Ray Kerr is a great storyteller; as his stories attest, he has not always had an ordinary time of things. When he was a kid in Brazil, Indiana, the parents of Olympic medalist Jesse Owens were on his paper route. He once had to resort to corncobs as fill for a flat tire on his Model T. What are the odds of running into a childhood neighbor on an island refueling station in the middle of the Pacific, in the middle of a war? It happened to Ray.
Back in August, Ray thought a trip from Wellsboro to his hometown in Indiana was just for a family reunion. What the almost-ninety-four-year-old former Navy fighter pilot found waiting for him at the Terre Haute airport was a surprise hero’s welcome—complete with a motorcade that included Freedom Riders, state police, Boy Scouts, National Guard, and a general.
“Dad was thrilled,” says his daughter, Sue Niles, who helped coordinate the celebration honoring Ray’s World War II service to his country.
“I put my life out there hundreds of times,” Ray says matter-of-factly, which is also how he recounts the extraordinary events of his time as a fighter pilot flying off the U.S.S. Makin Island. “As a pilot, I’ve got hundreds of stories.”
You don’t have to be of a certain age to realize that the living memory of that time will soon be gone. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates there are about 620,000 American World War II veterans still alive. So it is important to get these stories down.
For this Veteran’s Day, here are a few of Ray’s.
Ray was nineteen in 1942 when he enlisted in the Navy—he knew it was either enlist or be drafted. He and three friends took a three-month road trip; each then went into a different branch of the service. As a kid Ray had liked the idea of flying—one of his uncles had had a plane. The Navy at the time he enlisted desperately needed pilots and was allowing high school graduates to enter flight school. Less than 5 percent of those who started the Navy’s pilot program finished it, Ray noted, and 50 percent of pilots who graduated couldn’t fly off aircraft carriers.
“Navy pilots are pretty special,” he says. “There were no better pilots than Navy pilots.”
It was January of 1943 when Ray was called up to begin pilot’s training. He and his peers came in as cadets at DePauw University, Indiana; they went from there to Northwestern, Iowa University, and the University of Minnesota. The need for pilots was so critical that students from DePauw were moved from their dormitories to make room for the pilots-in-training. It was intense.
“If you dropped a pencil you missed a chapter, so to speak,” Ray says, adding that as “just a high school graduate” he had some trouble with the coursework but not so much with the flying, perhaps because “I wanted it more.”
At Iowa, flying practice and classroom instruction were coupled with plenty of physical training. Ray played football—briefly. The Navy brought in four players from the Chicago Bears team and “they taught me not to like football.”
“It was a nice sunny day, and all I saw was stars,” he says of one pigskin encounter. “You played for keeps, you know.”
And you played hard, without much consideration for whether you were in pain. He was a competitive swimmer and once had to have three wisdom teeth pulled then swim a mile. He boxed, and recalled that one opponent had fought the Golden Glove champion of Chicago. A soccer eld collision with another player left that guy with a leg broken in three places.
“You had to do things—maybe you shouldn’t have, but you did,” Ray muses. “We were exceptional.”
At the University of Minnesota, the same place where George H. W. Bush was a cadet, Ray honed his flying skills in an open-cockpit plane. It was winter in Minnesota but, fortunately, “they’d ground us at zero degrees.”
It took about eighteen months for the young pilot to earn his wings.
“Now I’m commissioned and I’m an ensign,” Ray says. “We were the first class to go through as V-5 cadets [a classification based on the 1935 Naval Aviation Cadet Act].”
It was in Florida, at the Bloody Baron Training Field, where he first met the Wildcat. With that plane he was able to do “things I didn’t know you could do with an airplane.” The Wildcat held one person—the pilot. He was navigator, bombardier, communications officer, gunner. With a thirty-eight-foot wingspan, the plane was twenty-nine feet long, thirteen feet high, and weighed 6,000 pounds empty. It carried 117 gallons of fuel in an internal tank and another fifty-eight gallons in each of two external droppable wing tanks. It had four fifty-caliber machine guns, a 1,350 horsepower motor, and a cruising speed of 180 mph. During a “dive” the plane could top out at 400 mph and “things happen pretty fast at 400 mph,” Ray says.
