The Pearl of the Orient: Ray Gregory Protects the Streets of Postwar Manila

 

By: Gary Burns

Reprinted from The Clay Count Ancestral News 32, no. 1 (2016).

Ray Gregory may have been fifteen however, in 1943 he was far from oblivious to the turmoil the world outside, Hima, Clay County, Kentucky, had managed to immerse itself. Like most folks along Horse Creek and Gregory Branch, he took advantage of Robert W. Bingham’s Louisville based Courier-Journal. Founded in fact or not, Bingham often championed the struggle of the poor Appalachian mountaineer in his newspaper. Most of the Depression weary people of Clay candidly admitted they saw little difference in their standard of living in the throes of the Great Depression than they knew before 1929. If the people of Hima became disenchanted or bored with the newspaper, there was always the less crusading radio. It was less than a year and a half since that instrument of technology had brought most folks the shocking news of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Every man, women and child thereafter gathered around their own radio or a neighbor’s to hear F.D.R. summon his country to war.

In 1943, the Allied forces were barely beginning to take back formerly-unheard-of South Pacific islands. The Americans and Australians struggled to recapture New Guinea for most of that year. The first encounter of green American troops at Kasserine Pass, Tunisia resulted in a rout and embarrassment. An Allied invasion of mainland Europe was still nothing more than a dream on some generals’ blackboards. The first successful landing and occupation of Japanese held territory did not come until February of 1943 at Guadalcanal. In spite of this slow, two-year start, things were finally looking as though the Allies might have a chance of winning the war.

In Clay County family after family watched as their sons boarded trains and sped away to boot-camps scattered across the country; hurried training to prepare them minimally to do their part in saving the free world from what seemed to be at the time overwhelming odds. It was not uncommon for a Clay County mother to have five or even six, Blue Stars displayed in her window – too often, at least one or two of those would turn to Gold.

Ray, too young to worry over the draft, had his own dilemmas right in Clay County. He did not need to go looking across the ocean’s waters. He was the oldest child of Gilbert “Bice” and Thelma Hibbard Gregory. Both his parents were still young. There were many men, in fact, Bice’s age meeting the call of the draft. Ray’s father, however, was working as a truck driver, delivering coal. Hima was coal country and with the war on, coal was at a premium. There was, in fact, seldom a Hima pocket that passed that did not jingle with company store script: Clay County Coal, Morning Glow, Baker Horse Creek, New Mary Frances, New White and a half-dozen other companies, working out of Hima.

Ray was at the time showing little outward concern for current events, locally or otherwise. Sibert, Kentucky, near Hima, had a movie theater run by Lige Hensley. Ray could get in to a showing for ten cents. The theater was cooled in the summer months by a huge fan that was turned by a belt hooked to the wheel and axle of a jacked-up vehicle – that was Sibert air-conditioning. There was also a restaurant and a liquor store in Sibert. The railroad ran through Sibert, and that made it the place for people to congregate.

Ray spent most of his days shooting pool, days that should have been spent in school on Horse Creek. As often as not, Ray was playing hooky from that very school. That information came to his father’s attention when Ray bluntly told him, “I’m quitting school, Dad.” Bice Gregory promptly followed-up his wayward teen’s decision with an ultimatum of his own; either go to school, or go to work. Ray had no intention of going back to school at the time, and rather than face the harsh consequences of a third choice, he picked work.

It was not that Ray was doing poorly in school; he had passed the test, and had the certificate in hand to show that he was ready for high school. He simply did not have any interest in going to school. Bice went before the Board of Education and obtained a certificate which cleared him from any truancy responsibility and allowed Ray to legally resign, so to speak, from school. Ray went promptly to work for White Coal Company (later the New White) on Paw Paw Branch. Ray worked the coal tipple for Ed and Billy White at $2.40 a day; good money during the Depression.

Rationing was affecting everyone: shoes, sugar and gas were just a few of the items that Americans either had to do without or budget their use. Bice had a car that he used to carry miners to and from work. The use of his car for essential war workers provided an extra share of gas for the vehicle. Everyone, including the babies and children, had their own ration books. Each stamp allowed the family members to buy their portion of the needed commodity. The memories of ration books and war bonds remain vivid to Ray, even today. He still has a book that belonged to his sister Ruby.

