Yeah, and I tell you somethin’ else. We went on one island and we heard chickens growing.”
I ask Ray if he really heard chickens growing on the island. Maybe he means crowing instead of growing.
“We heard ‘em growin’ and we wandered around, and we found, I don’t know, some kind of chickens; and they was, they was everywheres. And we didn’t know who’d they belong to, and nuthin’ else. They just runnin’ around out there.”
“Did you, did you steal some tomatoes and chickens, or what? I ask, nearly doubling over with laughter, tears streaming from my eyes.
Ray gets excited and starts shouting again, “Yes! Yeah, we got tomatoes and chickens!”
“So, you took ‘em back to the ship and gave them to the chef?”
“Yeah, we took ‘em back! Yeah! We took ‘em back!”
“And the chickens, too?”
“Naw, we didn’t bother them chickens,” Ray says in a more subdued voice. “We could get dismissed.”
“You do anything else on that island for ten days?” I ask.
“Ah, yeah, they was, found a little town over there.”
“Head up to a little town, it was, it had, what do ya’ call it where you dig trenches all over that thing?” he asks. “And you couldn’t get out; you’d fall and kill yourself.”
I was laughing again. “So, the people were friendly?”
“Yeah they were friendly. They had natives! They, they was our friends!”
“Well, let me keep going here,” I say.
I read to myself and ask Ray, “Now, it says you were in San Francisco for two months. What happened in San Francisco for two months during the middle of the war?”
Ray chuckles and says, “I got in a lot of trouble.”
“Well tell me about it.”
Ray grins and declines to answer.
I insist. “Now, I’m readin’ this to you, the least you can do is say a little bit.”
Ray gives in. “Well I was wanderin’ around one day, and wandered up to the Naval Hospital—they had a big, huge naval hospital there. It was the Marines and the Navy. So, I wandered in there, it was a beautiful place—not thinking I’d be back in there later on. I wandered back around going back to town. As you go out to the main gate, down below there was a big building there. It was a beautiful building. So, I wandered in there to see what it was, you know. I wandered in there, and I met the prettiest girl you ever seen. I got talking to her. We hit a date for that night, you know. Well, I just fell for that gal. She was pretty, and I hadn’t seen a pretty girl in a long time!”
Ray slowly scoots his wheelchair closer to me and quietly confides, “Soes, I went with her for a long time, and when I left California we was still together, and I went to Great Lakes and then I left Great Lakes and went to Ford Motor Company Detroit, Michigan where Ford Motor Company was building a place.”
A veteran sitting in a recliner not far from us moans and distracts Ray. When the moaning ceases, Ray says, “They was building a place there for the student Navy personnel to come in and go to school and learn to be decent mechanics. So, I had a job, I’d been there, old man, Henry Ford, and walkin’ around, talking to him all day, and being with him, and we would walk around all over the factory, all around the place all day. Sit down and talk. That was the finest old fella I’d ever seen in my life.
“Oh, wonderful old man! Only, he was just old. I just had to talk to him. I left there and came back to Great Lakes and me and that gal was still together. And she was going to come up there, so I went back to Great Lakes, and during that time, well, the, the …they sent me—what was it?”
Ray is mumbling now, and I can’t understand him. Eventually he continues.
“The Naval Pier in Chicago and I don’t know what all come of it. Christmas came up; she thought she was going to get a ring. Well, I finally decided ‘No’ and we split up.”
The veteran who moaned earlier now is mixing singing with his moaning. I can’t recognize the tune.
Ray hollers at the moaning veteran, “Oh, be quiet! We’re reading!”
“Now, when you stopped at Pearl for these three or four days, what happened there? Did you have to stay on the ship?” I ask.
Ray is still yelling. “NO!” comes the reply.
Two NASRs walk by us. One wears a green hat and the other a purple hat. They console the moaner/singer, and the unit is tranquil again.
“They let you off?” I ask Ray.
“See, half of the crew goes one day, other half goes the next day,” Ray explains. “You rotate your liberty, and like, we’re here in the states for a day and have liberty, and then we go to California overnight. Or tomorrow, while the other half of the crew gets liberty.”
I’m confused. “You’d fly to California, every night?”
Ray answers, “NO! No, you can run it! Yea, they might, uh, approach destroyers so fast. That’s the reason; we like to be on ’em because they can get out of the way!”
They rode destroyers from Pearl Harbor to California? This was news to me.
“What kind of stuff did you do on your liberty?” I ask.
“Sir, why we done everything!”
“You go out and have dinner and a drink?”
“Yeah, yeah, get a date if you can, or, whatever.”
“Anything interesting or funny happen?”
“No, not as I can remember, all I, in California, there’s a big pier, at the … what was that port? In California there, you come into the Bay, big long pier coming up into the middle of town? Anyway, we anchored off that pier, on the side, dontcha know. We just step off on the pier and we was in California. So, they was up the street there, they was stores, all kinds of merchandise, everything. Well, there’s another sailor, decided we’d buy a suit of blues, you know. Our uniforms were, I don’t know what kind of material they were, but they weren’t pretty. You could get tailor-made blues, oh, they was nasty, boy.”
