Raymond J. Gates and his buddies lived in a time of fierce patriotism when they were in their late teens. The United States was at war on two fronts, the Pacific and Europe.
To be a young man who was not in the military could mean only one thing: draft dodger. Or at least that’s what they thought.
“Some of my friends had been injured in World War II, and were sent home, and people thought they were draft dodgers. After a while, word got around that they had been wounded, and it was OK,” Gates says.
Gates and his friends wanted no part of being stigmatized as unpatriotic. One of them went into the Army, two into the Marines. The 17-year-old Gates, though, decided on the Navy and convinced his father to sign the papers for early enlistment.
And while he was patriotic, Gates was also trying to play it safe.
“If I had just waited, I would have been drafted and put wherever they wanted me to go. My friends and I were hunters, and I knew I didn’t want to be shot at,” Gates says.
The strategy succeeded, sort of.
Assigned to a 300-foot-long Landing Ship, Tank, or LST, which meant that it was able drive onto land, he says, the first stop was Norfolk, Va., where 2,000 tons of ammunition were loaded, including 16- and 14-inch artillery rounds for battleships. Then it was off to the Pacific.
“It got a little hairy when the kamikazes started coming at us,” Gates says. “They flew overhead and crashed into ships.”
Realizing that their cargo made them a floating arsenal, Gates and his crewmates often thought about what a colossal explosion would engulf them if a Japanese suicide pilot struck their LST.
“You better believe we thought about that, but what probably saved us was that the kamikazes picked out the bigger ships,” he says. “They also went after the ships that were anchored out at sea for radar purposes. They were sitting ducks, and with them out of the way, we wouldn’t know when the planes were coming.”
During the Battle of Okinawa, Gates and his shipmates provided supplies to the bigger ships that were shelling the strategic island.
“We’d pull alongside those ships,” he recalls, “and they’d use their cranes and cargo nets to take on the ammo.”
At one point during the extended battle, Gates says, he watched as the USS Laffey was towed past his craft.
“We all wondered how it was still able to float,” he says. “It had been in a fight with kamikazes, and from the smokestack back, it looked like someone had taken a broom and swept away everything all the way to the fantail. Gun mounts were gone, torpedo tubes, depth charge racks – everything.”
Although the craft Gates served on was unscathed, he says, he realized more than ever just how dangerous his situation was. “You asked yourself, ‘What am I doing here?’ But you couldn’t go no place.”
When the war ended after the atomic bombings in August 1945, Gates says, his LST docked at a shipyard near Yokohama, Japan, and he and his mates were granted liberty to go ashore.
“We drove up to Tokyo, and there was nothing left from the bombings and firestorms,” he recalls. “Where there had been houses, you saw these little safes that were on blocks. All of the people had owned safes, and that was all that was left of their homes.”
The Japanese people were resilient and already cleaning up the devastation, he remembers, but “we didn’t have much contact with them because of the language barrier. But you could see they were coming back.”
When he returned home to Hamburg, Gates says, he found a job at Bethlehem Steel shoveling dolomite into an open-hearth furnace but disliked the work, preferring to be outdoors.
“I started working as a tree trimmer under contract to the telephone company,” he says. “Then, in 1950, I decided to re-enlist just to see how far I could go in the Navy, and I didn’t go too far. I was assigned to a ship that was docked at Fort Schuyler in New York City.”
Months later, when the Korean War broke out in June, Gates figured he was headed back to the Pacific for more war. As it turned out, his ship remained in the waters off New York City, and he trained naval reservists for the duration of the war.
When his four-year hitch ended in 1954, he decided a career in the military was not for him, and he again returned to Hamburg and found work, this time as a bartender. When an opportunity to work for the U.S. Postal Service came up in Hamburg, he didn’t hesitate.
“I was in charge of maintenance at the Hamburg Post Office,” he says. “I was the only one there doing maintenance. It was a block and a half from where I lived, and I rode my bike to work every day.”
The job enabled him and wife, Dorothy Head Gates, now deceased, to raise a family of eight children. In 1984, after 30 years with the Post Office, Gates retired but stayed active in Navy veterans groups – the Western New York Amphibious Association and the Destroyer Escort Association.
“I closed down my amphibious group when there were only a half-dozen of us left,” he says. “There are about eight of us left in the Destroyer Escort group, and when I can, I go to the meetings.”