What Every Historian Dreads

tags: MacArthur

Walter R. Borneman’s books include MacArthur at War: World War II in the Pacific.

Upon publishing a new book, non-fiction authors await with trepidation the first email that points out an error of fact. Sometimes, such missives arrive with lightning speed. Within a week of publishing MacArthur at War: World War II in the Pacific a sender wrote that my book had been brought to her attention because of her father’s association with General MacArthur. The problem was that her father’s name was Herbert James Ray, not “Harold G. Ray,” as I had reported. “Our family is very proud of our father,” his daughter concluded, “and would like to ask if some correction might be possible.”

That seemed the least I could do, but had I really made such an error in the first place? I searched my sources and “Captain Harold G. Ray” reassuringly popped up in predictable and seemingly trustworthy places: D. Clayton James’s three-volume biography of MacArthur, the official U.S. Army history of the war, and MacArthur’s own Reminiscences. A host of secondary sources mentioned “Harold G. Ray” and “Capt. Ray” appeared on the manifest for PT-41, one of four motor torpedo boats to leave Manila Bay on the night of March 11, 1942 and the one on which MacArthur, his wife, and four-year-old son escaped the Philippines.

I had not explored “Harold G. Ray’s” career before or after the famous PT boat ride nor, it seems, had many others. Ray appeared to be one of those individuals who flirted with a famous event and then dropped into anonymity. This was confirmed when an Internet search yielded little more than references tagged to the above sources. Searching for Herbert James Ray was quite another matter.

Herbert James Ray was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on February 1, 1893. He graduated from the United States Naval Academy with the class of 1914 and served on battleships before doing duty in submarines during World War I. After the war, Ray alternated sea duty with a teaching stint at Annapolis. My correspondent was born while her father was assigned to shore duty in Washington, DC. A second tour at Annapolis, a year at the Naval War College, and service as executive officer of the cruiser Quincy followed.

By 1941, “Jimmy” Ray, as he had been called since his midshipman days at Annapolis, was chief of staff to the commandant of the Sixteenth Naval District, then encompassing the Philippines. Months later, Ray hunkered down on Corregidor with MacArthur’s headquarters as Japanese invaders overran the islands.

When President Roosevelt ordered MacArthur to escape to Australia, Ray was responsible for planning the seaborne operation. Then, he joined other members of MacArthur’s immediate staff as they took their assigned places on the PT-boats. Inexplicably, “Capt. Ray” was subsequently recorded as “Harold G. Ray” and that error came to be repeated in numerous secondary sources.

The real Captain Herbert James Ray arrived in Mindanao on MacArthur’s PT-boat and flew on to Australia with him. He served in MacArthur’s headquarters before reporting stateside to work in Washington. By the fall of 1943, Ray was back in the Pacific as captain of the battleship Maryland, a Pearl Harbor survivor destined to be in the thick of the battles of Tarawa, Saipan, and MacArthur’s return to the Philippines.

In the early hours of October 25, 1944, Maryland was one of the battleships that plugged the passage at Surigao Strait and thwarted Japan’s multi-pronged attempt to destroy MacArthur’s beachhead in Leyte Gulf. This proved to be the last great clash of battleships. For his capable direction, Ray was awarded his second silver star. He was promoted to rear admiral upon his retirement in 1949 and died in 1970.

Nothing in this account makes Captain Herbert James Ray a greater hero than he already was. He served with distinction in the grim days of MacArthur’s resistance, commanded a proud battleship off critical Pacific beachheads, and took part in the last great battleship encounter. But in some respects, his record of unstinting service is all the more reason that he be identified correctly in the annals of the Corregidor escape.

Among my most rewarding experiences writing World War II history are the friendships I have made among aging veterans and the selfless stories they have told. I can only smile at the photo of Captain Herbert James Ray. His cap is set at a jaunty angle, his kind yet rugged face is confident in its demeanor. I don’t know for certain, but like so many veterans, I sense that he would not have given second thought to the misstatements of his record. He knew what he had done and that was enough.

Still, I could not let his story rest. It is a caution for all historians of what happens when history gets it wrong. It reminds us to scrutinize the primary record and take no refuge in repetitious secondary sources no matter how voluminous. I salute Captain Herbert James Ray and have given him his due in the just-released paperback edition.