A ‘wire chief’ who kept the phone lines open

While it is an understatement to say that the country needed soldiers during World War II, skilled individuals were needed for a host of other jobs in support of soldiers on the front.

That’s where Master Sergeant Ray Smith comes in.

Smith, originally born in Warren, lived on Maple St. as a child with his parents and siblings.

While all students go to one of three schools in Warren today, that wasn’t the case in the 1920s and 1930s.

Smith explained that he went to a two-room school house on Locust St., one year at Lacey School and middle school at the Glade Township school on Woodley St. “It was built out of some kind of clapboard and wall board liner,” he explained. Without insulation, “it was heated by a big round wood burning stove (with) two tiny restrooms.” He explained that bigger students carried wood into the school and the teacher kept the stove burning. “That single teacher taught eight grades of school,” he said.

“When we got out of there, (we were) offered a classical, commercial or technical course” at Warren Area High School, located on the corner of Second Ave. and Market St. Smith said he chose the technical course, graduating in 1938.

“When I applied for a job at the telephone company, the technical course helped me in obtaining a job,” he said.

Little did he know that the training would help him out again in a few years.

Smith then went to work for Bell Telephone Company.

While at Warren High as a senior, Smith met his future wife, Phyllis.

“We were married in 1941,” he said.

But two years later, in September 1943, Smith’s draft number was called.

And he had a decision to make.

Smith said that his boss told him he could have avoided the service.

“So many Bell people had been drafted, they were getting short of people and I could have gotten a deferment,” he explained. “Not because I was married. (I) could have because of (my) job.”

But it was a notion he could never really consider.

“Had I done that, I know I never would have forgiven myself.”

Like many others from Warren County, Smith underwent a physical at a National Guard outfit before proceeding to New Cumberland where he was initiated into the service.

“After completing my physical exam, I was told to return to the head station (and) was told I had a fast beat,” he explained. “The doctor and I decided it was excitement.”

Given his employment history, Smith was shipped directly into the U.S. Army Signal Corps, testing at a Technician 5th Grade rating, the equivalent of a corporal, after being drafted in September, 1943.

“In New Cumberland, everyone received uniforms right away. For some reason, I guess because I was already a T/5 assigned to the Army Signal Corps, I waited four days,” he said. “I had a high I.Q. and was told I could join the Navy. No way, I’m already assigned.”

With Ray and his brother Frank both in the service, and another brother Gail serving towards the end of the conflict, Smith said that his parents “followed us pretty closely. Frank and I were already married.”

After New Cumberland, Smith was sent to Camp Crowder, Mo., for six weeks of basic training where Smith was “treated as a buck private.”

Training then shifted to Fort Sam Houston, near San Antonio, Texas, where he was initially assigned to the 307th Signal Operations Battalion but subsequently became part of the 304th.

“We joined telephone guys from Northwest Bell and became part of the cadre of the 304th,” he said. “All of our training was at Fort Sam Houston, except for rifle and pistol. (We) did (that) at a small post called Camp Bliss.”

Smith said he was “trained on field switch boards and field telephone systems. I had central office experience also with the Bell. Most of our training there was field training as opposed to switch board.”

When his unit was scheduled to go overseas, the 304th was transported by train to Camp Stoneman, Calif., and given one night leave in San Francisco before boarding a Merchant Marine ship for New Guinea.

“(We) left camp to embark for overseas from San Francisco. The large entrance to the embarking areas was a high, inverted ‘U’ in large letters across the top ‘Through these portals pass the greatest service people in the world.’ It was really busy and we were shuttled through an entrance that bypassed the main one.”

“All we did was kill time in New Guinea,” Smith said. “We were waiting. We didn’t know we were going to Leyte when we got on the ship in New Guinea until we were ready so ship out.”

To New Guinea they went.

“In New Guinea, I’m on guard duty one really dark night. We were in two man pup-tents. Each of the guys carried the parts to make one half tent. I heard a dog barking and went to investigate. I don’t think any place in the world has deeper red mud than New Guinea.”

The 304th then shipped out to Leyte.

“After Leyte had been secured, (we) got there. There were still pockets of Japanese,” he said. “They were being cleaned up.”

“On the way to Leyte, all (our) equipment was lost in a typhoon. When we got to Leyte, our equipment showed up. In the mean time, we had been re-supplied.”

Smith spent the remainder of the war on Leyte. “‘A’ Company was the primary operating company.”

Smith was in B Company.

“We only filled in at times,” he explained. “(We were) still working on equipment around our tent” during a several month stay on the island.

“On landing in Leyte, during a fierce rain storm some of our guys unfortunately decided to take a bath in the tide,” said Smith. “We never saw two of them again.”

More tragedy struck while at Leyte.

“One night I was on guard duty in Leyte and to my west I heard an explosion and saw a huge ball of flame. I heard later it was a plane full of GI’s heading home on points.”

Smith remained on Leyte through the end of the Pacific War, which they could see coming in the waning weeks and months before the surrender.

“Between the atom bombs and the actual signing of the treaty, yes, maybe we were thinking that it was going to be over soon,” he said.

But, for Smith, the celebration wasn’t as joyous as you might think.

“Our elation would not be, the guys in the 304th, our elation would not compare to the guys out on the front line,” he said. “We were glad it’s over, naturally.”