After Florida came the Great Lakes, where pilots practiced landing on an aircraft carrier, which has a shifting, pitching landing surface of just 200 to 300 feet. To qualify as a carrier pilot, five successful landings were necessary. However, as Ray noted wryly, “there are a lot of airplanes in Lake Michigan.” His were not among them, though.
In Hawaii, awaiting final deployment, Ray and his cohorts had some fun-with-fighter-plane activities, including flying down into a volcano on Maui. And there were the inevitable pranks. One of Ray’s friends during this time was a fellow named J.J. who, for reasons Ray never knew, used Ray’s name rather than his own during a romantic assignation. Ray was certainly surprised when he received a phone call from the girlfriend he didn’t know he had, telling him he was going to be a father.
About 5,000 miles from Hawaii, Ray and his squadron, the VC 84, arrived at the U.S.S. Makin Island, named for an island targeted by the Marines earlier in the war. Navy admirals, Ray says, had come to realize the value of the airplane in combat and so, around 1942, began building aircraft carriers as well as battleships. The Makin Island was small, about 500 feet long, with a cruising speed of twelve to fourteen knots. She had a crew of about 900, with forty pilots, thirty-forty days worth of airplane fuel, and twenty-eight aircraft. The commemorative “yearbook” commissioned by Ray’s shipmate, navigator R.J. Reynolds, of tobacco company fame, praised the Makin Island this way: “Her ability to solve the problems of a sea borne airport with smoothness and efficiency, her cooperative spirit, her courage, composure, and unfailing good humor in face of danger have earned our everlasting respect and warmest friendship.”
Being small, landing on her was challenging. As Ray recalls, when it was his turn to make his first landing the landing signal officer waved him off a few times. He eventually passed muster, but he was still one of the new guys and had to await the opportunity to prove himself. It came soon enough. Carriers travelled in groups of four with destroyers. The convoy was about fifty miles from Manila, with the pilots periodically flying “high cover,” looking for kamikazes. What they found during this particular reconnaissance were two Japanese destroyers. Ray was at 10,000 feet and headed down at 300 mph. With his fifty-caliber machine guns, he strafed the whole deck of one destroyer.
“I killed them all, then put rockets in the wheelhouse. It was quite a feat, that one plane could destroy a destroyer. And they didn’t get me. So, then, the admiral favored our division because he knew we’d get things done.”
As for Ray’s friend J.J., it was about a week after Ray was first on the U.S.S. Makin Island that kamikaze fire hit one of the adjacent carriers and J.J. was killed. Ray says when he and J.J. were still in Hawaii awaiting orders, they had hoped to be assigned to the same carrier. While an order change was in the works, the man typing the paperwork had to abruptly leave his post. Had the orders been finished, Ray would have been on the same doomed carrier as his friend.
Seven months after D-Day the Makin Island was headed to Luzon, the Philippines’ largest island. It was home to the capital, Manila, as well as airfields and airports the Japanese used. Ray recalled that on the day before the scheduled January 9, 1945, land invasion, he was flying high cover and saw the heartening sight of invading support ships. For several days prior, the convoy had been under attack, with the VC 84 squadron responding by shooting down Japanese planes and demolishing two enemy destroyers.
“The flyers were busy every day,” Ray says of the two and a half weeks his squadron was involved in the battle. “We kept hitting the airport at Manila. I flew many, many flights during the invasion of Luzon, and we lost some airplanes. It was our first foothold we had back in the Philippines after MacArthur left. The Philippines was the first time I was ever in combat.”
Ray went on to fly combat missions in the battles for Okinawa and for Iwo Jima, where he helped save the lives of about 100 Marines on Mount Surabachi and saw the iconic flag-raising.
Now he lives with his wife, Barb, at Pinnacle Towers. The couple had two daughters and a son—Sue lives in Wellsboro; Patricia lives in Elmira; Richard, who was born on Veteran’s Day and was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, died from Agent Orange-related cancer eleven years ago.
When I asked him if he was ever afraid in those days of battle I got the answer I expected: “No. I couldn’t be. You had a job and you figured it out and you got the job done.
“I’ve been positive all my life,” he says with a smile and a shrug, “I’m just happy to be alive. Since World War II, I’m just happy to be alive.”