He has become a regular face at the Carlsbad Senior Center.
After a chance encounter, Ray “Pete” Piper joined forces with another former Marine, Walt Travis Jr., and soon the group of two became eight military veterans who have become close friends.
Like his fellow World War II vets, Piper survived the vicious Pacific Theater with what he calls the Forgotten Battalion, the Second Division 3-I-10th.
It was a new year and a new baby as Walter and Francis Piper welcomed their son Ray Piper on Jan. 1, 1924, in the midst of the “Roaring ‘20s.”
While flappers and speakeasy’s were the rage during Prohibition, the Piper’s were raising their middle-class family in Bell, Calif. One addition to the family, however, never could have imagined he would follow his WWI veteran father’s footsteps into war nearly 20 years later.
Ray Piper’s childhood was like many in those times, focused on playing baseball and basketball, while earning his keep between school, sports and farming. Of course, his younger days were also occasionally filled with swiping the neighbor’s mulberries, the typical sort of hijinks carried out by kids.
But for the most part, Ray and his three sisters — Edna, Haney and Evelyn — and brother, Wally, were a tight family. As the Piper clan grew older, each began branching out to help support the family.
In what used to be a rite of passage into the workforce that has vanished, Ray Piper spent years as a paperboy, waking in the wee hours to deliver the daily news by foot throughout his neighborhood.
“That was when Pearl Harbor was attacked,” Piper recalled. “I was walking to meet my friend … and I couldn’t believe it.”
Following his father’s footsteps
Ray Piper’s journey to war began decades earlier when his father enlisted and fought with the Scots under the British Army in World War I. They were known as the “Angels from Hell,” to most, while the Germans referred to the Scots as the “Ladies from Hell” due to the kilts they wore in battle.
But on Dec. 7, 1941, Ray Piper would join the family line of soldiers when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor killing more than 2,000 Americans. He discussed enlisting with his father, who told him to sign with the Marines, a branch unfamiliar to the younger Piper.
Ray’s younger brother, Wally,
served but lost his right arm
early in the war with the Army in New Guinea. However, he did not die and resides in a nursing home near Riverside, Ray said.
“He said you are going to join the Marines,” Ray said of his father. “I’d never heard of the Marines.”
In a time of fear and anger, Piper dropped out of high school at 17 and enlisted on Jan. 3, 1942, just two days after his 18th birthday.
Boot camp began shortly after at a naval hospital in San Diego. His first memory of the Marines, though, was of tough love.
Piper saw a friend from high school, called to him and then felt the thump of a swagger stick on the back of his head from his drill instructor who said, “You’re in the Marines boy, straighten up.”
“That was the last time I ever hollered at somebody,” Piper laughed. “That’s how you learned.”
Basic training ensued with rifle training and combat tactics, among other aspects for Piper and his battalion.
Back in San Diego, Piper reported to his unit and was part of a small team manning a 75-mili
meter Pack Howitzer artillery cannon. The weapon is moved on two wheels, which would make it difficult to navigate the sloppy conditions of the Pacific Theater.
“You would carry a cloverleaf, like three rounds and pack them around for days,” Piper added.
In addition to weapons training, Piper, his unit and the rest of the Marines would consistently drill on landings. Their boats would scurry up the coast and land in Oceanside, where the soldiers would undergo mock battle conditions.
“We had to practice going down nets,” Piper said. “We went aboard ship about July ’42 and shipped off the New Hebrides (now the island nation of Vanuatu).”
On the ground
Piper and his unit, along with thousands of other servicemen, were deployed to New Hebrides in a massive staging, preparing for the invasion of Guadalcanal.
Piper’s unit was sent to Gavutu, a tiny island about 20 miles off the northern coast of Guadalcanal.
With the invasion in full force, Piper said he and his unit came under heavy bombardment from the Japanese. However, getting to Guadalcanal was a difficult chore.
Piper said if not for the Marine Raiders, a special elite unit established to conduct amphibious light infantry warfare, the task of capturing the island would have been even more difficult.
“We had a lot of action and killed a lot of Japs,” Piper said. “The Raiders went in first. The Raiders never got credit. I never hear anything about the Raiders. They did a lot of damage.”
During war, all hours of the day presented danger and for Piper’s unit it was no different. Between Japanese bombing runs, or during longer lulls, Piper and his brothers would take cover in foxholes along the shoreline.
