Ray Olley was among the first Americans to arrive at the Philippine beaches during one of the largest naval battles in history.
The 95-year-old World War II veteran was on the amphibious assault ship LSM311 during the Battle of Leyte Gulf as Allied Forces drove out Japanese insurgents and enabled Gen. Douglas MacArthur to return to the Philippines.
As a quartermaster and signal coder, he dodged kamikaze attacks and lost several friends while battling in the Pacific Theatre.
The Manteno resident has been back on the water again — this time in his restored child canoe that bore the navy camouflage and letters of the ship he served on during the war.
He paddled through Lake Manteno for the first time in 22 years, thanks to the effort of Afghanistan war veteran and Project Headspace and Timing Founder Eric Peterson.
“It brought back so many memories,” Olley said after a quick lap in the lake’s shallow end with his granddaughter.
A sailor in the making
Olley was 9 years old when he saw the canoe at a neighbor’s house in Hinsdale, N.J. It caught his eye instantly. So, he knocked on the neighbor’s door.
“I knew I had $10, which was a lot in those days, at home,” Olley said. “I said, ‘Madam, I hate to embarrass you. I know the canoe is worth a lot more, but I have some money at home. I would like to buy that canoe.’ She said, ‘I’ll tell you what. I’ll take a chance. Whatever you have in your pocket, I will sell the canoe to you.’”
Olley raced home to get his money and crafted a wagon out of planks, wheels from a broken baby carriage and rope. The neighbor took his $10 and gave him the canoe, which was built in October 1919.
“I brought that canoe home in such a hurry,” Olley recalled with a laugh.
That canoe ultimately encouraged Olley to join the Navy. He was one of five brothers to enlist in various military branches after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
“My oldest brother, John, went in. Francis went in. Freddy had been in the National Guard. The house seemed so empty,” Olley recalled. “I just felt the sooner we all get in this conflict, the sooner we all do what has to be done, the sooner we could all get back to families again. It was really tough on my mother and I being in that empty house.”
After getting his parents’ approval, he gathered his birth certificate and enlisted in the Navy.
“I like the water, and I got used to handling myself on the water,” Olley said. “[The canoe] was part of it.”
Olley served in the Navy from 1942-46. He saw heavy combat in the Pacific Theatre. In the Battle of Leyte Gulf, Japan recorded about 47,000 casualties compared to 3,500 Allied casualties.
After returning home, Olley was diagnosed with shell shock — or what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. He credited his faith in God, his wife, Jane, and his children for helping him overcome the toll of the war.
“[Jane] helped give me the strength to stay with her and family,” Olley said. “It was my faith in God that really pulled me through. Even to this day, it doesn’t go away.”
The canoe was also part of several family vacations.
A chance meeting
After losing a friend he served alongside overseas to suicide, Eric Peterson held a veterans town hall meeting in 2016 to help soldiers return home.
The 30-year-old Afghanistan war veteran was a squad leader in Charlie Company, 1178 Infantry out of Kankakee. He served a nine-month tour in Afghanistan from 2008-09.
Olley met Peterson as he prepared for the veterans town hall. The two forged a quick friendship.
“I sat in his kitchen with him one night and talked to him about his perspective of war because he is a World War II veteran, and he has seen plenty of things,” Peterson said. “We spent a long time together. Honestly, it was a very deep, profound conversation about many things. We became friends after that.”
Since then, Peterson has stopped by Olley’s home each week with Snickers bars. He took Olley to church one day three months ago when a family member pulled him aside and mentioned Olley wanted to get back into his canoe at least one more time.
Making it float
To fulfill his friend’s wish, Peterson started a GoFundMe account to raise money to patch and repair Olley’s old canoe that had been sitting in a garage for 22 years.
He dropped the canoe off at Kustom Kreations in Bradley, which took on the rehab project while working around the clock to prepare for a motorcycle show in Milwaukee.
“They were like kids on Christmas,” Peterson said of Kustom Kreations after dropping off the canoe.
Peterson asked Kustom Kreations to paint the canoe to resemble the LSM311. The task required a bit of research — most of it in black and white.
“We researched it online, and there were only five pictures of this ship — all in black and white — and they all had the camouflage like they had in World War II,” said Danny Colbert, of Kustom Kreations. “They were all grainy, so this is as near as we could get. There were no actual true colors. We had a black and white photo.”
Painting the canoe was a new challenge for the shop that is used to painting motorcycles and vehicles. The cause, though, is what inspired them to take on the task.
“It’s really been an honor,” Colbert said after completing the project. “I don’t even know this man, but I would like to thank him for his service. It’s really been an honor and a privilege to do this.”
On the water, again
American flags lined the beach of Lake Manteno on Labor Day, as Olley was wheeled out of the Manteno Sportsmans Club and into a chair in front of a tarp covering his old canoe.
“I’m 95 years old, and I’ve had that canoe hanging in my garage all these years since we moved here,” Olley told the Daily Journal last week. “I just want to get in it once more at least. I know I can paddle it. I have a beautiful pair of double paddles. I just want to get in that canoe, and I hope they will let me paddle out a little bit from shore.”
After a brief introduction, Peterson unveiled the surprise to his friend. The crowd christened the restored canoe barring “LSM311” with a champagne toast.
“It turned out better than I could have ever expected,” Olley said before a few bystanders lifted him into the canoe and set him off into the lake with his granddaughter.
Olley paddled around the shallow end briefly with his double paddles before turning in.
“God bless you all,” Olley said the to the crowd as he walked ashore with Peterson by his side. “We did it.”
Afterward, Olley reiterated his commitment to Peterson’s cause. Peterson started Project Headspace and Timing, a charity that assists veterans with their transition to the home front.
“I would really like you to know that I feel honored to be a part of Eric’s movement,” Olley said. “I want you to know I am very impressed by what they did for me here, but I want to feel that it’s not for me. It’s for the cause of all these young men coming home who have a problem with PTSD.”
Seeing Olley on his canoe was a speechless moment for Peterson.
“Usually, I am pretty good with words, but I find myself at a loss,” he said. “Not just because the look of Ray and his wife when we unveiled the canoe, but the look of everyone around the community.
“I hope he understands that it wasn’t just me, by any means, that did this for him. It was the community that did this for him because the community remembers what he and other service members have done.
“It means a lot to me. This whole process of doing all this stuff for his canoe just means the world to me because I know it means the world to him.”A version of this story ran in the Sept. 5 edition of the Daily Journal.