“And inside of them, they made Japanese, lapels–13 buttons, and you let that down, well that, that, there all designed in there with that, people knew what they was doing on sewing machines. They had them dragons, and they had different colors. Oh, it was beautiful, and we went up there, we had enough money.”
A nurse in a navy blue hat and pink beads hugs Ray and asks him, “Are you telling a bad story?”
“You better not,” she teases. “Are you doing better? Is your headache better? Be polite, you’re in front of a gentleman!”
“I know that! But you told me to put these beads on,” Ray says.
“I didn’t tell you that,” she insists.
“Well, whoever did, I got ‘em round me now,” he replies.
“Let’s see if you can figure out who it was. You look like a little leprechaun.”
“You’re all green,” she says as she walks away after passing me a note on a yellow sticky that reads, “Ask him about the lady with the rose tattoo.” I do and I’ll save that story for another day.
“Ok, baby,” Ray says as he turns in his wheelchair toward her voice. Ray then faces me, grins and winks. The ladies still like him.
I ask Ray if he wants me to read more of the ship’s history.
“Well, let me see if I can find my place,” I say as I leaf through my notes.
“But, anyway, let me tell you this,” Ray says as several female NASRs come by to admire Ray’s green hat. “Down this pier, up and down through there, was bars and everything there! It was just part of the gulf that had wood under it, had built under it. Wood on top of the water and just everything built on to them. Well, we was going up to get these blues to the store up there, and we got up, and we come back, and there’s a bar we wanted to go to. We looked in it and there’s a bunch of sailors and a bunch of marines in there drinking beer. So we come back down and went in there. I had to go to the restroom, so, everything is just quiet, peaceful as it could be. I went in the bathroom, and while I was in there, I never heard such noise in all my life. And I wondered, well, what in the heck is going on? So, I come out of the door, not expecting, and them marines and sailors had got in a fight, and one of them cold cocked me, buddy.”
I laugh again, and the tears are not far behind. The hat and beads amplify Ray’s comical personality. The Machinist Mate Second Class waves his hands and arms as he rehashes the action.
“I tell you the truth, that was all she wrote. I don’t know who hit me, a sailor or marine, but they did, and they sure did cold cocked me. Lord, what a time it was. And we got out of there. Went back to the ship and changed our clothes. And we came back out, but went another direction. I never saw such a bunch get together, and they’d fight. I never did get into one of them ‘cause, I’d get away!”
“Discretion is the better part of valor,” I say as I catch my breath after another bout of laughter.
“What was that?” Ray asks.
“Discretion is the better part of valor,” I repeat.
“Yeah, like some of the planes we shot down one time out in the Pacific there, we shot down, I don’t know, maybe four or five Japanese planes. Some of the pilots survived, you know, and the captain give orders to pick them up. So we circled around out there, and was going to pick them up, and we pulled up pretty close to one, and he had on a life preserver, and he was going to come aboard. The captain gave orders to go and pick him up. Well, in the meantime, we was on this little island and we picked up two or three marines, I don’t know why, but anyway, we got almost ready to take him aboard, and one of these marines walked up to the rails, and he looked up and seen this marine, and boy, he shoved off. They were scared to death of these marines. The pilot wouldn’t come aboard, so the captain just gave orders to mow him down.”
I hear a din coming from one of the hallways, and several staff members trot by us toward the special care area.
“It happened, I tell you, they was scared of them marines,” Ray says. “But another thing about Guadalcanal. We bombarded that thing for day and night. It was a coconut grove, two brothers, and somebody drinking whiskey. Remember that? This here island, Guadalcanal, belonged to these two brothers, and it had big, beautiful coconuts all over the whole thing. So we bombarded there for I don’t know how many days. And we was up front, then. The bigger ships behind, then the battle ships, I think there was one and two battleships we had, was all about 20 miles from us you know. And man, man, they’d sing a song, get blitzed.
“Well, anyway, just sing a song over the top of him. Coconut Grove had lots of trees. But when we got through, there was nothing but twigs.”
Ray settles back in his wheelchair and tells me to read some more.
“The Sterett moved off to Kerama Retto with Jeffers providing antiaircraft cover after the devastating Japanese air assault,” I read. I ask Ray if he remembers the Japanese air attack.
“What was it like to be there?”
“Well, these planes come in, and our main guns, five-inch guns, was out of commission, and so all we had was 20 millimeters to 40 millimeters, and man, it was just a steady stream of fire. And they were fire flying out of the sky and everything else.”
“Now, you were topside when the planes attacked?”
“No, we’d run up, see the hatch to the engine room, was right below the door, you know. We’d run up and stick our head out, and hurry up and get back down, we thought it was safer down there than up top side, you know.
