Lost and Found: World War II Shipmates Reconnect in Chance Internet Encounter
After 62 years of being out of each other's lives, World War II shipmates and old friends Ray Ellis and Bill Sprague reconnected to find that despite the many years gone by, their friendship was still intact.
Interviews by Kate Brannen
Ray Ellis: "The name of the ship was the USS Corpus Christie. It was a frigate. They built 55 frigates and had them all manned by the U.S. Coast Guard. I was the chief quartermaster on board.
"There were 215 men on a 310-foot boat and 30 feet wide. We knew everybody very well.
"We were as close as two shipmates can be. We did a weekly newspaper together. I did the drawings and he did the copy. He loved to write.
"We were good friends, but he wasn't my shore buddy, so to speak. I had a lot of guys that I'd pal around with, but we appreciated each other.
"He was always having fun. Before the ship was finished we had some welders on board to do some of the finishing work. He would take these welding rods that looked like old sparklers, you know, and he'd drop them over and he'd say ‘Kaloosh, kaloosh.' We just had fun with everything, which got most of us through the war.
"We were slated when we went over - we were to be shipped up to New Guinea to muster up with other ships to eventually go into the largest naval battle in the history of the world, the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Philippines. But instead, they sent us around to Perth, Australia, where we spent almost two years doing maneuvers and escorting subs up to the China Sea. But we never saw the battle.
"We both think that we were very fortunate to miss that, because one of our sister ships came back into Perth for repairs where Japanese kamikaze planes crashed into the stern and took the whole stern out.
"As much as we wanted to be in the action, we were thankful that that might have saved our lives.
"We made a big rescue. We rescued 95 guys from a torpedoed ship in the Indian Ocean. They lost quite a few of them, but we found them. It took us five days to find them all. That was a big thing.
"It was about 700 miles out from Perth in the Indian Ocean. It was sunk by German subs. A lot of them were very badly injured and they were soaked in oil. It was incredible. They were out in the boiling sun and then cold at night for, I think it was about 12 days before we got them in and on board the ship.
"Each of us had a talent and we both used it doing the Rough Log Book. Bill did all the writing and I did the illustrations and the layout of the book. We put it together, together. We had it printed in Australia. Each guy got two copies and it was something they could take home with them of their whole experience. They absolutely treasure it.
"He stayed aboard to serve another year. Most of us left. So that's the last time I saw him.
"We had a reunion and 65 guys showed up out of 200. That was 1991. It was in Corpus Christie, Texas. We all wondered what happened to him and now we know.
"I believe he was asked by the Veterans Association or something to do some memoirs. So he did these and somehow they were on the Internet and one of his fellow signalmen on the ship saw them and immediately called him. Two of his signalmen buddies talked to him and he was flabbergasted. He couldn't believe it. And then they said, ‘You know Ray Ellis lives on Martha's Vineyard.' So he gave him my number and address. He wrote me a wonderful letter. I might even still have it.
"He came over on the fast ferry from Quonset Point. I met him here. I was looking for him to come off the boat. He didn't come, he didn't come and then all of a sudden this old looking guy comes and I say, Bill! and it was a trip. You can imagine.
"But we were so delighted. We gave each other a big hug and said thank God we finally met again.
"He had a great sense of humor. He still does. He's a funny guy. He writes a column, as a matter of fact. His articles remind me a little of CBS's Andy Rooney, ‘Why do they do this and why do they do that?' He loves to criticize. He was a young curmudgeon.
Anyway, he's aged like I have. It's a shock to see somebody you remember as a tussle-haired kid to all of a sudden being 83 years old.
"He married a gal and his wife died about two years ago of cancer and he's just getting over that. He was married 50-some years to her. He has a son I haven't met yet.
"Lost and found that's what it is."
Bill Sprague: "We first met in Wilmington, Calif., where the ship was being built. We were there in February 1944.
"Then we took off, heading west. None of us knew where we were going at that point. They wouldn't tell us until we were 20 miles off shore and couldn't communicate. It was not frightening. I didn't think so. We knew we were going where we were needed. We were anxious to know, just out of curiosity, where the heck are we going? We went all the way across the Pacific with two other ships just like ours. It was from Los Angeles to New Caledonia. If I remember correctly, it was 31 days. We never saw a speck of land. We looked forward to seeing those tropical islands and we didn't see any.
