Ray’s South Pacific WWII Duty
Jack-of-all-trades. Mc- Connellsburg native Donald Ray is summed up perfectly in that four-word description. Whether you’re referring to his penchant for creating beautiful wooden furniture or his ability to fix just about anything mechanical around the house and in the garage, Don’s tinkering has served his family and friends well over the years.
In fact, it’s likely those same abilities that resulted in the United States Navy appointing Don to the position of carpenter’s mate during his enlistment for battle in World War II.
The son of Bruce and Elmira Ray, Don was born in August of 1926 in a home located on the corner of Third and Walnut streets in the borough. His home place, coincidentally, is just a stone’s throw from where he lives today with his wife, Doris, and son Doug, at 329 North Third Street.
Even though his life began and will someday likely end in the county seat, residents shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that Don is not a travelled or worldly man. His naval tour of duty would take him threequarters of the way around the world, through two typhoons and eventually to Hiroshima to witness the devastation of an atomic bomb.
Just shy of turning 18, Don’s travels began in February 1944 when he and childhood friend, the late Dean Black, concocted a plan to join the Navy before they could be drafted into the Army. Signing up for duty in Hagerstown, Md., the duo was sent to Bainbridge outside of Baltimore to begin basic training. Learning the ins and outs of ship operations and brushing up on their swimming technique, Don and Dean were promptly split up and transferred to their first assignments.
Don was sent to Norfolk, Va., where he would work as part of the construction/repair group on the oil tanker USS Cossatot AO77. Meanwhile, Dean’s travels would take him to the old battlewagon USS New York.
“We were childhood friends. We had played together since we were in diapers,” said Don, who added the separation from Dean was “like losing a limb.”
The young men lost track of each other, and Don spent the following days scraping barnacles of the tanker in dry dock. The misery and stench of the grueling task would subsequently turn him off from consuming fish for years to come, he jests.
Once fueled and out of dock, the Cossatot carried Don and fellow mariners across the Atlantic four times as they transported fuel to troops embroiled in battle in North Africa. Returning to Norfolk, the ship was refitted with additional guns and readied for the long haul that would eventually lead them to the battle of Iwo Jima.
Being on a tanker carrying precious fuel to other ships, Don realized from the get-go the Cossatot and a half-dozen other oil tankers in the Fifth Naval Fleet were not only the Navy’s mainstay but also a prime moving target on the water. Subjected to gunfire and kamikaze planes, Don served as a gunner during those battles against the Japanese.
Just as terrifying as witnessing a kamikaze plane dropping out of the sky and skim above your ship’s mast before crashing into the water is the refueling process at sea. “It’s one of the most dangerous things you can do,” said Don. “One spark while refueling would have ended it all, but if it weren’t for the tankers we would have never won the war.”
It was during this same time Don regained contact with his good buddy, Dean. Typically it was frowned upon to use lights and signals that could alert Japanese planes and submarines of a ship’s presence. The men, though, would signal to one another from their ships when in close contact. Already in the heat of battle, Don pointed out what was to be lost or hurt at that point by sending messages to one another.
Not long after departing Iwo Jima, Don and his crewmates came face to face with a battle no mortal could ever expect to win. While the Japanese could be fought, Mother Nature and her elements could not be beat.
A typhoon soaked the crewmen of the Cossatot for three to four days with torrential rain and winds of almost 140 miles per hour. In order to catch their breath, the crew would walk backwards across the deck. Not wanting to be caught in the ship’s hull, Don strapped on a life preserver and did his best to hold tight.
The killer typhoon would go down in history as one of the most destructive storms the Navy has ever faced and resulted in many being lost at sea. Smaller ships, such as destroyers, capsized, trapping some inside and sending other mariners into the water where they fought off hunger, exhaustion, fear and hungry sharks.
For those lost at sea and those still aboard their ships, little could be done aside from reminiscing of their loved ones back home and hoping for survival. Waiting patiently at home for Don was fellow McConnellsburg resident Doris Ott. Doris and Don struck up a childhood friendship while playing catch and watching the stars. They had their first date while Don was previously home on weekend leave from Norfolk.
“We became even better friends over the years. We never thought one day we’d be married,” he said. Their loving commitment to one another has lasted 65 years and resulted in three children, Barb, Marsha and Doug, as well as multiple grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
With one typhoon behind him, Don and the Cossatot crew would soon be hit by a second tropical storm outside of Okinawa. “There’s no way to describe it,” Don stated. “It’s just hell. You had to use your common sense. You didn’t want to be caught in the hull, and you always had on a life jacket. When you’re out there, you’re hundreds of miles from anything.”
As the war came to an end with A-bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Cossatot and crew travelled to the peace treaty signing between the countries. Weeks later, Don and other sailors were instructed to dress in their finest and launched to shore where they rode in open truck beds to Hiroshima. At Hiroshima and several additional stops, the crew was asked to walk around and briefly inspect the area. Upon returning, they were checked for radiation exposure with a Geiger counter.
The remaining time leading up to his May 2, 1946, discharge was spent shuttling food supplies and food to Okinawa. The Cossatot was decommissioned in San Francisco, Calif., where Don spent six to eight weeks before eventually returning home to continue courting his sweetheart, Doris, and trying his hand at a variety of trades, including plumbing and auto mechanics.
He was also fortunate to find his best friend, Dean, had lived through World War II. The close friends remained in contact until Dean succumbed to lung cancer several years ago. Don, now 86, also had his own personal battle with cancer in the last year. On May 30 he received the best news possible, his bladder cancer was gone and he could continue doing what made him an asset to both the U.S. Navy and to his family – tinkering.