“So, all the guys are up there on top side and uh, hell, we’d see a little of it every once in awhile. I know, one time I was in the engine room, and I’d walk around between the bulkhead and the evaporators that made the water, between them two. Well, when I got my head a ways to look it at them gauges. All these planes coming in you know. Lot of guns at the ship, you know. Well, they was hitting it this bulkhead between me and the evaporators. They wasn’t powerful enough, the bullets, to go through the bulkhead, but man it was scary”
Ray makes gun-firing noises with his lips. I haven’t heard that type of noise since I played army as a boy.
Ray continues after making the rat-tat-tat sounds. “I thought, shoot, I’m going to get out of here. I’m going on the side of these evaporators, you know, cuz’ I knew those bullets couldn’t go through that bulkhead and evaporators, too. But they scare you to death, though.”
“What was your job during the firing?”
“The engine room, the engine room!”
“You stayed in there with the motors, huh?”
“Oh, yeah. I had to stand there regardless.”
“Anything else to say about that day?”
I read the last phrase of this portion of the history. “’And she remained on the West coast.’ Now, what did ya do on the West coast?” I ask.
“That’s when I got hurt and I was in the hospital then.”
“Where did you get hurt?”
“We were out to sea going to someplace, well we run into an explosion. We don’t know what. We didn’t know what it was; but anyway, it blowed me into a wall.”
“This is in the engine room?” I ask.
“Nah, it’s in the hallway; hallway coming back the ladder into the hallway, then into the engine room. I was in the hallway and the explosion, and I don’t know what happened.”
“Was it from enemy fire?”
“We don’t know what it was, a delayed bomb, or something. You know, they fired them delayed bombs, you know. Maybe it’d be an hour before one of them would go off. We don’t know if it was that or what. But, anyway, it went off, and it blowed me into the wall. And my head went right into the wall. Well, there was a huge knot in my head come off. I got four metal plates in my head right now.”
“Metal plates? I ask. I didn’t know then Ray had metal plates in his head.
“They operated on your head?”
“So they operated on you on the ship?”
“No, no. Mare Island. I come on into Mare Island, California.”
“Well, what date was that? Do you remember the date that you got blown up?”
In a sad voice, Ray answers, “No, No, I don’t.”
“Do you remember the month when you were operated on?”
Softly and sadly, he replies again, “No, No.”
“So where did they operate on you?” I ask.
“Mare Island. California. There’s a naval hospital.”
“Were you in a lot of pain?”
“Why did they have to put the metals in?”
“Well, they had to take the skull out; it was all busted and cracked.”
I get a little queasy. These days I have to lie down to take a blood test or get a shot. I have a weak stomach.
“Yeah, and they had to take it out, and they put the metal in there. The metal was made in Waukegan, Arizona, and they couldn’t get it out there to California for so long. Well, they never did get it. I had, let me see, I had three operations out there. They first operated on me and took two ribs out of here on the side, and grafted them in my head.” Ray first patted his side and then his head.
“Well, I laid around there and them doctors thought I was all right. They let me go home for 30 day convalescence, see. So, I went home, and on the way home, I felt the awfullest headaches there ever was. It was disgraceful. I went home and went to bed. I stayed in bed two days and two nights and did suffer something awful. Well, the third day, I woke up before daylight, and I just happened to notice that I didn’t have a headache. When I felt on my head, my hair was all matted and all together, and I thought, ‘Oh, Lord.’ I got my folks up, and on my head–it done busted. You could look down and see my brain. So, they took me to the doctor the next day.”
My insides are churning, and I feel a touch of nausea.
“A doctor’s there in town,” Ray tells me. “He said, ‘I don’t know where you’re from, but if I were you, I’d go back. Now.’ So, I got home, and I got ready. Train going out that afternoon. I got on this train. It stopped in Cincinnati, and it stopped in Indianapolis. When I got to Indianapolis, we had about an hour or something or other, so I went over there; they had a Naval Reserve that there in Indianapolis, that there river. So, I called over there. They had a navy, navy doctor; I didn’t know what to do. So he advised me to go back to California. It was funny. I had a regular bunk in the barracks, but they gave me orders, and they put me on a private car on a train, you know, wheeled a room in it all by itself, and I could get around any way I wanted to, so, I went back to California and they took care of me, went all the way across the country in a train.”
“They took care of you?”
“I mean, who was it that was taking care of you?”
“On the private train?”
“Yeah,” Ray answers. “They took me off, took me back to the hospital. Well, what had happened, infection had gotten in there, and all the lead had swollen up and in my head, busted open, so in my head an all. They fixed me up and got the infection all down. That was after penicillin. Long after that had come out. They’d come in and give me shots of penicillin all during the night, during the night. Course, penicillin now is a lot stronger than then. So they got it healed down. Then they operated on me, and those ribs in the side, in my head, didn’t take. They got infected and abscessed set in or something or other. So they took all that out and cleaned it all out, you know. And then they decided, ain’t got no skull up there, what we going to do?
