WWII vet knows what it means to serve
Ray Neal may have celebrated his 94th birthday on Oct. 26, but that hasn’t stopped him from volunteering at Huguley Hospital three days a week for the past six years.
“After my wife died in September 2011, she had been in and out of the hospital here, I decided to come back and help out as a volunteer,” Neal said. “My first year doing that, they made me rookie volunteer of the year. The people appreciate what I do. I like talking to people who come in and helping them find where they need to go.”
As of February 2016, Neal has put in 5,000 volunteer hours.
Neal knows another kind of service as well. As a young man in high school, Neal wanted to be a surgeon, but his father had other plans for him.
“We grew up very poor,” Neal said. “My father suggested I become a tool-maker because I was good with my hands and could enter an apprenticeship program after high school.”
Neal entered into a program with the manufacturing company Delco-Reamy.
“I wasn’t there for very long when I got drafted,” Neal said of being shipped out to Europe.
“I was in the Ninth Air Force and I flew 32 combat missions over Germany,” Neal said. “I flew a 347 Thunderbolt and one of our jobs was to support ground troops.”
Neal wasn’t there for D-Day, but he was there for the Battle of the Bulge, the crossing of the Rhine and the end of the war and occupation, he said.
“We went after tanks, armored vehicles, bridges, trains and ammunitions hubs,” said Neal, noting one mission in particular was hair-raising.
“It was a volunteer mission,” Neal said. “They wanted eight of us - four to fly over an area and come back - and another four to cover another area. It was about the time we were crossing the Rhine River. The job was to drop propaganda leaflets to tell the citizens to get out because our military was going to come in. So it was sort of a disappointment that was all we had to do.”
That particular day, it was quite overcast and Neal was acting as wingman to his flight leader.
“I was flying an old P-47 that didn’t have any radio reception,” Neal said. “I had transmission, but no reception.”
Neal flew below the clouds and cut his flyers loose. As he looked up, he immediately knew something was wrong.
“I looked at my flight leaders plane and saw shell casings coming out, which meant he was firing his guns,” Neal said. “We had .50 caliber machine guns mounted on our planes. Boy, we were really in a dog fight then.”
Because of the overcast weather and low altitude, they were sitting ducks for the Germans, Neal said.
“The Germans had found us on their radar and had called in 30 of their fighters above the clouds. When we were over target they just rained down on us,” said Neal. “There were eight of us and 30 of them.”
However, Neal wasn’t scared.
“It was a job,” Neal said. “You couldn’t be scared. You had to focus and not be shaky.”
As if the German rain of bullets wasn’t bad enough, it got worse, Neal said.
“My old P-47 had less gasoline than the new ones and I was running low on gas,” said Neal. “So I let my flight leader know that I needed to turn around. I got right under the clouds and flew back to base. I was so low on gas that, as I flared the wings out to land and put my plane down, the engine died.”
Only three of the eight made it back that day, Neal said.
“That’s what made it tough,” Neal said. “I was 21 at the time.”
Another time, Neal was tasked with flying four people over southern Germany.
“We were flying along the Bavarian Alps and it was just beautiful,” Neal said. “But then my engine quit on me.”
With only mountains and soft sod around, Neal had to get creative with his landing technique, he said.
“You can’t land a 14,000-pound plane on soft sod with the wheels down,” said Neal. “It will rip the wheels off. So, I had to belly it in.”
Neal has a picture of himself standing next to the plane, partially buried in snow from the carefully-executed landing.
Stationed in Europe for a year, he learned he was being sent home.
“We left Lahar, France in Dec.1945 on a big ship converted to a troop carrier,” Neal said. “There were something like 7,000 troops on that ship coming back from the war. We got to New York City on Christmas Day 1945.”
After a career in manufacturing engineering, including work on the Lance Missile System, Neal moved from Arlington to Burleson in 1997.
“I’ve been here ever since,” Neal said. “I love this community.”
If you happen to go to Huguley Hospital, seek Ray out. He will be happy to tell you about his WWII service.
“We are few and far between now,” Neal said.