Finding room for 99 candles on a birthday cake is always tricky. The solution of placing two “number 9” candles worked well as members of the John G. Salley American Legion Post 43, Homestead helped World War II veteran Ray Surette celebrate his birthday Thursday, December 4, 2019.
Among stories he’s amassed during his decades is his Canadian parents meeting as his father drove his horse and buggy and noticed the pretty young lady walking along the road. The offer of a ride led to a long marriage and seven children. With work like his job of firing up the schoolhouse heater for only $5 per year salary (and him providing the firewood), Maine held more opportunity. Ray, born in Rumford, also lived in Oquossoc. Having a skating rink near the house meant plenty of time for skating. No one knew those first lessons would set the foundation for the teenaged Ray to later win multiple speed skating medals, to include one in the 1937 Silver Skates competition. Speed was his style though as he also ran track in warmer months. “I could do the 100-yard dash in 10.2 and the day I went up against the champion who held a record of 10 seconds flat, I was ahead of him for a bit, then he passed me in the last ten yards.”
Fishing, hunting, and trapping were for fun and to put meat on the table and Surette was known as a good shot. In the beginning of World War II, he was doing his part as a welder at the Portland shipyard where building ships was a priority. After being drafted, he entered the Army Air Corps and spent most of his time around B-24 bombers. Even though he did receive a rapid promotion from Private First Class to Staff Sergeant when he was the only one in training who passed the test for computing gun sights, his welding and mechanical skills were more urgently needed. With stateside training completed, Surette found himself on a troop ship headed to Taranto, Italy. The ships were never designed for comfort and limited water available was used to make coffee and re-hydrate powdered milk. Nearly thirty days with no fresh water to drink, shower, or do laundry was compounded by a similar shortage when they
arrived at the base. “The runway wasn’t even ready. The Seabees [specialized in engineering and construction] finished it in three days. The Germans bombed us to take it out, but they didn’t do much damage.”
He soon made friends with his tent mates and when word came that Walter Mann hadn’t returned from a mission, he was presumed dead. The New York native, an avid cyclist, had always kept himself in shape. Shot down over France, he hid during the day and walked at night, aided by French resistance members. “He told me it was his good GI boots that got him through,” Surette
recalled after his friend unexpectedly appeared in camp a month later. “I did let him know I’d eaten his candy bars.”
As the war came to a close, Surette’s ability to speak French was put to good use. Thousands of displaced civilians were processed through administrative camps and he was sent to assist. Most of those he helped were older women; one of whom was determined to smuggle her cat in a paper sack. Surette was only following the rules in telling her she couldn’t keep the pet. He was somewhat amused to see she was allowed to take it on the airplane after all. Once his duties came to an end, he did manage to make his way to see Pope Pius XII and kiss his ring.
He mustered out in Boston, went up through Lynn, and on to home in Maine. One night was enough to get him ready to go fishing. He continued his welding career with Chicago Bridge and Iron Company while also serving as a fishing, hunting, and trapping guide for forty years. One of his 1975 highlights was put into the records of the Maine Antler & Skull Trophy Club. Kyle Wentworth sent the information of the entry as, “140-2/8 for antlers, an 8-pointer, 239 pounds.” The state of Maine did issue Surette a lifetime complimentary
license when he retired.
A friend who lived in Florida suggested he come down, buy a metal detector, and try his luck with seeking treasure. “I gave away all I found,” he said with a smile, “I think it was about five dollar’s worth.”
He wintered in Florida with summers in Maine for six years before he moved into the Goldcoaster about five years before Hurricane Andrew. “I’m the oldest and most senior resident,” he says of the home where he continues to live independently. He has a little help with cleaning and laundry and he’s a regular at Golden Corral. He’s mostly given up driving at night, but his license doesn’t expire until 2025.
Karen Harrigan, her sister Michelle Grillo, Lynn Smith, Lilie Raymond, and Dorothy Stubblefield were all part of the birthday celebration. “He’s amazing,” they agree. “We could listen to his stories for hours.”
“Exercise and stay active,” Surette said immediately when asked what advice he gives. It has served him well and everyone is looking forward to next year’s birthday.