“So they took and got me down, set me down in one of the shops there and took and made me an aluminum cap. To just sit over my head. Then the military police would stop me on account of wearing this aluminum cap out of uniform.
“I had a heck of a time. So, I went back to the doctors. The doctor said, ‘Well, we’ll take care of that.’ They made me out an order, doctor, captain some so and so. Permission to wear this metal cap. So, I wore the aluminum cap around there, about, oh, I guess three or four months getting rid of that infection. The doctor that operated on me was a brain specialist. He was outstanding and he was the only one in California. They didn’t have no brain specialists in Chicago, and so they just up and transferred him to Chicago. Well, when they did, man, I knew, I had to go for surgery most of that time. So when they did, I went in and put in a transfer to Chicago.
“So, they granted it. This brain specialist, I forget what city he was from. But, anyway, he didn’t like the Navy. I saw him comin’ down the walk, and I was going up the walk. We met and talked, and shook hands, and all, you know. And he asked me, you know, first thing he said was, ‘Ray, where the hell are you going?’ And I said, ‘I’m trying to find you, doctor.’ And he says, ‘Go round up there to the ward, and tell the nurse to put you in a private room.’
“So I did. And, I had a few medals on, you know, and they, most they see up there, people just did boot camps, there, ya see. They didn’t see anybody coming with medals and stuff like that.
“What medals did you have?” I ask.
“Ah, I don’t know, been in skirmishes and battles and all that, Pacific, and the medals being in North Atlantic, and European. So, anyway, this metal that I had to have in my head; it wasn’t steel, it was something else,” Ray says.
“Do you know these rings that sit there real shiny and pretty?”
“Platinum?” I guess again.
“Platinum, that’s it, that’s it. That what it was. It was made right there in Waukegan, Illinois, right above us there. Well, it wasn’t long that they done half that battle, you know, and put it in there. So, they got me all patched up, and they debated, and debated and debated about me going back to service. That’s when they sent me to Ford Motor Company. Henry Ford. I enjoyed that boy,” Ray says, smiling as he remembers.
I wish I had access to Ray’s military records so I could figure out when he was wounded. Did he really work with Henry Ford? I knew the USS Sterett was famous for being in one of our first victories in World War II.
“Why did you go to the Ford Motor Company?” I ask Ray.
“Because I couldn’t go back to private, regular duty, I had to go to limited duty. You had to be disabled or something like that to be disabled. And they sent me to Ford Motor Company.”
“What was your job at Ford Motor Company?”
“Walk around and talk to Henry Ford, and have a big time with him.”
“So you’re just a war hero going back to talk to the folks,” I say.
“Yeah, yeah! You said it!”
“Now, what did your head look like when you did this?”
Ray takes the green hat with attached rubber band off and lowers his head so I can see the top of his skull. There is a large indentation underneath his grey hair. I can feel the metal plates with my fingers.
Ray asks as I explored his old war wound, “Well, you see that hole right there?”
“And there’s some more round there, you see?”
“Yep, that’s where they’re at. Yes,” Ray says as I rubbed the four metal plates.
“When you had the metal, was your scalp over the metal then?” I ask.
“So, they just took the scalp off and put the metal in and put the scalp back over?”
“Yeah, they didn’t finish with that metal and peeled it, you know, just like peeling a banana, and, and operated on it and put that metal back in there, and sewed it up back on top of it.”
“So that’s metal in there right now?”
“The same one?”
“Yeah, yes sir!”
I thought of an event Dr. Dan told me about regarding Ray. “Now, I heard you met Doris Day?” I ask.
“Oh yeah,” Ray replies nonchalantly.
“Tell me about that,” I encourage him.
“I was at that hospital at Mare Island.”
“Now I lost track. This is when they first put the metal in?”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I was sittin there on Sunday and, we eat chow and I come back and I just walked up to my bed, up front of the ward, and I just walked up there and sat my rear end down on the side of it, ya know. Well, something told me to look around. And I looked around and I seen the most beautiful girl I ever seen and I said, ‘I know her.’
“I didn’t say that to her, you know, but I said it to myself. I said, I know her. She come over to the bed, spoke to me. Wanted to know how I was. I told her. We got talking. So, she sat down on the bed. Well then, one thing led to another and we kept on, ya know, and she asked me would I like to go on a ride. I said, Honey, I’d go anyplace with you,” Ray says laughing. “She had me. We took off, yeah, I went home with her!”
“Yeah! Burt wasn’t there though.”
“Burt Reynolds, you know the name. Yeah, I went home with her. Hey man, she was a doll. And nice, too,” Ray says.
I questioned Burt Reynolds. Maybe Ray meant Burt Lancaster?
“Now how did you know it was Doris Day?” I ask.
“I could tell by her looks.”
“Oh, you knew her?”
