Raymond Raiche is unique in more than a few ways.
For starters, the 93-year-old Woonsocket native and longtime Warwick resident only stopped cutting his own grass this year. He still drives his car and still keeps in shape at Healthtrax.
He adores his wife of more than 70 years, Annette, with whom he still lives at the home where they raised their family in the Governor Francis neighborhood - a home that he purchased for $12,500 and was recently assessed at $231,000.
But perhaps the most unique and timely fact about Raiche is that he is one of only a few remaining veterans of World War II who can say that they were there in person to witness both the D-Day invasion of France and the capturing of Iwo Jima in the Pacific.
Raiche joined the Navy before he was 18. He remembers being turned away at first because Rhode Island had such an influx of volunteers. He said the only men who didn’t sign up, to his recollection, were those who physically couldn’t do it.
During the war, Raiche manned the radar system of the LSM (Landing Ship Medium) 145 vessel for the U.S. Navy Amphibious Force, responsible for ensuring that the ship was in clear enough waters to drop anchor and provide support to the landing forces of both major battles. He said that there were only three such ships that operated at both operations, and his own sustained damage during D-Day.
He remembers both days vividly, from the tasks he carried out to the terrible images of seeing wounded Marines being hauled from Iwo Jima - some already dead - to a medical ship that was tethered to his own. He also participated in the transfer of Japanese POWs from the island back to Japan in the waning days of the war. He recalls tying a tourniquet on a friend of his who had a foot blown off by enemy fire when he put himself into a vulnerable position.
“All for a cigarette,” he lamented. He never figured out what happened to his friend after he was transported away for treatment. He also doesn’t smoke.
He remembered small details about his time on the ship, like starting a kind of business charging the officers and fellow shipmates to do their laundry. He recalled sometimes having to use seawater for the job, which he remembered made the clothes smell terrible and resulted in a salty residue in the machines he then had to clean. His shipmates called him “Frenchie” due to his ability to speak French, a product of his upbringing by two native French Canadians.
After seeing the famous moment of the flag being raised over Iwo Jima from his position on the ship - which signified the U.S. gaining a crucial strategic foothold in the Pacific, ultimately leading to the end of the war - Raiche was unsure at the time if he’d have to be included in an invasion of Japan.
Ultimately, it didn’t go that way, and Raiche found out the war had ended during a stay back in California. He remembers the chaotically happy celebration that happened in San Francisco like it was yesterday.
“I was taking a shower, shaving, and all of the sudden there were these loud sirens. It said the gates would be closing in a half hour and nobody would be allowed out,” he recalled. “So, I got dressed quickly and made my way into the city. People were really celebrating.”
He remembered seeing two overjoyed women, stark naked, dancing in a public fountain.
“That was the first time I ever saw a naked woman,” he said.
After the war, Raiche moved to Warwick in 1956. He went to business college and then went into the shoe business, managing two shoe stores until his retirement in 1990. But it wasn’t a full retirement. He started working for his son-in-law’s business, Carpet Cleaning Experts, and only recently did he finally stop working for good.
Now he finds importance in cataloguing as much information about Iwo Jima and the war as possible. He has filled 22 large albums with newspaper and magazine clippings, photos and other pieces of history. And while remembering the past conflicts is important to him, Raiche said he had a different hope for the future.
“I just hope they end all wars,” he said.
While Raiche is among a very rare breed of veterans, he is not alone. He will be marching in the Bristol Fourth of July Parade today with three fellow Iwo Jima veterans - aged 95, 96 and 97, respectively.
“I’m the youngest,” he said with a smile.
As for the secret for his continuing vitality and mental fortitude, Raiche was up front.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “Not chasing other women and not being a drunkard.”
Still, if there was ever an occasion to indulge in a glass of wine, as he likes to do every once and a while, it would be on a day when the country celebrates its most crucial historic moments, and the brave men and women - like Ray - who helped ensure our future by putting themselves second, and the good of their country, and the world at large, first.