Standing orders were to shoot anything moving in the water. Throughout the nights, numerous enemy soldiers would swim to the island in hopes of a surprise attack.
But the Americans were ready.
“Next morning, you’d see three or four guys dead with their face shot off,” Piper explained. “I had one of my buddies … you had to give a code and there was a counter code. This one guy shot his own buddy. He didn’t give the code word. My buddy felt so bad. To kill one of your own men, that’s something else.”
Yet, one of the toughest days of the war still lingers with Piper. Working with his unit, a Japanese solider came out of the jungle with a white flag, signaling surrender.
However, they couldn’t take prisoners, as there was no place to house the enemy. So, Piper’s friend shot and killed the soldier.
“We had no place for them,” he recalled. “That’s the way it was. We thought about Pearl Harbor and all the guys that got killed … and you don’t forget that. God, it makes it sick about what they did, but now we are best friends with them. I can’t believe it.”
Path to victory
Besides the obvious threat from the Japanese, another looming cause of death was disease. Piper was stricken with malaria three times and was ushered to New Zealand for treatment.
“It hits you and you are just weak,” he said. “You are shaking and it’s the middle of summer. A policeman thought I was drunk … and they sent me to a racetrack. It was converted to a hospital.”
While in New Zealand, Piper recovered, but the other troops were making headway to defeating Japan and ending the war.
Still, he and his unit kept training with replacements in New Zealand. There, Piper reunited with a high school classmate named Max O’Dette in a fortuitous moment.
“I guess he joined a year or so later than me,” Piper said. “They (the family) were really nice people.”
As the training wore on, the battalion went to Tarawa, which is about 1,200 miles northwest of the Solomon Islands, in November 1943.
There, Piper said, scores of Marines were killed using the Higgins boats, where a ramp slams down and troops pour out.
“The Higgins boats had to let us out early,” he said. “You had to drop in the water with your pack. The Japs had machine gun nests under the pier and we were sitting ducks. That was a sad thing.”
Piper’s unit re-organized in Hawaii before deploying to Saipan, the largest island in Mariana Islands, then to Guam.
Upon leaving Guam to return to the United States, Piper and his fellow soldiers discovered the war had ended.
“Everybody was celebrating,” he said. “We pulled into San Francisco. I thought there would be all kinds of people waiting for us, but nobody was there.”
Piper then spent time at San Diego Naval Air Station and was able to take leave at time and return to Bell. When it came to re-enlist, the veteran was exhausted and wanted to start a different life.
“I did four years and all those…campaigns was enough,” he said.
After the war
Piper needed work and found work at a steel company near his hometown on the recommendation of his brother. The work wasn’t fulfilling, so Piper moved on.
His next stop was at an engraving business in City of Industry, where he worked for several years.
He moved on from engraving work to being a truck driver, mostly between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
“I was always into driving trucks,” Piper said. “I finally got a promotion to drive diesel, which was big money back then.”
In 1949, however, Piper married Bonna, and started a family. Their first child, LeAnne, was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. The diagnosis in those times, though, did not have a long life expectancy.
“I lost my 7-year-old daughter to cystic fibrosis,” he recalled.
The Pipers, though, worked through their grief and eventually had two more children, Ray Jr. and Kathy.
After driving trucks ran its course, Piper opened his own business supply store in Whittier.
“I had that for about two or three years,” he added.
He also dabbled in real estate and sold a lot in Del Mar for $15,000, a price he now looks back in amazement as “it would’ve gone for millions now,” he laughed.
Years after he sold his business, Piper took up work at a car dealership part time to pass the time. Bonna Piper, meanwhile, passed away about 10 years ago.
He then move to Solana Beach before moving to Carlsbad. Once in Carlsbad, he began volunteering two days per week at the senior center about four years ago.
Three years ago, Piper took part in Honor Flight, which is an all-expenses paid trip to Washington, D.C. for World War II veterans to visit the memorial among other landmarks and monuments.
Now, Piper enjoys time at the senior center, living with his girlfriend Lucy, and meeting up with the other veterans. He also self published a book in 2011 called, “The Forgotten Battalion.”
“It’s a beautiful place,” he said of the senior center. “I volunteer every Tuesday and Thursday, of course, it gets real busy with Bingo.”
Steve Puterski covers Carlsbad and Vista. For tips or story ideas, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @StevePuterski.