“And this was 1944, right?”
“Yeah, yeah. I’d seen her.”
“So what did you do at her house?”
“We had Kool-Aid, beer.”
“Was it just the two of you?”
“And then what did you do?”
“Well, I bet there was other people there. But I never seen them. I guess they’re there. Somewhere. People who worked for her or something. I don’t know,” Ray replies.
“And where was the house?”
“It was a ranch. Out of town there some way.”
“This is California, right?”
“California. Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
“Did you see her again after that?”
“That was the only time, huh?”
“Okay, well did you ever go back to sea then, after that?”
“Back to sea?”
“Did you go back on the Sterett after that?” I ask.
“No, no, they transferred me.”
“So you spent the rest of the war in the states, then?”
“Yeah, in the states.”
“Now, did your head heal up pretty good?”
“Yeah, it healed up all right. I had a lot of headaches for a long time, but I finally got over them. I still have them.”
I ask Ray what he did after the war, and he tells me he rambled around the country and worked as a mechanic using the skills he had before the war, as well as those he learned in the military. The Navy awarded him a 100 per cent disability pension for the wounds he sustained on the USS Sterett. I ask him how he met his wife after the war.
“Now, I’ll tell ya about this marriage deal. I’d been married to this gal before.”
“Wait a minute. I’m confused,” I say.
“My wife and I had been married, twice. Alright, first time, we got, she got a divorce.”
“Why did you get a divorce?”
“I don’t know. She got it. I don’t know.”
“You forgot about that part,” I say.
“Yeah, I didn’t know, but anyway, I think she decided she probably done the wrong thing. We got back together.”
“Were you divorced before the war?”
“After the war. Yeah, and we got married the second time. We got married and rented an apartment and took it from there. So it all turned out. And till then, till she passed away, we’d been married 40 years. And we’ve been members of our church for 40 years.”
“What church is that?”
“Church of Christ.”
“Yeah, where? In what town?”
“Did you have a career, a job?”
“I worked for the Navy.”
“In Danville?” Danville is in central Kentucky.
“What was the Navy doing in Danville?”
“They was in Lexington.”
“Oh, so you commuted?”
“Yeah, no! I did. I commuted over in Frankfort. I had a private car. I had everything.”
“What did you do for the Navy?”
“Well, I didn’t do much of anything,” Ray says as he chuckles, telling the truth about his job. “I had a good boss. I didn’t do much of anything.”
“What were you supposed to be doing? What was your job title?”
“Well, the Navy owns a lot of buildings. I had to make sure the buildings were taken care of. Everything like that.”
“It was naval facilities then,” I say.
“So how did you stay married for 40 years? For those of us who want to get married and stay married—what’s the secret?”
“You got to be good to ‘em,” Ray answers.
“What’s that mean?”
“Well, when they say no, you say yes. They say yes, you say no.”
“That doesn’t sound like being good. That sounds like arguing,” I say.
“Well, those things, I don’t know. They add up to something. It wasn’t no trouble.”
Another veteran, new to the unit, sits in a vinyl recliner next to Ray and joins our conversation. A nurse says his name is Dale, and Ray asks him how many years his marriage lasted.
“Thirty years,” Dale replies.
“I gotcha beat,” says Ray. “I been married 40 years, and he wants to know how I stayed married 40 years.” Ray motions to me with his right hand.
“Yeah, I worked days and she worked nights,” Dale recalls. “We never see each other and it worked out great.” Both veterans shared a laugh.
“I didn’t have no trouble,” Ray says.
“You got divorced once but didn’t get divorced again?” I ask Ray. “What was the difference after the first divorce?”
“I just acted better.”
Dale chuckles and says, “I never learned to act better, so she just got a job.”
Ray studies the space where Dale’s voice originates and says, “I told him I said, I been married for 40 years and been to church 40 years. And so, I don’t know if that had anything to do with it or not. It had something to do with something.”
“Did you and your wife go to church together?” I ask.
“Yeah. That’s how come I know I’ve been to church 40 years. The preacher announced we’d been to church 40 years. Yep.”
“What did you do in the church? Were you a deacon?”
“No, just a plain member.”
“Tell me about your faith, if you don’t mind. I’m a Christian, too. So, you believe in the Lord Jesus?”
“Yeah, and we believe in only one Lord, one faith, one baptism. We don’t bring no extra denomination to that, and it’s just plain Gospel, plain Bible. Laid right out there in front of ya, what it says is what we do.” Ray sums up what some self-help gurus take an entire book to explain.
I go back to the beginning of the war with Ray and ask him why he joined the Navy.
“Yeah! I was out working in Indianapolis,” he recalls. “Me and this friend of mine had got a notice that we was gonna have to go. So we talked about it a day or two, you know. We decided what day we would go down to the town and enlist. The day come and we went down to the Federal Building.”
“Was this before Pearl Harbor that you did this or after Pearl Harbor?”
