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Diary of a nimbly kid
‘Ray’ Longacre, a child of the Great Depression and a member of ‘The Greatest Generation’ laughs, loves life and has vivid memories of occupied Japan. He served with the 8th Army and 736th Heavy Shop Company
By Patrick Burns
W. Ray Longacre wasn’t a military man when the Japanese launched war by attacking Pearl Harbor 75 years ago today.
But the 92-year-old Clay Township man wore a Pfc. Army uniform in the Philippines when the U.S. dropped a pair of atomic bombs on Japan four years later.
Longacre, an Upper Darby native who moved to Clay Township 30 years ago, even landed in occupied Japan after the atomic blasts. He recounted with humor and reverence his service days more as soldier’s stories rather than battle anecdotes.
Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor occurred during his senior year at Upper Darby High School but it would be two more years before the Army drafted him as a member of Company E 1st Ordance Training Regiment at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland.
“I was just going through my (school) year book and there were so many killed in the war,” he said.
Things changed drastically by 1942 as air raid alarms were common. His father, then a carpenter for the Upper Darby School District, was named a civil defense warden who wore a helmet, arm band, and carried a flashlight.
“His job was to prepare in case we were attacked, and open Keystone School up to be a hospital,” he said.
Still, before he received his “congratulatory” draft letter in early 1944, Longacre had begun his adult life working in Philadelphia for General Electric at 69th Street and Elmwood Avenue.
“Back then Ronald Reagan did commercials for GE and he came through the plant one day,” he said. Reagan was selling war bonds at the time as GE ramped up manufacturing in support of the war effort that exploded after the Pearl Harbor attack.
Longacre would eventually come back to work at GE after his two-year military career. At GE he graduated from several jobs starting as a factory worker, order clerk, a promotion into engineering, and finally into the marketing department until his retirement 32 years ago.
“What is sad for young people today is you can’t do that because now each one of those jobs requires so many years of college,” Longacre said.
During his long life — he was born in 1924 — his military years, though not filled with battles, bullets and bayonets, shaped the life he lived afterward.
Since his draft papers didn’t stipulate how long he’d have to serve, Longacre figured he’d be in the military until the war ended. But who knew when that would be?
With that in mind, he decided he’d better make the most of opportunities in the states before shipping off. Following his induction, an Upper Darby High School teacher matched female student pen-pals with the school’s boys who’d been drafted into the war.
“When a girl named Doris received my name, the teacher said ‘Oh no, not him’,” he said, then smiled and laughed.
Doris, his future wife, and Ray were quickly exchanging mail frequently and becoming more than just friends.
Returning to Fort Indiantown Gap in the summer of 1945 after training at Fort Lewis near Tacoma, Washington, Longacre devised a way to see Doris when another private in his barracks procured U.S. Army leave passes and an official stamp.
“He put my name on it, signed it Captain Such and Such and said: ‘Soldier, have a good time.’ I asked (if caught) this won’t interfere with my two good conduct ribbons I have?” he said while laughing.
He didn’t lose the ribbons but things didn’t go quite smoothly using the bogus weekend pass.
“We spent Saturday at Woodside Amusement Park and when I got back on the train and arrived at the barracks at around 3 a.m. every bed was empty, no mattresses except for my bed. They had shipped out,” he said.
The commanding officer calmed down after threatening to have him “shot at sunrise” to sentence Longacre seven days hard labor. That included keeping the ovens fired up and maintaining heat in the officer’s club by feeding the burners with wood for 24 hours a day for a week.
Needless to say, his burning love for Doris outranked his burning duties at the officer’s club.
After five days and the weekend approaching, Longacre thought “Gee, I’m so close to home.”
“I paid some guy to do the last few days of my labor not knowing that he’d maybe just take the money and not do it,” he said, laughing again. “But he did it and I got home again.”
He eventually met up with his troops after taking a civilian train to Pittsburgh, Calif. They shipped from there to San Francisco and boarded a freighter converted as a troop ship with a destination for the Philippines.
