Sunday, May 30, 2010

Memorial Day Tribute: Capt. Ray Kidd

Captain Raymond O. Kidd.

On this Memorial Day weekend, I thought you might be interested in the story of a World War II officer my father knew. His name was Raymond Kidd and he was an engineer from Bedford, Virginia.

The two men met when their reserve units were activated just before the war. Then, they roomed together on the ship that took them to a "secret destination" in March 1942. Though Kidd was a few years older, the two young men from the South had a lot in common. They were both quiet, studious, Presbyterian, non-smoking teetotalers. Ray had dark red hair and a Cary Grant cleft in his chin.

My father is standing at right in this wartime photo: Capt. Ray Kidd is standing at center. I think this photo was taken in the States before the two engineers went overseas.

It was only at the very end of their journey that their CO told them they were headed to Ascension Island where they had an airport to build and ninety days to build it in.

Times were tough at first: the men worked twelve-hour shifts, twenty-four hours a day. Their heavy equipment didn't arrive for several months so they made their tools out of what the desert island had to offer--which wasn't much. There was very little water on the island, so they were limited to the drinking water they had brought with them in large oil drums. When their resupply ship was sunk, the men went on half rations of chow and were limited to a quart of water a day. When they had time, they swam in Comfortless Cove to wash in the seawater.

Captain Ray Kidd, far right, with Lt. Herb Schiff, just out of the sea on Ascension Island.

The location had one thing going for it: nobody bombed Ascension during the war. It was a dry, windy, dusty, jagged piece of volcanic rock in the middle of nowhere: but the only men who were killed in action there, fell off a bulldozer.

Kidd, as the senior of the two friends, outranked my dad. In fact, he was the envy of all his friends because he already had a sweetheart back home--though it was seventy days before any mail arrived on Ascension, and when it finally did appear, the first batch was all second class mail! You can imagine the groans as the men opened those advertisements, circulars, and Army training manuals that had been forwarded from home. It was another month before the real mail appeared and by then, it had been piling up so long, some of the men like Ray, whose sweethearts had written them daily, had 200 letters arrive at once!

The two engineers from the South, Ray Kidd and Ashley Chapman, in a grainy photo taken on Ascension Island. I found it in my father's things after his death in March.

The 38th Engineer Combat Regiment completed the airfield by its deadline and once that was done, the Army needed a team to run it. The command split off the 898th Engineer Aviation Battalion for that job, and Capt. Ray Kidd was named CO.

By this time, my father was ready to take orders to go just about anywhere else--even though that would inevitably mean a much more dangerous assignment. But Ray Kidd asked him to stay for another year to help keep Wideawake Field running, and my dad agreed. They were close friends by then and--I think it is only fair to add--the chow on the island had improved considerably. One of the mess sergeants had commandeered a compressor and they were now serving ice cream for dessert.

In the spring of 1944, Captains Kidd and Chapman were finally sent back to the States for leave and retraining. Kidd made a bee-line to Huntington Park, California where he married his sweetheart. Next stop was Geiger Field in Spokane, Washington. Dad checked into the Bachelor Officers' Quarters and Ray and his bride found a small apartment. The men trained on the new specs of the planes the Allies were building for the expected invasion of Japan.

After two years on an island inhabited only by soldiers and sea turtles, almost all of the men got married that summer. My Dad was no exception. He met Faye Ellen Latta at a dance. Six weeks later they married, with Ray Kidd and Herb Schiff standing up for Chapman at the altar. Six weeks after that, he and Kidd and the other engineers were on a ship headed to Okinawa. It was the spring of 1945 and the years on Ascension were a cakewalk compared with what lie ahead.

In March 1945, aboard ship in the Pacific, Kidd got word that his wife had had their first child.

At left, what was then known as "V-mail". In it my father tells his parents about Kidd's new baby.

Dad wrote home: "Poor Ray Kidd doesn't know whether he is a papa or a mama. I guess it is pretty hard on him ... " I think that means the men didn't yet know whether Ray's baby was a boy or a girl. It was a boy, and the son was named after him.

At right, Capt. Ashley Chapman on Ie Shima.

The 1902 Aviation Engineer Battalion landed on Ie Shima off Okinawa one day after journalist Ernie Pyle was killed there. Captains Chapman and Kidd were company commanders and there they faced daily and nightly air raids. The Americans soldiers jumped into slit trenches when the siren wailed; but sometimes they just had to keep on working. Often the raids took place in the middle of the night. The night of June 24, 1945 was one of those times.

On June 26, 1945 Mrs. Raymond Kidd got a letter from Chaplain J. Loftus who was himself in a hospital recovering from a shrapnel wound:

"It is with deep sympathy that I write to offer my condolences on the death of your husband and my good friend, Capt. Raymond Kidd. He was killed instantly in a bomb shelter during an air raid, when a bomb exploded about fifteen feet from the entrance to the shelter. I was with him at the time and know he did not suffer, because he did not utter a sound. This happened at 2:45 a.m. on the 24th of June."

The war ended six weeks later.

My father with his company in Ie Shima. Behind them to the left you can see the channel and beyond that Okinawa. Behind them to the right you can see a flag flying and beneath it, the American Military Cemetery. Capt. Kidd was buried there in Row #11, Plot #2.

Capt. Kidd was posthumously awarded a Bronze Star. "By his keen judgment, technical skill and devotion to duty, Captain Kidd made a substantial contribution to the success of the Ryukyus campaign," the citation read. Col. Branner Purdue pinned the medal on Kidd's widow. My grandmother saved the clipping and a copy of the chaplain's letter in her scrapbook.

The awarding of the Bronze Star.

Most of the things I know about this story, I have learned since my own father's death, as I've read through the piles of old clippings and letters he left behind. We didn't talk about this much nor think about it as the living history that it was.

On Memorial Day weekend, 2010, I wanted to share Capt. Ray Kidd's story with you. He and the others who sacrificed with him made the relative peace and enormous prosperity of the last six decades possible for all of us. I hope his family won't mind my telling it. I know they paid a terrible price for his courage.

But there must be a special place in heaven for guys like Ray Kidd. I'm hoping he was there with a handshake to greet my father when the two old friends were finally reunited.

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