“It was after Pearl Harbor. Yep, yep. We went downtown and we went to the Federal Building.”
“How old were you?”
“Now that I can’t tell ya. I don’t know.”
“What year were you born?”
“Sixteen to forty-two. Twenty-six maybe?”
“What’s your birthday?”
“Yeah, May 30th.”
“So you hadn’t turned twenty six yet. You were 25.”
Ray says, “Yep, I thought I, I was thinking I was younger than that. But anyway, me and this buddy of mine, we’d been together for years and years. We went down and we went to the Federal Building. We went up, ya know, and we went in the recruiting room. Never seen so many recruiters in my life! And I looked. “What do we do?” I asked him. “I said, ‘Leonard’—name’s Leonard; Leonard Compton—“what branch of the service we going in?’ He said, ‘I don’t know.’ I said, ‘Now I want to tell ya,’ I said, ‘I ain’t gonna walk around the world when I can ride.’ I said, ‘I’m goin’ in the Navy, I don’t know what you’re going into.’ He said he thought he’d go in the Army. I said, ‘Alright.’ I said, ‘I’ll see ya.’ I went on down to the Navy and enlisted. He went down to the Army and enlisted, and they sent him out in the Pacific on a little island to watch airplanes. He sat there the whole term of the war with the natives that live on an island there, watchin’ airplanes. They didn’t know more what an airplane was, but he got by with it. He had to call in; tell ‘em what just went over. He’d seen ‘em.”
“Do you remember what you were doing when you heard about Pearl Harbor?” I ask. “My dad always said he remembered that he was watching a movie.”
“No, sir, I don’t. I’ll tell you the truth. I’ll be honest. I don’t know ... I don’t remember.”
“What was your training like in the Navy?”
“Well, I didn’t have to do any. I had a rating going in. I was an engineer in the factory I worked for. Through the recommendation they give me to give to the Army, I didn’t have to do anything. All I had to do was stay long enough to get my shots and I was gone.”
“They didn’t teach you about the water or swimming or anything?” I ask. I though surely they didn’t send guys into the war without training.
Ray is insistent. “Noooooo.”
“They just set you in the engine room on the Sterett? How long was it from the time you signed up till you were in the engine room of the Sterett?”
“Let’s see. I went to New York and it might have been a month.” Ray squinted as he tries hard to remember something.
“How did you feel when you did that? Like a fish out of water, or did you know what you were doing?”
“I didn’t know what was going on!”
“You didn’t know how to work the machinery?”
“Somebody had to teach you?” I ask.
“They did. Yep. I didn’t know what was going on.”
“Do you want me to read you the rest of the history?”
“Oh, I do.”
Ray braces his feet against the wheelchairs footrests. Then he wiggles his torso further back into the metal-framed fabric of the chair. He folds his hands and places both forearms on the wheelchair armrests.
“This was after you were gone, I guess: Sterett transited the Panama Canal on 8 and 9 October and, after a three-day stay in Coco Solo, proceeded north. She arrived in New York on 17 October and was decommissioned there on 2 November 1945. Her name was struck from the Navy list on 25 February 1947, and she was sold on 10 August to Northern Metal Company of Philadelphia for scrapping.”
“I would have bought that thing, if I’d a known it,” Ray says thoughtfully.
“In addition to a Presidential Unit Citation, Sterett earned 12 battle stars and the Philippine Republic Presidential Unit Citation for World War II service. Would you like me to read your Citation?”
“So, what should I call you—Machinist Mate?”
“Yeah. Machinist Mate, Second Class Machinist Mate, Second Class. I went from second to first. I was First Class Petty Officer. When you was in the hospital, they have a law that when you was in the hospital, you couldn’t get your promotion. So, I got knocked down out of my promotion of being First Class Petty Officer. I had to stay Second Class Petty Officer. But, it’s alright, though. I’m still alive.”
I read the citation to Ray. “The Secretary of the Navy. The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the Presidential Unit Citation to the United States Ship, Sterett, for service as set forth in the following citation: For outstanding performance in combat against enemy surface units of the Japanese fleet in the Battle of Guadalcanal and in the Battle of Vella Gulf. On the night of 12-13 November 1942 in the Battle of Guadalcanal, the United States Ship Sterett assisted in sinking one battleship by scoring positive torpedo hits from a range of 3,000 yards, one light cruiser through direct hits of five-inch salvos at very close range, and alone sank one additional destroyer by two torpedo hits and two five-inch salvos.
On the night of 6-7 August 1943, in the Battle of Vella Gulf, the United States ship Sterett again gallantly fulfilled her mission in an offensive sweep against the enemy, when she alone sank one destroyer by gunfire and assisted in the sinking of one cruiser by taking it under fire. Attacking boldly and dangerously, the Sterett gallantly fulfilled her missions despite fierce enemy resistance. The skill and fighting spirit of her officers and men were at all times in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. For the President, James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy.”
