A lifetime love for his country
● By J. Chambless
Ray Natale of West Grove, with his truck that proudly notes the service of his brothers in World War II.
By John Chambless
There's ordinary patriotism, and then there's the iron core of pride that Ray Natale feels for his country, and the contributions that his brothers made during World War II.
Sitting at the kitchen table in his West Grove home, Natale, 90, closes his eyes and recalls every detail of his own wartime service -- down to which day of the week he left a particular camp in Germany, and the day he saw warplanes circling overhead and found out it was V-E Day. And while he can discuss his own past at length, Natale mainly wants to let the world know about his brothers -- Henry, Louis, Anthony and Fred. There were five Natale brothers in World War II, giving a combined 146 months of service for the country they all loved so much.
Now, only Ray is left to hear the cheers when he rides in the Kennett Square Memorial Day Parade on May 30.
Natale's parents came to America from Italy when they were teenagers. They raised 11 children while his father worked in quarries, for the railroad, as a boilermaker and as the proprietor of his own fruit and produce business near their homes, first in Darby, and then in Collingdale.
After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Lou Natale was the first to enlist in the Navy, in April 1943. Tony joined the Navy and Henry joined the Army in June 1943, and Fred joined the Naval Seabees in August. “My parents never said a word” about losing their sons to the military, Natale said.
Ray dropped out of school in 1942 and wanted to join the Marines, but ended up working at a Gulf service station in Collingdale for 18 months and then got a better job at Sun Shipbuilding and Drydock Company in Chester, Pa., helping turn out ships for the war effort. His brothers had also worked at Sun Ship. “They were building 28 ships, 24/7,” Natale said of the frantic production pace.
Ray was drafted on June 22, 1944 and was inducted into the Army at New Cumberland, Pa. From there, he went by train to North Camp Hood in Texas, where he had basic training on a tank destroyer for 17 weeks, learning to both drive the vehicle and fire the huge cannon. After Camp Hood, he was taken to Fort Jackson in Columbia, S.C., where he was part of the 659th Field Artillery Battalion as a truck driver.
In January 1945, “We were getting ready to go somewhere,” Natale recalled. “We didn't know whether we were going to the Pacific or not.” He was 18 years old. “We got on a ship, the Henry Gibbons, which was a cargo ship converted for passengers. We were on the water for 10 days in a convoy. We knew we were headed for Europe.”
It was Natale's first trip on a ship,
“and I was seasick for a couple of days,” he said. “We ran into
a storm, and if you got up on deck, you could prop your back against
the bulkhead, and if you looked back, the ship in back of us was
breaking the water like a submarine. That's how big those waves
When the convoy arrived in Weymouth Bay in England, Navy escort ships were dropping depth charges, Natale said. The next day, the convoy crossed the English Channel and Natale landed in Le Havre, France. He was trucked to what soldiers called Camp Lucky Strike, and then on to Dieppie, France. Natale was assigned to drive a Dodge weapons carrier truck, transporting men and material. “I could see the bombers flying over us to Germany,” he said.
His truck convoy wound through France to Belgium and then to the border of Germany. “We got to Aaachen on Sunday evening, and there was a big billboard that said, 'You are now entering Germany. Fraternization is forbidden.' I think the fine was $65. You weren't allowed to talk to any Germans,” Natale said. “I thought, 'Well, I'm really in the war now.'”
Driving through towns that had been destroyed by shelling, Natale recalled seeing white sheets hung from apartment windows in Dusseldorf, signifying that the remaining inhabitants had surrendered. “The burgermeister, the Mayor of the town, would surrender the town,” Natale said.
At a base established on the western side of the Rhine River, U.S. troops were set up to fire cannons across the river into what became known as the Ruhr Pocket. “I drove across the river at Cologne, and crossed it many times,” Natale said, “for about 40 days, back and forth.”
He would later get a battle star for his service there, “but I was scared to death, and I was by myself at times,” Natale said, realizing that his truck – loaded with soldiers – was an ideal target for snipers.
“I saw them hauling German prisoners out on tractor trailers, going back toward to Belgium or Holland, where they had prisoner of war camps,” he said. There were a reported 200,000 prisoners taken in the Ruhr Pocket area.
One morning, he saw U.S. planes circling in the sky and asked another soldier what it meant. It was May 8, 1945 – V.E. Day. The war in Europe was over, and he was just 19. Still, German soldiers continued to fight, he said. “The Germans were still killing Americans, and they'd go into a town and kill the burgermeister because he'd surrendered the town.”
