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From Okinawa to Vietnam and back: Retired sailor recalls career that spanned three wars

American flags. (PxHere/Released)

Only about 7 percent of adults in the United States have served in the military, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center study, and only a fraction of those have served in combat.

Few Americans, then, can share the experience of Virgil Wayne McCray, 93, of Hunter, whose service in the Navy includes combat in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

McCray’s service record reads like a catalog of the Navy’s major campaigns of the 20th century, including names like Okinawa, Enewetok, Inchon, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Tet Offensive.

Living on butter and eggs

Born in 1926 in Grainola, in Osage County, McCray was a child of the Great Depression.

As a boy he moved with his family to Ness City, Kan., but returned to rural Payne County, about nine miles north of Stillwater, after the bust wiped out his father’s implement dealership and gas distributorship in Ness City.

The family owned a few chickens and cows, and subsisted off what they could earn from selling butter and eggs.

“Every Saturday you went to town, because that was butter and egg day, and that’s what bought the groceries,” McCray said.

The family moved several times during the 1930s, following work, taking them to Ceres, north of Perry, then Eureka.

Answering the call

By his sophomore year in high school the Second World War was raging, and the family had moved to Hillsdale. When he graduated from high school in Nash in 1944, he knew it was a foregone conclusion he, and most of his male classmates, were headed to the war.

“Somebody had to do it. Nobody burned their draft cards or anything like that,” McCray said. “Uncle Sam said ‘I want you,’ and he sure got me,” he added with a laugh.

He was one of four brothers to answer that call, with one brother also in the Navy and one each in the Army and Army Air Corps.

McCray completed boot camp in San Diego and was assigned to the Seabees, an official nickname taken from the initials for “construction battalion.” He then completed stevedore school, where he learned to load and unload ships, in Providence, Rhode Island.

After follow-on training, including weapons and infantry tactics, McCray was deployed with his construction battalion, just in time for the invasion of Okinawa.

Unloading for the last push

Okinawa was to the be the last major battle of the war. But, at the time, it was thought by both Japanese and American commanders to be the last push before the Allies began an invasion of Japan.

McCray’s unit arrived on the island in May 1945, about one month after the initial amphibious assault of more than 180,000 Army soldiers and Marines on April 1, 1945.

The Seabees in McCray’s unit were assigned to unload cargo ships on the beachhead, pouring more supplies into the battle still raging around them.

“We worked hard, loading and unloading ships,” McCray said. “The ships would come in loaded, and they’d put a crew of us on that ship, and you’d stay there until it was unloaded.”

The Battle of Okinawa drug on into mid-June 1945, more than a month after the end of the war in Europe. After the Japanese surrender on September 2, 1945, McCray and his unit were moved to Guam, where he was detailed to guard Japanese prisoners from the war.

Under different circumstances

Despite just having been through the bloody fighting on Okinawa, McCray said he and his Japanese prisoners bore each other no animosity.

“We made friends with quite a few of the prisoners,” he said. “Under different circumstances, it would have been enjoyable.”

The former enemies soon were drawn together by something they had in common: on both sides, they’d just managed to survive the war.

“They had a job to do, just like we did,” McCray said. “They were drafted, same as we were. The tables could have easily been turned if we’d gone back to war with them. But, it was over. They’d survived, and we’d survived, and life goes on.”

Looking back on his time as a guard, McCray recalled a habit of passing the time with the prisoners that still makes him laugh. He and several other Seabees were detailed with Thompson submachine guns to guard 30 to 40 prisoners, digging utility trenches through the island’s volcanic rock.

“We’d get tired of watching, and the ones we trusted, we’d give them our Tommy guns, and we’d get down there and run the jackhammers for a while,” McCray said. “It was a crazy thing to do, but we did it.”

A brief return home

When his time was up in Guam, McCray returned home to Nash in July 1946. But, he soon found he was late getting back to the home front.

“All those other guys had already been back,” he said. “By the time I got home, if you’d had money you couldn’t buy a job, because there weren’t any.”

He worked in his father’s blacksmith shop until 1950, when the Korean War started, and he was called up from the reserves.

But, he wasn’t sent straight to Korea. He spent a short stint at the Enewetok Atoll, in the Marshall Islands, where the United States tested atomic and hydrogen bombs between 1948 and 1958.

There, he shuttled Atomic Energy Commission workers back and forth to the tests. He was present for three atomic bomb tests, and the sailors always had to be mindful of dosimeter readings that measured their radiation exposure.

“If you got close to what was supposed to be the limit, they’d keep you aboard ship for a few days until your levels went down,” McCray said.