Ray doesn’t move while I read the citation. The Sterett was indeed a gallant vessel.
Ray says, “I got a letter from Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Commended how, uh, and I don’t know whatever happened to it. I probably give it away; I did everything else.”
“What was it like in these battles when you were shooting those other ships and you’re down below? Was there a lot of noise?” I ask.
“Yeah! Yeah! And the ship jumpin’ up and down. Yeah!”
“So, did the Captain tell you what was going on?”
“No, we didn’t know nothing. Nine times out of 10, you didn’t see nothing.”
“What was it like on the ship in between battles? What was the food like? What did you do?” I ask.
“Oh, we played cards.”
“How was the food?”
“Oh, the food was wonderful. We got the best. We was over in Europe, ran out of food one time. We had six, I believe six British radio operators with us. We ate our food and they ate their food. Sometimes they’d eat some of ours. So that was it.”
“What was the funniest thing that ever happened on the ship?”
“Those dang sailors!”
“The British sailors?”
“Yeah, we had six of ‘em aboard us. They had to sleep in hammocks while we had bunks. They had hammocks up on the ship. They had their hammocks pitched down in the galley where they’d sleep in their hammocks. Some guys get all drunk, they gets all drunked up. They comes in and these English are in their bunks asleep. And they go cuts the ropes, on the hammock, ya’ know, and every damn one of them falls on the floor. Every one of em!” Ray enjoys the practical joke again, 63 years later
“You didn’t have anything to do with that, did you?” I ask with a laugh.
“No, no. I wasn’t even out that night. That wasn’t my night out.”
I ask Ray how guys could get drunk on the ship, and he says they drank torpedo juice.
“What in the heck is torpedo juice?” I ask.
“Yeah! We’d distill it! I want to tell you what!” he exclaims. “I was in San Francisco, I believe it was, or someplace. I’d been to Philadelphia, some port. They had a coffee pot hooked up to a bucket, had this bucket filled with water and they take and fill this coffee pot full of torpedo juice and distill it. Just like you would whisky and you run it off and it would be pure stuff. And it wouldn’t take but just a little to knock you plum out the door.”
I have another laughing fit as Ray continues.
“We always had this saying, ‘We don’t know how the torpedoes fired, because we had them drained down to where the torpedo juice was so low that they wouldn’t run,’ yeah!”
Scores of clandestine poker games deep in the bowels of the Sterett undoubtedly were fueled by “torpedo juice.”
“What was a day on the ship like? Take me through a day.” I ask.
“Well, we got up. We had exercise.”
“What time did you get up?”
“I don’t know. You see, it all depends on what job you had. I was in the engine room. I didn’t get up when other people did. I may go to bed different than other people. And I would get up according to what time I been to bed. You had to stay in the bed so long. So they called me special time. I might be in bed at three o’clock in the afternoon, or on a night shift, or something or another. They might call me at three o’clock in the afternoon.”
“But, anyway, you got up.”
“Got up, had breakfast.”
“What was breakfast like?”
Ray licks his lips and says, “Oh, breakfast was good. You had everything–ham and eggs, bacon. Yeah! Oh, but Saturday mornings, Saturday morning you had beans for breakfast. But they was the best beans that you ever eat.”
“Pinto beans, lima beans? What kind of beans were they?”
“I can’t remember, but they made them themselves. They were good. But we had the same thing as the Captain, officers, did.”
“So, you got up, had your exercise and your breakfast and then what?”
“Well, we wandered around and talked a little bit. And looked at the sea, and so. See how rough it was, stuff like that. Sit down and talked. Out there in this war, sun, ya know. Laid back in the shade.”
“What was your workday? What did you do in the engine room?”
“We had jobs to do in the engine room. Cleaning to do, and all. Machinery to wipe and clean. Stuff like that.”
“Now, when they called ‘battle station,’ what did you have to do? Did they blow a horn or something?”
“Whistle. My battle station was in the aft repair room. On top of the deck had a repair shop.”
“Anything else you want to tell me?”
“I’m about ready to get that thing, I’m so proud of that.”
“What thing is that?”
“That there book and citation,” Ray says pointing in my direction with his right forefinger. I assure him I will give it to his nurses for safekeeping. I tell Ray it was an honor for me to meet him.
There are, however, a couple more stories Ray wants to tell me before I leave.
“I tell you what we done. When I was in the hospital in California, we had a boy out there and he was in the Navy, and he’d been shot. I don’t know, bad, in the legs, and he couldn’t walk. That boy was in the ward with us out there in California. So, he was just the finest boy you ever seen, and he used to be a prizefighter. And he was in the Navy, and he got hurt. We decided we was gonna teach him to walk again. We—we took two of us—one get on one side of the bed and one the other. And so, one on each side, in case he start to fall. We got him so they would let him go out on liberty with us and he’d just get drunker than a monkey. We had a heck of a time keeping him sober. And he was, he was a nice boy, and he moved to Florida and he sent me his address. I came to Florida one time and I couldn’t find him. So, I don’t know what happened to him. I would do anything to find him sometimes.”