Before Ray reached his eightieth birthday he was driving trucks for Eagle Branch Coal Company. He hauled loads from the mine to the East Manchester coal ramp. There, he dumped the coal directly into the train cars and off it went to markets. When he turned eighteen he was going to do his part and join up, but his appendix had something to say about that. Ray was forced to have an emergency appendectomy. The recovery from the surgery pushed him into his nineteenth year. On 6 May 1946, he finally received his certificate of fitness for duty. Although the war had officially ended, the draft continued to call men for service.

Ray, his deferment now expired, reported on 10 May 1946 to the induction center at Camp Atterbury, near Edinburgh, Indiana. It was a bit of irony that on that Friday, 10 May, the local newspapers announced that Camp Atterbury would close its wartime induction and separation operations as early as the end of July. During its wartime pace, Atterbury had processed hundreds of thousands of men and women through its gates, most bound for combat duty. In the final months following Victory over Japan (VJ) Day, Atterbury had turned to processing those lucky survivors out of service. It was also during the war years; Atterbury was the prison home of 15,000 captured Italians and German soldiers. The last of them were sent home only a short time prior to Ray’s arrival.

The last draft notices picked up the numbers of several Clay County men. A group photograph was taken at Atterbury to commemorate one of the last groups inducted, it included: Shirley H. “Burb” Gregory, a cousin of Ray, Howard Cupp, Dudley Wilson, Isaac S. “Ike” Manning, and Robert “Bobby” Brown. Ray and a total of thirty-four other men became soldiers at Atterbury, under the guidance of two army instructors. Most of the boys in the picture were, in fact, from Kentucky.

They received their uniforms and some equipment at Atterbury and were then separated into their respective groups according to occupational training ahead. Burb and Ray were put on a troop train together, bound for Fort Bliss, Texas for basic training. When they arrived, they shared the base with distinguished guests. In January Fort Bliss had become home for the newly formed missile research team (Operation Paperclip) of former German scientists, including Wernher von Braun. Von Braun had his shops set up in the vacant base hospital buildings. Another irony, the “boots,” German scientists, and missile command solders still shared the base with the remaining German POWs who had been incarcerated at Fort Bliss during the war. The last prisoners did not return to Europe until 15 June 1946. No one, scientist, recruit, or prisoner enjoyed the sand fleas, extreme heat and gritty sandstorms of El Paso.

Burb and Ray finished basic and were granted thirty days of leave to come home before assignment to their permanent units. Ray then caught the train west at London, Kentucky. The four-day train ride was far from luxurious accommodations. The boys had to sleep in the seats the entire trip. There was no way to shower of course, and Ray sponged off in the small bathroom sink as best he could.

Ray was following in the footsteps of a million men who had taken the same route before him to Camp Stoneman, California. Camp Stoneman was the gateway to the Pacific for all Army men who had shipped out after Pearl Harbor to take-back the expanse of Japanese controlled territory from the Aleutian Islands to Papua New Guinea. Stoneman was located about forty miles north of San Francisco near Pittsburg, California. It was the last opportunity to issue equipment, medical and dental care, and bring soldiers up-to-date on lessons recently learned in the Pacific Theater. The base, sprawled across 3242 acres, was a facility of more than 800 bland, khaki-colored, two-story barracks, shops and administration buildings. In its WWII heyday, Stoneman could house over 38,000 troops awaiting departure ships out of San Francisco. The average stay during the war was one to two weeks. Ray would enjoy the sights of Stoneman for two weeks before he shipped out.

On the far side of the globe, the end of May was marked by a reorganization of the wartime Military Police (MP) units. After those soldiers with enough points departed for the States, or enlistments ran out. The remainder of the MPs formed a new battalion designated as the 738th MP Bn.[1] The 738th was stationed in Manila (Pearl of the Orient), Luzon, Philippine Islands.[2] The unit was in a sense, an occupation force keeping order in the streets side-by-side with what was left of a civilian police force. Unlike the local police, the MPs’ duties encompassed writing soldiers, sailors and marines up for being out of uniform, and of course, hauling military personnel off to the stockade for offenses such as drunk, disorderly, fighting and other acts against the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).