At a German prisoner-of-war camp, Natale said, regular soldiers were being processed and allowed to go home. “They were old men and boys,” he said of the troops who had been forced to fight. “I would tell them in what little German I knew that 'Maybe tomorrow you'll go home to your house.' And they would say they didn't want to go. Their homes were in the Russian zone. They'd be right back being prisoners again.”
There were four cages in the camp, Natale said – one for regular German soldiers, one for Hungarians who had been forced to fight, one for mixed-nation troops and one special area for SS officers. Assigned the job of emptying latrines, Natale could drive a wooden tank into the areas, except the SS zone. Security was tighter there, and the latrines were passed through a gate to him. “We had anti-aircraft guns all around the camp, but they never gave us any trouble,” Natale said of the prisoners.
Even so, “there was a shed there with wire across it, and there was this SS man on the other side of it. He spoke perfect English. He told me about the Russians, and I never knew anything about it. I had just turned 19 and I thought he was trying to agitate me, but everything he told me came true,” Natale said.
Despite the deep scars of war, in some of the towns he passed through, Natale said, he and other servicemen would share the Life Savers candies they got in their rations with hungry German children. “When we left, those families were sad to see us leave,” he said.
Natale was moved several times in Germany and finally went to Bamberg, to the Constabulary Headquarters. There, he was assigned as a reserve driver under Gen. Harmond, the commanding general of the American Zone. Among the vehicles he got to drive, “I got to drive a Mercedes-Benz that may have belonged to Hermann Goring,” Natale said. “It had bulletproof windows and a supercharged engine.”
Natale said the rumor was spreading that troops would be going home by June 30. On May 12, troops were shipped by boxcar to an old cruise ship. “We weren't sure if we were going home, because they were still shipping boys to the Pacific,” Natale said, but the trip ended up bringing him home. “I thought I'd lay out and get a sun tan, but I got dysentary,” he said, leaving much of the trip as a blur of sickness below decks.
He was eventually discharged on June 8, 1946 at Fort Dix, N.J., after 23 1/2 months of service. All of his brothers had made it home without physical injury, but at least one of them did not discuss their wartime experiences, Natale said. “It taught me discipline,” he said of the war. “And of course, you age overnight. You become a man.”
His brother Lou had earned three battle stars as a landing craft driver who dropped troops during the invasions of Saipan, Tinian and the Palua Islands. Tony earned four battle stars by participating in the invasion of southern France, as well as Okinawa, where his ship, the Macomb, was struck by a kamikaze Japanese pilot. Henry served in the Pacific in a top-secret position and got seven battle stars. Fred helped build air bases and landing strips in the Pacific.
Back at home, Ray finished high school on the G.I. Bill, and applied to join the Pennsylvania State Police in 1948. In 1950, he started his training in Hershey, Pa. He was assigned to barracks in Wyoming, Pa., then Reading, Indiantown Gap and Lancaster before being sent to the Avondale Station in 1956. “You had to be single to join the police force then,” Natale said, “because you didn't make enough money to support a family.”
After arriving at the Avonale Barracks, Natale was at the scenes of five deaths from auto accidents in the first four months. It was a rough introduction to a job he grew to love. He served as an officer until a whiplash injury led to his decision to retire in 1979.
Ray married and had a son and a daughter. His wife passed away in 2014. He still lives in the home they had built in 1968.
His patriotism runs deep, displayed on his truck's license plate – 5-INWWII – and the signs on the vehicle proudly noting the service of the five Natale brothers. Natale is also proud to take part in the Kennett Square Veterans Day Parade each year, driving his decorated truck along the route. This year, as one of the Grand Marshals, he's going to let someone else do the driving.
He's been part of the event for about 15 years, he said, and he appreciates the large crowd that turns out to watch. As part of a dwindling number of World War II veterans, he knows how important it is to tell his story, so he has visited Unionville Elementary School every year for more than a decade to talk to the young students about the war. “A lot of them don't know what a veteran is,” he said with a smile, so he talks about what being drafted means, and a bit about what he did in the war.
Natale has one living brother and a sister, but as the last of the five brothers who gave so much, he knows it's up to him to keep their story of service alive.
And Veterans Day will always be a special day to look back, and salute.
To contact Staff Writer John
Chambless, email firstname.lastname@example.org.