By Laura Clark
At 5 o’clock on the morning on July 4, 1944, Ruben Ramos stood on the deck of the USS Denver and watched three squadrons of Navy Hellcat fighters take off from a nearby aircraft carrier to attack the airfields on the heavily fortified island of Iwo Jima.
This would mark the Americans’ first attack on the island that would come to forever symbolize death, sacrifice, uncommon valor and the spirit of the U.S. Marines.
Ramos, who’d been serving as an electrician on the cruiser for about six months, recalled a strange incident occurring before the Hellcats’ attacks.
“When we came up topside, we were extremely close to the island. . . . As we were looking out towards the shore, we saw a Japanese man riding a bicycle across the air strip, [right before the aircraft started bombing] … I’ve always wondered what the hell happened to that Japanese man riding across the damned air strip.”
Ramos, a native of Indio, Calif., spent World War II in the South Pacific working as an electrician on two U.S. Navy ships.
Three months later, in October of 1944, Ramos found himself at the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest naval battle of World War II. The Japanese used three naval forces to try and stop the Allied landings to retake the Philippine Islands, which had been lost in early 1942.
On Oct. 25, 1944, the USS Denver, along with seven other light cruisers, six battleships, 28 destroyers and 39 motor-torpedo (PT) boats, set a trap for the Japanese Southern Naval Force at Surigao Strait. The Japanese ships had to pass through the narrow strait to attack the invasion ships. As the enemy ships approached, they were met by torpedoes and heavy bombardment from the U.S. attack force. The U.S. Navy destroyed the last of the Imperial Japanese Navy at the Battle of Leyte Gulf. At the end of the ferocious three-day battle, Japan ceased to exist as a naval power.
In December of 1944, Ramos was transferred to the USS Amsterdam, for the maiden voyage of the light cruiser from Newport News, VA., to the South Pacific, which started in February of 1945.
As an Electrician’s Mate 3rd class, Ramos manned searchlights and a deck gun. World War II ended on Sept. 2, 1945. Japanese officials signed surrender documents of the battleship USS Missouri, which was anchored in Tokyo Bay.
Ramos and the rest of the crew of the USS Amsterdam served for one week as part of the occupation force at Naval Base Yokosuka, which still remains a U.S. Naval headquarters in the Pacific.
In 1946, like thousands of other World War II soldiers, Ramos and his four brothers returned home safely to Indio. He returned to high school, graduated and attended junior college.
He later married, fathering one daughter. He also went to work for the railroad as an electrician, retiring 40 years later.
After the experience of war, death and hardship, Ramos began to think more about racial discrimination.
“We never noticed how poor we were,” he recalled. In Indio, whites and Mexican Americans lived side-by-side, all working hard to make a living.
He said he encountered discrimination for the first time when he saw the treatment of African American sailors in the U.S. Navy.
“Blacks were segregated into their own units, and you never saw them,” Ramos said. On ships like the USS Amsterdam, where Ramos served, African Americans worked only as cooks, or “mess men,” and rarely interacted with white soldiers.
When he returned home after the war, he learned of the imprisonment of his Japanese neighbors in concentration camps while he served in the South Pacific. These experiences inspired him to think about the issue of racism.
He called the roundup and imprisonment of Japanese American citizens by their United States government, “the biggest mistake we ever made … I had friends that lost everything, or they gave everything away or sold [their possessions] for a nickel on the dollar,” he said.
His advice to future generations: “Get a decent government that won’t put us in war. Use your ballots so we won’t get into another war … because it’s no picnic.”
Mr. Ramos was interviewed in La Puente, California, on August 4, 2007, by Jose Figueroa.