 

The men from Stoneman took a small ferry over to San Francisco. They had a sack lunch, Ray recalled, on the trip over. From San Francisco, Ray sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge on a clear evening aboard the transport ship, USS General H. W. Butner (AP-113) – one of only four postwar journeys she would make. She was 622 feet, 7 inches long.[3] By October 1945, at war’s end, she had transported 74,134 passengers into both the European and Pacific Theaters.

The Butner cooks served beef stew that first evening aboard. It would be a meal to remember for many of the men aboard. Right after dinner, the Old Salt sailors encouraged the soldiers to go up on the top deck and take-in the beautiful sight of the lights of San Francisco in the still near distance. Ray took the advice and proceeded topside after filling to his brim on stew. Ray soon became so seasick looking back at the lighted harbor and city that he was compelled to take to his bunk – he remained there, incapacitated for three days and nights.

The ship stopped in Hawaii to resupply and refuel. That refitting took three or four days. The sad part for the Kentucky boy from Horse Creek, the soldiers were not allowed off the ship while they were harbored in the Hawaiian paradise. It was especially disappointing as the trip from California to the Philippines took the Butner twenty-four days.

As they pulled into harbor at Manila Bay, Ray was astonished by the number of sunken ships in the bay. While it looked like the result of a major naval battle of one type or another to the newcomer, it was far removed from the actual combat to take the island back. On 6 March 1945, the Japanese had purposely scuttled their own ships across the mouth of the bay to prevent an American landing directly into Manila. Instead, the Allied forces landed on beaches off the Lingayen Gulf on 9 January and fought their way inland. A second landing was staged on 15 January, southwest of the capital city.

Fearing that the civilian prisoners, held within the city limits of Manila, might be executed before the city could be secured, MacArthur ordered a task force to race to the compounds ahead of the main force and rescue the detainees. That was successfully accomplished on 20 February. Before the remainder of the city could be retaken, the 16,000 Japanese naval troops who lingered in Manila went on a murderous spree and then burned much of the city behind them.[4] There was no accurate way to determine exact figures, but it was estimated that between 120,000 to 140,000 civilians were wantonly murdered as the last Japanese holdouts were located and dispatched.

 

Ray reported to the new 738th MP Battalion. He guarded the streets of Manila on foot and jeep patrol. He liked the Filipinos. They were “nice” people, he thought.[5] In his opinion, they had little to no problem out of the locals. It was the military people, soldiers, sailors and marines, who gave the police and MPs the real worries. There was a glut of peacetime military members continuously in-and-out of Manila, with plenty of time and money on their hands. There was also an abundance of alcohol and pretty Filipino girls, a lethal mixture for trouble.

Ray and two buddies were off duty and cruising around in a jeep – just seeing the sights. They happened to drive by some soldiers working along the road. One was on a bulldozer and Ray immediately did a double-take. He told his buddies to stop the jeep, he believed he knew the guy on the dozer. As soon as the dozer driver, completely shirtless, saw Ray, he recognized him also. The dozer operator, Wayne Blair, was also a Clay County man. Wayne enlisted in the army on 6 April 1946 and would remain until 5 May 1947. Wayne ordered the Japanese prisoner he was in charge of to take over the bulldozer. The two Kentucky boys had a grand reunion right there on the side of a Pilipino road. Ray told Wayne throughout the years following that he should have arrested him for being out of uniform – of course that was only ribbing.

One day a buddy of Ray’s was moved to a position as supply sergeant. He decided that Ray would be a good assistant and asked him if he wanted the job. Ray was quick to pick up on a good thing, “I sure would,” he eagerly responded. From then on, until he left Ray worked in the arms room issuing weapons – .45 automatic pistols and M1 carbine rifles – to the military police duty sections.

The Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, which had brought more than 10,000,000 men into wartime service, was allowed by Congress to expire in March of 1947. What that meant for Ray, Wayne Blair, Burb Gregory and the thousands of other young men who had been drafted after VJ Day was that they could not be held any longer. Wherever they were in the world, they packed up and said their goodbyes to exotic people.

The USS General William Weigel (AP 119) pulled into harbor in the Philippines and Ray moved his gear aboard for the trip back to the States. The ship remained in port for about a day while she refitted for the trip. Ray was taking in his last looks at Manila and Luzon Island from the rail of the top deck when he noticed two men walking along the dock. He recognized one of those as Atwood Stivers, another Clay County man.

Atwood D. Stivers enlisted at Fort Lewis, Washington on 25 April 1945 and would remain in service until 20 December 1948. He boarded the General Weigel in Japan, along with several caskets containing the remains of WWII dead. Stivers was assigned to the American Graves Registration unit and was accompanying the American fallen back to Hawaii.[6] There, some would be reinterred in the National Cemetery of the Pacific located in the Punchbowl, overlooking Honolulu. Other bodies would be sent to graveyards across the U.S. at the request of their next of kin. It was Atwood’s job to assist in the identification and processing of each body at the U.S. Army’s Central Identification Laboratory, located at Schofield Barracks, Oahu, Hawaii.

The lab was created in 1947 to handle the thousands of remains returning from the Pacific. It would serve to identify and honor American fallen through the Vietnam War. At its inception, and through part of 1948, the lab was run by Dr. Charles Snow, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Kentucky.[7]

When the ship arrived in Hawaii, Ray recalled that flag-draped caskets were removed from the ship’s hold for three or four days. He also, remembered that no one was allowed to take pictures of the hallowed operation. Atwood Stivers and the members of his accompanying unit got off the Weigel with the bodies.

The Weigel sailed on to San Francisco. The men returned to their old exit post of Camp Stoneman, where they were out-processed from the army. Since it was over a year after the war had ended, most had returned to their lives and jobs. There was little celebration or greetings for the returning occupation troops. Little credit is given the men who performed those later tasks. They rebuilt war-torn countries and were ambassadors of the forgiveness and goodwill of the American nation. Men like Ray restored order to what had been the chaos of war, in Japan’s case for more than a decade. They protected the victims of war far from the mountains of Clay County and restored dignity to millions of abused and traumatized peoples.

Ray returned to Clay County and went back to work in the mines. He met a girl who was at the time working at the Dobson Grocery Store, her name was Roxie Davidson and they soon fell in love. The two were married on 13 February 1950. Shortly after their wedding, the two moved to Ohio. Both were hired at General Motors. They worked at GM together for thirty years. When they retired, they agreed that there was no place they would rather spend their golden years than in the mountains and valleys of Clay County. Ray, like so many of the WWII veterans, saw the wide and wonderful world and returned home to delight us with his stories. We are lucky to still have him around and owe him many thanks for his service to our country.

 

[1] Herbert Yudenfriend, Dear Everybody…Adventures of a Teenage Soldier (Bloomington, IN: Xlibris Corp., 2009), 253.

[2] Not to be confused with Sri Lanka, Penang, or Hong Kong, also nicknamed the Pearl of the Orient.

[3] John S. Ham, World War II Aboard the USS Butner A Memoir (Self-published, LuLu.com. 2008).

[4] The commander of all Japanese army troop ordered his men to leave Manila and take up positions in the interior. The Japanese had, throughout the war, experienced a hateful animosity between the naval and land branch commanders. On Luzon, the naval commander refused to follow the orders of the army commander and remained in Manila.

[5] Ray Gregory interview by Mike White, Clay County Historical Society, Manchester, Kentucky, 29 May 2015.

[6] I found only one reference to the trip; apparently the USS General William Weigel loaded at Yokohama sometime in March 1947. That reference stated that the trip back to the states took eleven days, albeit, made no reference to the stops in the Philippines or Hawaii.

[7] Michael W. Warren, Heather A. Walsh-Haney, Laurel Freas editors, The Forensic Anthropology Laboratory (New York: CRC Press, 2008), 48-49.

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