"We were fairly close. He was quartermaster and I was a signalman. We stood watch up on the bridge with the officers. We usually knew what was going on, which was nice.
"The quartermasters are more involved in the navigation of the ship. Of course, we didn't have stuff like GPS, it was strictly celestial navigation. They took care of the chronometers, which are essential, and the other instruments which are used.
"My job on the bridge (I was usually out on the open bridge all of the time) was visual signaling with other ships or vessels with either a blinker light or semaphore flags or international flags. The bridge is the command spot and operation center of the ship.
"He'd been in the Coast Guard a little while longer than I had. I came in right at the beginning of 1943. He'd had some sea duty before.
"We went up inside the barrier reef, which was kind of an interesting experience because we were perfectly safe in there so it was the only time we ran with the lights on.
"We ended up in Fremantle, Australia, about eight miles from Perth. It was a pretty big base. An awful lot of Navy guys there. There weren't too many Coast Guard.
"It was a stopping-off point for ships heading for India and the River Road. So there was plenty going on. We were used as a training vessel and an escort vessel for the U.S. submarines based there.
"We probably had more torpedoes fired at us than any ship in the Navy. But they didn't have any explosives on them and they didn't hit us. They'd go underneath. We'd watch them go zipping underneath us.
"The good side, Australia was a great place to be. It was really a good spot. It was warm most of the time. Never got real cold in the winter. They were extremely cordial to us. They have very pretty girls and very strong beer. So you know, that's a great combination.
"He was a fun-lover. He was a jokester. He was a fun guy to be around. He was just really lively, happy, like he is now.
"When I met him at the ferry up there about two weeks ago, once we identified each other, those 62 years just evaporated very quickly. We got along great.
"We put out like a yearbook, like a high school yearbook, on the ship when we were on the way back. We worked very closely on that book. He did all those cartoons. You've got to almost know the people to get how funny they are. The one with the doctor? He's talking to a sailor and the sailor is holding his head in his hand and the doctor is saying, ‘Well, what's your problem?' and that's funny because our doctor wore coke bottle glasses and he was color-blind.
"We thought it would be good as a souvenir for all of us. We each got two copies. One for ourselves and one to give to parents or somebody like that. Mine's just about worn out, unfortunately.
"It was very obvious the talent he had - that he was a very talented artist. I sort of figured he'd get into something involved in that. He's done very well. His paintings are quite well known.
"He did a painting when we rescued the guys out in the Indian Ocean. I brought it back home and took it to my local framer and I unrolled it and she said, ‘Oh that's a Ray Ellis.'
"We have an awful lot in common besides that two years we spent together on the ship. We didn't have any time to just not talk. It was talk, talk, talk. And not just about our service, but we talked about politics, religion, anything. It was just great. We're very similar in our personalities.
"We've all gotten older, but he's the same guy. He laughs the same. He looks like he's in great shape, physically, and he's certainly sharp mentally, no question about that. His work is just magnificent. He's still doing it. He led a pretty interesting life and I did too, so we had a lot of fun talking and comparing notes on that.
"Our careers are very different. My career was in television and motion pictures. But both of us, I think, have been fortunate enough to have careers that give you a broad perspective of things, because you meet all kinds of people and get involved in all kinds of different things. You get a nice education just working.
"Shortly after I got out of the service, I moved to Chicago to go to school. Several guys said they tried to find me, but couldn't find me. So, I was totally unaware of this loop that they had with the newsletter and the reunions. But I knew nothing about any of that. I hadn't heard or knew anything about any of my shipmates for years, many years, until another guy who was also a quartermaster and close friend of Ray's called me out of the blue from California.
"It's kind of a weird sensation. This fellow in California sent me pictures of this reunion they'd had in Corpus Christie with a picture of the whole gang with their names left to right and so on and I would not have recognized any of them, because the only memory I have is what they looked like when they were 19, 20, 21, 22 years old. So it's like they instantly got old. I did it gradually. I watched it every morning in the mirror. But to see that picture was kind of a shock. You don't think they change, but they do. We do, all do."