Local veteran discusses ‘The Greatest Generation’

By: Alex Szwarc | C&G Newspapers | Published September 22, 2020

 World War II veteran Ray Owen, of Oakland County, said  the significance of the Japanese surrender in September 1945 was that it achieved America’s goal.

World War II veteran Ray Owen, of Oakland County, said the significance of the Japanese surrender in September 1945 was that it achieved America’s goal.

Photo by Alex Szwarc

 Wartime photo of Ray Owen. During the war, the now 98-year-old was assigned to a fighter squadron as a pilot aboard the USS Wasp. Sept. 2 was Greatest Generation Day in America.

Wartime photo of Ray Owen. During the war, the now 98-year-old was assigned to a fighter squadron as a pilot aboard the USS Wasp. Sept. 2 was Greatest Generation Day in America.

Photo provided by Ray Owen

OAKLAND COUNTY — When Ray Owen hears the term “The Greatest Generation,” he says he can’t help but feel “kind of proud of it.”  

Owen, who lives in Northville, near Farmington Hills, turns 99 in December.

Greatest Generation Day was Sept. 2 and honors the sacrifices of those born between 1901 and 1927 who came of age during the Great Depression, and later supported the U.S. during World War II. The phrase comes from TV journalist and author Tom Brokaw’s 1998 book “The Greatest Generation.”

Sept. 2 marked the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II.

Owen, whose father served in World War I, enlisted in the Navy in August 1942. Training to be an aviator, Owen became a certified Naval aviator in 1944.

He was assigned to a fighter squadron as a pilot when he got his first experience with the F6F Hellcat.

Owen said the F6F could travel upward of 400 mph and was a single-seater.

“They were equipped with six .50-caliber machine guns, a 500-pound bomb or six rockets,” he said.

His squadron was sent overseas, to Guam, in the second half of 1944.

“That’s where we boarded the ship the USS Wasp, an aircraft carrier,” he said.

He described the ship as a mammoth fighting ship that was top of the line.

“The air group included dive bombers, torpedoes, fighters,” Owen said. “We would go in formation. Then we went toward the Philippines.”

There, Owen took part in his first airstrike.

“We knew the Japanese had a plane that was light weight and would outgun the 4F,” he said. “The F6 came out, which we were flying and I don’t think the Japanese realized the fact it was a different plane.”

On a later mission over Leyte Gulf, the wing of Owen’s F6F was hit by Japanese units.

“There were 13 fighters in the group,” he said. “We found a Japanese ship sitting at anchor and I think it was a light cruiser. We attacked it with machine guns and it didn’t hurt the ship much.”

It was then when his squadron spotted a landing craft and Owen turned toward the shore.

“All of a sudden, my wing whipped underneath me and I looked over and saw a hole,” he said. “I didn’t hear anything, or see any smoke or debris. It was like someone punched a hole in my wing. I was making a left turn and it jerked my left wing underneath.”

Alerting his skipper he had been hit, Owen managed to keep the aircraft above the water, eventually making his way about 80 miles back to the Wasp.

“Nine times out of 10 if your wings get hits, the explosion would tear the wing off and you’d go down,” he said.  

The plane was taken to a hangar deck on board where the crew took the wing off and threw it overboard.

Looking back nearly 79 years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, which launched the U.S. into war, Owen said he still has a vivid memory of that day.

“A few of us were sitting in a restaurant on Livernois and the radio was playing and they interrupted it with information that the Japanese had attacked at Pearl Harbor, at which time I had no clue what it was or meant. A chill went up my back when I heard the announcement,” he said.

He said the significance of the Japanese surrender was that it achieved America’s goal.

“It was our goal to end the war. The Japanese started it and we wanted to end it,” he said.

Prior to his discharge in November 1945, Owen married Isabel, who died in 2010. The couple was married for 65 years. Owen has three children, nine grandchildren, and soon-to-be 12 great-grandchildren.

He had a career as a construction electrician, retiring in 1990.