With the war over, the 304th left Leyte and headed to Japan, finally setting up shop as the signal operations battalion for 8th Army in Yokohama.

“Several fellows from our outfit were on the initial group in Japan,” he said. “(We) had established some communications facilities for 8th Army and (General) Eichelberger. They had been established in an abandoned bank in Yokohama.”

Smith said that Yokohama had not been heavily bombed but that the road from Yokohama to Tokyo had been. He explained that that area was “leveled by napalm bombs (that would) melt the steel framework right down to the ground. The only thing we would see standing was safes sitting on concrete platforms. They were still there. The buildings had caved all around them.

“We were in the signal headquarters, commerce building, (that) was headquarters for the Japanese sea business in Tokyo Bay on the fourth floor. Eichelberger was on the third floor, he and his staff. After the sergeant from A Company, who had been relieved, had received enough points, (he) went back to the states. Then (I) became the wire chief for the signal operations battalion.”

He had been working for the former wire chief prior to his leaving.

Smith called his time as wire chief “my biggest involvement.”

The change brought the rank of Master Sergeant with it.

Smith said that, working under him, he had “two Japanese telephone men (and) two” Hawaiian individuals who were his interpreters.

“If I wanted communications set up from Hokkaido, which was miles and miles from Honshu, they would go and translate my desires to the two Japanese telephone men, whenever the Japanese telephone men had established (the) communication line.”

And the work was fairly autonomous for Smith.

“In Japan, our company lieutenant left on points and was relieved by a ’90 day wonder.’ They were lieutenants that attended West Point for 90 days and were sent out as replacements,” Smith said. “I’d meet him Monday (through) Friday a.m. when I was wire chief, he’d say ‘Sergeant, how are things?’ I’d reply, ‘Fine, Lieutenant.’ He’d say, ‘Ok, see you tomorrow morning.’ That was my contact with my lieutenant. Where he went I have no idea.

“One time while we were there, (we) were notified that General MacArthur was coming from Tokyo to Yokohama to meet with Eichelberger,” he explained. “We were in the process of installing additional switchboard positions on the fourth floor of headquarters. (I was) not sure how (we were) supposed to act around a man like General MacArthur. When we caw his black Cadillac, (a) big long, black Cadillac, coming our way, we disappeared.”

Smith said that he “jumped behind a high hedge outside the front of the building. (We were) told when we saw him coming (the) elevator was to be left on the first floor. Then it was to be left on the third until” the meeting was over.

“Finally, I got enough points (and) was transferred to 4th Replacement Depot in Tokyo,” he said. “After spending time there, (I) went down and boarded… (a) Navy personnel ship, Azelea City.”

“When we disembarked in San Francisco, we went to a post on the island called Fort MacArthur (outside Los Angeles).

“We really feasted,” he said.

While in San Francisco, Smith said that he was able to call his wife.

“We had no state-side communications,” he said. “No communication until I came home.”

“We exchanged our foreign Japanese and Filipino (currency) for American money (and) then got on a train and went to Camp Atterbury, Indiana. That was where I was to be separated from the service.” Smith was honorably discharged in February, 1946.

In addition to his brother, Smith came into contact with other men from his Warren Area High School class while overseas. Bob Jensen and Wayne Mahaffey were two that he mentioned.

Then it was time to come home.

“I actually was with another telephone guy who is from Bradford,” Smith explained. “(We were) together all of the time during the service. When discharged at Camp Atterbury,” they caught a train to Cleveland.

That’s where Smith reunited with his wife.

“She came from Warren and met me in Cleveland and I spent the one night with my wife in Cleveland and we both came back to Warren,” he said. “It was good to be back.”

“When I got back in Warren, they had what they called the 52/20 club that was for ex-service people. For one year, you could just kill the time and get $20 per week. I thought, I believe, I had three months leeway before I had to go back to the Bell Telephone and reclaim my job with Bell.”

“I’ll sign up for that,” he said of the 52/20 club, part of the GI Bill. “I don’t know whether you’ve been told, (it was an) awful change from military service to going back to being a civilian again, a nerve-wracking sort of thing for me.”

That led him back to Bell sooner than 52 weeks.

“I managed to stay off for three weeks and then I reported back to my boss Robert Anders in Warren,” Smith explained.

After assignments in Erie, which included service as wire chief in charge of Erie, Meadville, Tionesta and Oil City Bell Telephone offices, Smith was then transferred to Oil City but then back to Warren before retiring in 1978.

In “retirement,” Smith spent a summer working at Chapman Dam as a guard and worked security at Berenfield Barrel Works and United Refining part-time until retiring for good in 1985.

Smith and his wife purchased a home on Hillcrest Drive when they moved back to Warren, where they lived until moving to the Commons apartments in Pleasant Township on June 1, 1978, where Smith, now 93, still lives today. His wife passed away in April 2007.

Not having any children, Smith and Phyllis traveled a lot, including a trip to Asia in 1984 where he “went back and showed my wife all the places I had been in Yokohama and Tokyo.”

A member of a host of veteran’s groups, Smith was awarded the Good Conduct Medal, Meritorious Unit Emblem, Soldier’s Medal, Bronze Star Medal, Air Medal, Philippine Liberation Medal, the Japan Occupation Ribbon, the U.S. Presidential Commendation and the Philippines Presidential Commendation for his service.