Raymond (Ray) Leroy Sutliff was born Nov. 28, 1927, in Oakland to a single mother with a wandering heart.
“We traveled a lot while I was growing up,” Sutliff said. “I’m pretty sure my mom – born in Oklahoma – was part gypsy because we lived all over the United States; calling no particular state ‘home.’”
It was a difficult way to grow up. Having only one parent then was an anomaly. Adding that to his constant drifting created a desire in Sutliff to belong to something.
At 15 years old, Sutliff tired of the constant drifting and struck out on his own.
“I lived on the streets, but I finished high school and I was never unemployed.”
After completing high school and with World War II in full swing, Sutliff set his sights on joining the Navy.
“I chose the Navy because, even though I never knew my father, I remember, as a child, seeing a picture of him in a Navy uniform, and I decided if I didn’t know him maybe I could at least be like him,” Sutliff said. “I truly believed in the United States and wanted to serve my country.”
On his 17th birthday, he marched himself to the nearest Navy recruitment office and informed them that he was ready to serve his country in the United States Navy. It was quite the blow to be told he would have to wait another year, and try again when he was 18.
With the wind knocked out of his sails, Sutliff walked out of the recruiter’s office not sure which direction life would take him.
“Standing just outside the recruiter’s office was a large black man who smiled at me and asked if I had been turned away by the Navy,” Sutliff said. “After telling him my story, he directed me down the street to the Merchant Marine recruiter’s office and told me, ‘This time lie about your age.’
“So I did, I lied about my age and the next thing I knew I was accepted,” Sutliff said with a laugh. “But when they asked what skills I had that could be helpful, I was stumped. I had been very active in the Boy Scouts – they were like my family – and I did a lot of cooking while in Scouts. I wasn’t sure if that was useful but they jumped at the chance to have a cook.”
Sutliff was sent to Catalina Island for boot camp.
In the early 1940s, Catalina Island was rumored to become a possible staging ground for an invasion of the mainland, causing tourists and locals alike to flee. Soon the island was declared a Federal Military Zone with the Coast Guard protecting the channels and waterways.
After completion of boot camp, Sutliff was sent to cooking school and learned how to cook for the masses.
“I was a good cook, and I really enjoyed it,” he said.
Merchant Marine ships were not armored, which left the crews feeling as if they were always in danger.
“We always had Navy escorts on our convoys,” Sutliff said. “Whether we were carrying crew, cargo or ammo, we always had some protection, but it was still dangerous. (A) couple of times it would have been nice to have a cannon on board.
“I remember on one convoy from Alaska we were only two days out,” he said. “I went up top to get some air, we couldn’t smoke or anything at night for fear of being spotted. As I was enjoying the air, the ship right next to us suddenly blew up. But the convoy never broke ranks; they didn’t stop to see if there were any survivors; they just kept going. That really bothered me, but to slow or stop the convoy would have left many more of us just sitting ducks.”
Near the end of the war, the Japanese Air Force employed the tactics of suicide bombers known as Kamikazes, which would intentionally crash their planes into enemy ships.
Merchant Marine ships were not immune to such attacks.
“The Kamikazes would circle around and come right for the ship,” Sutliff said. “One day I watched a Kamikaze come around and head straight for our deck, but our skipper was excellent. He turned at the last minute and the pilot went into the water.”
While it was dangerous, Sutliff also enjoyed his work.
“I was stationed out of San Francisco, so every time my ship would dock, I would head to the union hall and sign up for another ship heading to a different location,” he said.
Using this method, Sutliff was able to see such places as Hawaii, Australia, China, Japan, Holland, the Panama Canal and more.
“I remember our ship and its convoy were the second to enter Tokyo Bay after the signing of the treaty,” he said. “The Japanese on the wharf welcomed us with open arms.”
According to Sutliff, this experience was mirrored in Holland, as they were welcomed with open arms one week after the Germans left.
Sutliff began to learn his way around San Francisco and the local markets. This experience gave him the opportunity to do the produce shopping for the ship’s next sail.
“I remember seeing this huge crate of beautiful artichokes and thought it would be such a treat to the men.” Sutliff spent the day cooking up a dinner with all the fixings, including the artichokes. “I had forgotten that artichokes at that time were a West Coast treat,” Sutliff said. “One of my shipmates slammed his tray down on the counter and yelled, ‘What the hell is this, cookie? You can’t even cut it with a knife!’ I had a good laugh over that one.”
When Sutliff was discharged from the Merchant Marines, he didn’t really know what he was going to do.
“I called my old Scout master and he got me a job as a manager of a restaurant,” Sutliff said. “Here I was at 20 years old managing a restaurant.”
The restaurant was located near a hospital where nurses from around the country would train. One day, two young nurses from Canada came into the restaurant. Sutliff turned to his cook and said, “See the cute blonde? I’m gonna marry her.”
And he did.
“She stole my heart; she was the love of my life,” Sutliff said.
Sutliff went on to have a lifetime career with the Boy Scouts of America “giving back what they had given to me” and retiring after 40 years.
Now, at 91 years old, Sutliff has lost his beautiful bride, but they had one son and two daughters who have gifted him six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
“I have done everything I ever wanted to,” he said. “I look back on my life and have had the greatest experiences. If I could give a bit of advice it would be to learn to live the good life; get up and enjoy each day and that money does not always equal happiness.”
Sutliff volunteers at Calaveras Big Trees State Park and still follows the Boy Scout motto: “On my honor, I will do my best. To do my duty to God and my country and obey the Scout law. To help other people at all times. To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.” But he added, “Always do what you agreed to do; keep your word.”