A fighting retreat

By late 1950, McCray had been sent to Korea, where U.S. and United Nations troops had made a successful amphibious landing at Inchon, South Korea, in September. The Allies swiftly drove the North Korean forces north to the Chosin Reservoir, near the border with China.

There, the Allied troops were met with the surprise invasion of more than 300,000 Chinese troops, who’d crossed the Yalu River to fight alongside the beleaguered North Koreans. The combined North Korean and Chinese force greatly outnumbered and cut off the Allied troops, who were forced to fight their way to the south.

Seabees and Merchant Mariners worked to evacuate the Allied troops and tens of thousands of fleeing North Korean civilians at the port of Hungnam in the north. And, when the North Korean and Chinese forces pushed south, a full evacuation of Inchon was ordered.

McCray and his fellow Seabees were tasked with preparing the evacuation — an effort hampered by a swift-moving 21-foot tidal range. The Seabees built a pontoon bridge that spanned more than a kilometer to Wolmi-Do Island, where ships could safely load the evacuating troops without getting stranded at low tide.

A second armistice

On July 27, 1953 the armistice was signed in McCray’s second war. But, it wasn’t time to rest. He said the Navy only cracked down more on the career Seabees, drilling them on ground fighting tactics.

“They thought we were in the infantry. It was always hike, hike — hike everywhere,” McCray said. “It dawned on me, if you get back on a ship, they can’t make you walk that far.”

He left the construction battalions to take a billet in Long Beach, Calif., on the USS Merrick, AKA-97, an attack cargo ship designed to carry troops and supplies to amphibious landings.

While serving there he married his wife, Clara, on Dec. 4, 1960.

“It was the best thing I ever did,” McCray said of settling down with Clara. “I was wild and reckless when I was single,” he added with a laugh.

But, peace was fleeting for McCray, and for the country.

When tensions mounted over Soviet missiles being placed on Cuba, McCray and the Merrick were dispatched with dozens of other Navy ships and Marine units to blockade the Caribbean island in the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.

Despite the threat of nuclear war, McCray said he and his fellow sailors and Marines weren’t anxious during the crisis.

“If there’d been a war, we would have survived, or not,” he said. “I never worried about dying.”

McCray served six years on the Merrick, up to the worsening of fighting in Vietnam.

“I thought I owned it by the time I left,” McCray said of the Merrick.

Into the brown water

After his days in the “blue water Navy” aboard the Merrick, McCray was sent to serve in the riverine patrol force, known as the “brown water Navy,” at Patrol Boat River (PBR) Mobile Base One, at Da Nang, near the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam.

The patrol boats were assigned to search Vietnamese boats, known as sampans, for North Vietnamese and Viet Cong supplies, and to patrol rivers for enemy troop movements.

That task became far more dangerous, McCray said, during the Tet Offensive of 1968, when the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army launched large attacks into South Vietnam.

As the NVA and Viet Cong troops moved south, McCray said it became common for the PBRs to take heavy fire from the jungle surrounding their boats.

“The Tet Offensive — that was horrible,” McCray said. “That was a booger. I was scared then.

“You couldn’t see who you were fighting,” he said, “because the foliage grew so close down to the water on both sides.”

In one encounter, the men on McCray’s PBR were taking fire from shore, but were ordered not to return fire because friendly forces may be in the area.

“I told our skipper, ‘These sons of bitches don’t seem very friendly to us — I’m shooting back.'”

The PBR crew later coordinated Marine air and land forces to overrun the enemy troops.

Not long after the North Vietnamese forces were driven back in September 1968, McCray returned home to his family in San Diego.

On the home front

McCray finished out the rest of his 30 years in the Navy in peace, at home in San Diego, finally retiring as a Chief Petty Officer in 1974. He and Clara moved the family several times, to Arkansas, then back to California, finally settling in Hunter to be near family in 1997.

But, McCray said, the period of his life he’s enjoyed the most since he left the Navy was a 10 year stretch in the 1970s to 1980s when he and Clara roamed the country in their pickup and camper.

“I never enjoyed anything more in my life,” he said. “We’d settle somewhere long enough to make a couple thousand dollars, and then be back on the road. It was fun.”

Looking back on his three decades, and three wars, with the Navy, McCray said he’s chosen to have only fond memories.

“I have nothing but good things to say,” he said. “I don’t regret one minute. There’s a few times I was in places I wished I was out of, but I just stayed in there, and I always got out.”


© 2019 the Enid News & Eagle (Enid, Okla.)

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