To this day, Mt Eden born and bred Ray Cranch swears he owes his life to the Americans – and not once but twice!
The first time was when the Japanese were coming down towards Australia in 1942 and Ray was a 2nd Lieutenant with the 7th Medium Battery at Russell.
“We had two guns on a camping ground behind the hotel. They were enormous 6” Howitzers.
“I said to my fellow officer Ron Yok ‘what happens when they hit us here? We can’t get out of here because of the harbour!’
“But then the miracle happened at Midway in the Coral Sea and that was the first time I owed the Americans my life because we would have been hopeless!”
Ray, or Cranchy as his fellow residents at Edmund Hillary Retirement Village call him, had left Seddon Tech to do an apprenticeship for a printing firm in Khyber Pass when war broke out in 1939.
He and a few friends ‘put their ages up’ to trial for the Territorial Army in Ponsonby with training stints following at Avondale Racecourse, Rotorua and Waiouru where they had to camp in ‘miserable, cold’ tents.
In 1942 Ray was chosen to go to Trentham to do an officer training course where he became a 2nd Lieutenant and received his posting to Russell.
When the troops were coming home in 1943 Ray was keen to go on reinforcements but was told he’d have to drop his rank back to sergeant.
The men boarded the SS New Amsterdam at Wellington and enjoyed a memorable sailing via Australia, Panama Canal and Suez to Cairo in Egypt.
“The weather was so bad we could only see the funnels of the escorting destroyers over the waves and everyone was sick,” he recalls.
“We had custard for breakfast, lunch and dinner and I haven’t eaten custard ever since. Don’t give Cranchy any custard!” he laughs.
Ray was a gun sergeant in the 5th Field Regiment, NZ Artillery Easy Troop.
The 8th Army had taken Sicily and got a foothold on the bottom of Italy in 1943 and Ray’s regiment and two others marched 90 miles walking only at night from Cairo to Alexandria to get a troop ship to Taranto, which the Allies had captured.
In October of that year his regiment supported the 21 Battalion of NZ infantry when they crossed the River Sangro.
“That was the first action that New Zealand division had in Italy,” he says.
Ray spent his 21st birthday, on the 7th January 1944, at Castel Frentano, Italy.
“We were in slip trenches with bivy tents over them and the snow was so heavy it collapsed the tents on top of us and we had to get dug out!
Ray admits to feeling very scared often, but especially during the frequent shelling attacks.
“I had a couple of narrow escapes.
“You’re lying in a bloody trench and shells are coming down around you…. I remember yelling ‘If you let me live I’ll be good!’
“It was bloody embarrassing, but you didn’t know when the next shell was going to come in.”
As the war was won in Europe Ray was sent to Trieste for training to go to Japan. But that was when his second debt to the Yanks came into play.
“I knew we would be in for a big fight. Then Truman dropped the atomic bomb. So I owe him a great deal. We would never have survived all that.”
Ray was promoted to Second Lieutenant in the 4th Field Regiment as an intelligence officer with his highest rank being Lieutenant.
Summing up his war experience, Ray chooses the word ‘lucky’.
“I feel lucky to survive it and to have seen the places I’ve seen.”
On returning home he marvelled at how ordinary New Zealanders had no idea of the things he and his fellow soldiers had experienced.
“I was with a mate standing on the tram safety zone after having a few beers at Vulcan Lane. There was an enormous explosion from somewhere and both of us fell to the ground.
“All the people looked at us and thought we were bloody mad!”
Ray returned to his printing apprenticeship and also resumed playing sport, something he had shown great talent at since he was a schoolboy particularly in swimming, softball and rugby league.
He swam at junior, intermediate and senior swimming champs, and captained Mt Albert playing with his brothers Eric and Basil before making the Auckland rugby league team and was Auckland captain in softball too.
In 1951 he was chosen to play as a Kiwi representing his country in league and because of that he didn’t have to fight in the Korean War.
“That was a break!” he says.
Sport led to some great work opportunities including secretary/manager of the Auckland League Club which he describes as ‘the best job I ever had in my life’.
At 98, Ray has now assumed the title of the oldest living Kiwis player and has the Auckland second division competition named in his honour.
His other great achievement is his family. He has six daughters, 15 grandchildren and five great grandchildren of which he is immensely proud, but sadly has outlived both dearly loved wives, June and Lesley, who were both lost to cancer.
Having also lost his good mate George McGehan when a shell hit plus a bunch of others too he thinks of them every Anzac Day.
Ray usually reads a psalm and the Rupert Brooke poem at the village’s Anzac Day commemorations before laying a wreath.
“It’s very important to mark these occasions. I have always done so, since I was eight or nine when my old man would take me up to the Cenotaph at the museum and I’d watch the soldiers march up.”