“There was a band playing ‘Over There,’ as we boarded,” he said. “I said that’s a World War I song, don’t they know any new ones?”
Beds were stacked four high in the ship’s hull where Longacre’s bunk rested alongside a steel bulkhead.
“I’d tap it and say stay there tonight,” he said.
Before embarking on the 10-day trip to the Philippines, Longacre met a guy from Baltimore who said they’d never ship him overseas due to his flat feet.
The 10-day trip ended up taking 23 days because of engine trouble when the ship dropped out of the convoy.
“I thought ‘Oh Boy” we’re going to stop in Hawaii to get fixed and I could lay on the beach,” he said. “No, we didn’t stop. We just kept going on our own.”
It was a depression, grueling trip where many seasick men didn’t eat or bathe and spent most of the trip in the latrine.
“One day I’m on deck and who comes by but this guy from Baltimore,” Longacre said laughing. “Didn’t you say they wouldn’t send you overseas because of your feet? He said ‘Oh, they made special shoes for me.’ That made my day.”
By the time the troops arrived in the Lati region of the Philippines, Longacre had contracted an undiagnosed fever. He was rushed to the hospital after a derrick lifted his bed directly off the ship.
“I was hoping to go to a nice 10-story hospital, it turned out to be a tent,” he said chuckling.
Just a few days after his arrival, the Allied leaders issued the Potsdam Declaration, on July 26, 1945, which called on Japan to surrender. It did not.
Less than two weeks after he landed in the Pacific Theater, the American B-29 plane Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, destroying a five-square-mile expanse of the city. Three days later, the United States dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki.
But that wasn’t the end of Longacre’s tour — which would extend several more months in Asia — nor the end of danger.
During World War II, malaria proved to be among the most stubborn, and troops were given a drug called Atabrine. But the side effects were nasty and some soldiers refused to take it and died.
“It made you turn yellow,” he said. “But I took mine everyday.”
Eventually his unit made the trip to occupied Japan — running into a typhoon on a three-day journey on an ill-equipped LST boats heading into the icy winter of 1945. He met with starving Japanese in Yokohama and Tokyo, which had been fire bombed daily for three years.
“I couldn’t get over what those incendiary bombs did night after night, it was leveled between Yokohama and Tokyo,” he said.
Nothing was standing except for the Emperor’s Royal Palace and the surrounding mote.
“I see pictures of Tokyo now and I can’t believe it,” Longacre said.
The devastation was horrific as hundreds of Japanese adults and children begged for the scraps of garbage soldiers would discard.
“They asked you to empty your garbage into a can they held; they didn’t have anything to eat,” he said. “It was so sad, adults would try to push kids out of the way.”
But while in Tokyo he found hidden machine shops filled with American equipment along with a warehouse filled with 15-foot plywood boats.
“A Jap told me they were going to fill them with explosives and use them as Kamikazes when our ships came into Yokohama Harbor to invade,” he said. “They were ready for us.”
He said the Japanese still had many hidden weapons, guns, bombs, and even secret airfields. Longacre praised President Harry Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs which forced the Japanese surrender.
“They wouldn’t have given up,” he said. “It would have been awful.”
In the spring of 1946, Longacre said he finally boarded a fast-moving, up-to-date ship in Yokohama that headed for Seattle.
This time the song played on the dock was “California here we Come.”
“We landed in Seattle on Easter morning,” he said. “I’ll never forget, we had sunrise service Easter morning in the Pacific before docking. That was one beautiful service.”
He arrived back and eventually married Doris, who he corresponded with often during his time overseas — though letters would often take two months to arrive.
“I asked why she kept all of my letters,” he said with another chuckle. ‘Just to make sure you live up to all your promises’ she said.
Patrick Burns is social media editor and staff writer for The Ephrata Review. He welcomes your questions and comments and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 721-4455.