For World War II veteran, active duty in South Pacific was just ‘a job’

Ray Sittauer with his Purple Heart.
Ray Sittauer with his Purple Heart. (Photos courtesy of Dan Thulin)

By Ashley Davidson
UW News Lab

Ray Sittauer welcomes me into his home with a hug instead of a handshake. When he leads me to his “office,” a 1960s-era kitchen table in the home he shares with his wife of over 50 years, he limps a little — a visible remnant of the scars left by a war now so distant, its living memory is all but gone.

Not here, however. The man seated across from me with folded hands on blue-flecked Formica is a flesh-and-blood memorial of what may have been the deadliest conflict in human history.

“It’s some view, eh?” he asks me when we sit down. The panoramic sweep of the navy-blue Puget Sound, framed by a distant peninsula and Whidbey Island, is breathtaking on a spring day. The long-time Edmonds resident and his wife Dorothy have lived in this house, on the top of “the hill,” for over 30 years.

Sittauer explains how he ended up in this town. Newly deployed in the Navy, he boarded a ship in Bellingham and sailed down through the Puget Sound in early 1940s, taking in the sights on the way to war in the South Pacific.

Beautiful as the trip was, Sittauer remembered one location specifically: Standard Oil tanks, a dominant fixture of the Edmonds skyline during the ‘40s, and the lush green hills surrounding them. “I’m going to come back and live there,” he said to himself that day, not knowing whether he would see his 19th birthday, let alone build a new life in a distant city.

A young Sittauer in the Navy.
A young Sittauer in the Navy.

Born in 1925 in Sykeston, N.D., he was introduced to drought and joblessness at a young age. Thus, when World War II began, he was eager to join the effort. But as he was still in high school in 1942, he had to get his parents’ signature to enlist. When I ask how they felt about sending their eldest son off to a war he might not return from, he shrugs.

“You’ve got to visualize what North Dakota was like,” Sittauer said. “It was in the ‘30s; it was dry and there was no money. It was just a tough life; everyone … was living from day to day.” Joining the Navy offered a way out, and he took it – at 17, he left his home state for the first time, bound for basic training in Coeur d’alene, Idaho.

The carefree youth, who found boot camp “exciting,” voluntarily joined what was termed a suicide squad – one of many ships that would be sent to do battle in the South Pacific. I asked him why he – or anyone – would be willing to participate in such a mission, knowing death was probable and danger guaranteed.

“Most of the crew was pretty young, otherwise they wouldn’t have been dumb enough to do it,” Sittauer said. “We didn’t know exactly what we were going to do — but we knew it was going to be pretty bad.”

Hearing him catalog his experience of the war, it sounds more like an adventure than a horror story. His anecdotes and stories are laced with humor, but one gets a sense of the seriousness and determination of himself and his comrades, despite their youth and inexperience.

His ship was part of a fleet involved in the invasion of Okinawa and Iwo Jima, although his particular vessel stayed offshore, directing the beach-bound boats with a giant radio system. Although not in direct combat, danger was near at hand.

The crew lived in constant fear of bombings from air and land. It was a bomb that earned Sittauer his Purple Heart, after shrapnel tore up his leg and left him with a limp. The ever-present danger was priority-changing for the men: He mentions rations, for example (his ship was given the best of the best, “steak and ice cream!”), but actual currency didn’t have much use.

“When you’re in the service, money meant nothing to you,” Sittauer said. “You never ever thought about money. Don’t know how many dollars I throwed over. Most of the time you didn’t think you’d make it home to spend it anyhow.”

At one point he was literally shipwrecked. A huge typhoon, combined with an engine malfunction, caused his vessel to sink, forcing the entire crew to fend for themselves in the tumultuous water. Fortunately, there were no fatalities; they had  all put on life jackets, knowing the ship was going down, and thereby everyone (plus one pet monkey, who also donned a life vest) had been spared. This was largely due to an accidental discovery that Sittauer himself was the cause of.

“On one Sunday afternoon when I was sitting on the gunnel of the ship,” he said, “a guy gave me a shove and I fell in the water. You couldn’t just climb back on, so they threw me a life jacket  — and it sunk faster than I did.”

The life jackets on board were so old and outdated that they had lost their buoyancy. Sittauer’s mishap literally saved hundreds of lives — the outdated ones were thrown out and new ones were sent to the ship to replace them, weeks before the typhoon. Had they not made the discovery, likely all of the men would have drowned.

The honored veteran now has five grown children and 17 grandchildren, as well as a legacy of business ownership and community involvement in Edmonds. But he’s the last to honor himself. When asked what Memorial Day means to him, he laughs and says “Nothin’!”

“All I thought was, I had a job. It’s not like you feel you are a hero — because you’re just doing your job. “

Ashley Davidson is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.

    1. Mr Sittauer:
      I believe my Father Clarence Page was on your ship that went down in the typhon. He didn’t talk about the war much but did tell me of that typhon. He said some of the guys couldn’t swim and even though they had lifevests were reluctant to jump. Dad said he and a couple of other good swimmers went along the deck and pushed everyone they could into the water then swam out and towed them away from the sinking ship. He also said that the only thing that saved his group from the sharks that was the deisal fuel in the water. I believe you and my Dad were shipmates. God bless you both SIR and God bless your service to our freedoms.
      Dave Page

  1. Wow Dave, I hope there is some way to verify the connection with your father. Wouldn’t that be something! My dad like your dad rarely talks about his years in the service. Ray (dad) has told his 6 children (not 5) that upon his death, he has written us all letters that explains his time spent in Japan and that particular bloody battle. He will take away information that as he puts it “the historians have no idea of what these young boys sacrificed and were forced to do too stay alive and help win our country’s freedom”. Those days I know, shaped his life and made him the wonderful hard working and successful husband of 63 years. He has instilled upon his 6 children that have become successful business leaders in our communities ” that giving back is what it’s all about”. Thank you for the sacrifices you made. Also, the oil dock he saw that day was Union Oil Beach.

  2. Dave:
    That’s kind of nails it. My Dad ingested so much diesal fuel that his stomach was never the same. The sharks got many of the men. I’m the oldest one left, his medals were fought over by his Brothers and have long since vanished or we could nail it that way.
    I am not one much to go back into family history but on this I will do some research. His name was Clarence Arthur Page. He joined up the day after Pearl Harbor. He said the line was over a mile long at the Los Angeles recruiting center

  3. I have known Ray for about 30 years. Ray is a very quiet man when it comes to talking about himself. If you ask him about his kids, you cannot shut him up. It was during a breakfast one morning that Ray opened up about his war years. He did not share too much but did take a very old picture out of his wallet. It was a picture of one of the Navy ships he served on. I wanted to find out some more information about his ship and did some WEB research. It is through that research that I found out what these men went through. It was not until after I shared what I found out that Ray finally told me he had been given the Purple Heart.

    I met Ray though our church. I have always looked up and admired Ray. He is one of those men who work tirelessly in the background never bringing attention to himself. For years one of his biggest efforts was helping the homeless. He always has a big smile, a warm handshake and a blessing for you. Thanks for being my friend.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Real first and last names — as well as city of residence — are required for all commenters.
This is so we can verify your identity before approving your comment.

By commenting here you agree to abide by our Code of Conduct. Please read our code at the bottom of this page before commenting.