CRANBERRY ISLES, Maine — Richard A. Alley was a teenager when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Within the next several months, he was among thousands of Mainers called into service to go fight in World War II.
Alley, 87, was drafted into the Army and sent to fight in the Far East, where he operated a pilot boat built by Hinckley Yachts in Southwest Harbor and, in the spring of 1945, participated in the bloody Allied attack on the Japanese island of Okinawa. He served two tours, surviving to return after the war to his island home on the other side of the world with his memories and his Army jacket. He married, had a family, settled down.
What Alley never had, until Friday, was the military medals he earned for his service. During a noon luncheon at the Neighborhood House on Little Cranberry Island, with approximately 100 relatives, friends and neighbors looking on, he officially was presented with the medals he’s been trying to get for nearly seven full decades.
“It’s a dream,” Alley said softly after the ceremony, standing with the help of a walker. “I’ve been waiting 69 years.”
Peter Ogden, director of Maine Bureau of Veterans Services, made the three-mile boat trip out to the island Friday along with staffers for Sen. Angus King to present Alley with four medals — a Bronze Star, an Asiatic-Pacific Campaign medal, a Combat Infantryman Badge, and a Presidential Unit Citation ribbon. According to Ogden, more than 112,000 Mainers served in the military during World War II. About 8,000 of them are believed to remain, he added.
At the luncheon, Ogden described to a packed house the military operations that Alley’s unit, the 77th Infantry Division, participated in during the war. Alley joined the division after it participated in the attack on Guam in July 1944, he said, but prior to its involvement in battles at Leyte in the Philippines and then at Okinawa, only 350 miles from mainland Japan.
During the amphibious assault landings at Okinawa, more than 1,000 Japanese kamikaze planes fought back against approaching Navy and Army forces, Ogden said.
“The sky was black with anti-aircraft fire” from Allied naval ships during the assault, Ogden said.
After Friday’s luncheon, Alley recalled the conditions he fought in on June 16, 1945, the date cited in his Bronze Star commendation. The accompanying certificate said Alley earned the medal, a week or so after his 19th birthday, for “exemplary performance of duty in active ground combat” at Okinawa.
“We took a high hill overlooking the harbor,” Alley said, so Navy ships could safely enter the port of Naha. Kamikazes flew overhead while Alley and other infantrymen met fierce resistance on the ground. He did not go into combat details, but said monsoon rains were pouring during the battle.
“I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Alley said.
More than 10,000 U.S. troops are estimated to have died in the battle for Okinawa, which lasted more than 10 weeks. By many accounts, more than 100,000 Japanese soldiers and civilians are believed to have died defending the island.
Alley said that, after the war, he contracted jaundice while in the Philippines and became separated from his division when he was sent off for medical treatment. This, he says, likely contributed to the difficulty years later of tracking down his military records. A fire in July 1973 at the National Archives in St. Louis, which destroyed millions of military personnel files, also complicated his efforts.
Alley said a few years ago, Little Cranberry Island resident Cindy Thomas contacted then-Sen. Olympia Snowe’s office to ask for help in tracking his records down. Snowe’s office tried but came up empty.
More recently, his daughter-in-law Stefanie Alley contacted Sen. Angus King’s office and had better luck. When Claire Bridgeo, a staffer in King’s Augusta office, called the division’s records office, the clerk just happened to have been going through the box with the sought-after information.
“That’s what got it started,” Alley said, adding it is both exciting and “quite a relief,” to get the medals he’s been trying to track down all these years.
“The night before [the medal presentation], I didn’t sleep at all,” Alley said.