“What was his name?”
“I don’t remember. I just don’t remember, but he was aboard our ship.”
“Somebody might know him,” I say.
“But most of these people was in the Seamen’s branch, ya’ know. They was on top all the time,” Ray replies.
I ask Ray if he can remember the moment he experienced the most fear in combat.
“Yeah!” he exclaims. “Anytime you can hear them there 16-inch shells going over you, you’re afraid.”
“What do they sound like?”
“Bumble bees, bumble bees, and boy, they’re a racket, too.” Ray shudders as he describes the sound. “One of those 16-inch shells, they’ll go about 30 to 35 miles without stopping. I mean they’re making time. They got ‘em on the battleships, and when one of ‘em goes off, you take a battleship with 16-inch guns on it. They got three in front, three in back here, three more on the back end. The ship is going through the water sideways. And you’ll know it when it goes off! You can’t be up on the deck when they’re firing 16-inch shells. It would just strip you from one end to another.”
“A lot of stuff happens in the war,” I say. “You don’t know how long you’re going to live do you?”
“No, I was trying to get back here to get a few things settled before you know … ya’ know, I got out of the Navy, I didn’t want to get out. I enjoyed it. I had a good time. I didn’t mind the work. I was making good money.”
“What kind of money were you making?”
“Close to $200 a month during the war. You could buy a whole lot with a dollar. Yeah, cigarettes cost five cents a pack. We had a store over the ship and we’d go down and get a carton of cigarettes for 50 cents.
“We got in a battle one time. There was a shell that went in there and went right through my locker, and left my door open and had all my clothes. I had a watch, diamond ring and everything in there, and they went right in my locker and they stole it. I didn’t have nothin’ left. But, the Navy paid me for it. Yeah, I had everything in there.”
“When you’re on shore leave, how much did stuff cost, like your dinner and your beers?” I ask.
“Oh, you could take five dollars and have a screamin’ time. I walked in the bar in San Francisco, on Main Street in San Francisco. I walked in this bar and there was a guy sittin’ there, and he started talking to me and I got talkin’ to him. He wanted to know what ship wez on, and I told him. He was real friendly like, and so, I, see him writin’ down somethin’ but I didn’t pay no attention to what it was, ya’ know. So he wrote out a check for $20. He give it to me. And I kept it for years and never cashed it. But you find people like that. If you be nice to them and all, they’ll be nice to you. I don’t know what I ever done with it, but I know I never did cash it. I carried it around for years.”
I ask Ray how he felt about fighting in the war.
“I enjoyed it. It was dangerous, but I still enjoyed it. And I, I would have stayed in there.”
“You think if there had been females you would have ever made it off the ship?”
Ray laughs and says, “I’d never made it off. There’d be one of them there those big carriers, you know, why it sure would. You know, they got carriers out there bigger than a football field.”
“I know it, I know it,” I agree.
Ray mutters faintly as he closes his eyes, “One like that, it’d take you a week to find. You might have a buddy on there, and it would take you a week to find him.”
* * *
I bring the interview to an end because Ray is fighting sleep and it is time for his afternoon nap. I find out later that Ray thinks he was wounded on November 13, 1942, in the Third Battle of Savo Island. He must have stayed on the Sterett for some time after the wounding.
When I enter the name of Ray’s destroyer, USS Sterett, into an Internet search, I discover the book, Tin Can Sailor: Life aboard the USS Sterett, by C. Raymond Calhoun. Captain Calhoun was the operations officer, second in command, during the time Ray served on the destroyer. The book has a list of personnel in an appendix, and Ray is listed as a Machinist Mate Second Class.
Talking to Ray later and reading excerpts from “Tin Can Sailor” to him, Ray suddenly remembers receiving his head wound during the November 13th battle.
“I was wounded twice on November 13th. I married my wife the first time on a Nov. 13th!” he exclaims when he remembers the date.
Ray tells me he wants to be buried with his medals, but he lost them after the war. I promise I will try to determine what medals he was awarded. This is a challenging mission, for medical and military records are guarded carefully.
After meeting Ray, I know why Secretary Forrestal declared the USS Sterett a gallant fighting ship. He said it because the destroyer, like every other outfit in our armed forces, was manned by gallant vessels like Ray.
* * *
Ray passed away November 30, 2006
To learn more about the Eisenhower Unit, please read my blog entries listed below:
Reveille/August 15-January 1
Bricks of a Different Color-January 4
A Show of Love-January 10
Moving Day-January 13
Sharing Our Grief-January 22
Love Stories-January 25
Holiday Gatherings-February 2
A Conversation About Alzheimer's-February 6
Nursing Dementia-February 8
A Dementia Care Philosophy-February 9
Ministering Demented Veterans-February 12
In The Shadow-February 17