Ray Friend was 30 feet away from one of the explosions that went off on the U.S.S. Enterprise on Jan. 14, 1969. Twenty-eight people died and 314 were injured in the blasts, and Friend—who was a designated shipboard firefighter/damage control man in the Navy—saw some of his fellow comrades die right in front of him.
Friend, 70, doesn’t remember too much else about the event—a result of a likely concussion, he says—but he was awarded a Navy commendation for carrying four to five people back to battle control stations to receive medical help.
“I got knocked down a couple of times from the blasts,” says Friend, referring to the explosions that occurred after a rocket that was attached to the aircraft detonated. “I’m assuming I had a mild concussion of some sort and blanked out. When it was all over, I had no shoes and no hair.”
For veterans like Friend, Memorial Day is a time for reflection. Friend, 70, was in the Navy from 1965 to 1970, serving on the Enterprise for four years. After his service was over, Friend worked at PG&E for 43 years before retiring in 2014. Friend keeps himself busy—he’s served on the Hollister City Council since 2008, is the commander of American Legion Post 69 and is a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S.
“It’s one of those days when you have a lump in your throat,” says Friend, who will be spending a good portion of his day at the Veterans Memorial Building for Hollister’s annual Memorial Day memorial service.
“When the honor guard raises the flag, you get a little choked up. During the ceremonies, it’s really quiet and emotional. I think about the guys we lost—some of them were 19, 20 years old and never got to see the rest of their life. That’s when it strikes me the hardest. As vets, we do what we do for the guys who are no longer here with us.”
After the Memorial Day service, Friend will gather with other veterans for a barbecue, where “we’ll share stories and have a good time.” He’ll also spend time with his two daughters, Brandy and Crystal, and their respective families. Friend literally owes his life to the Navy, because without it, he says he would’ve ended up in jail. Growing up Friend got in a lot of fights, so much so that he was brought before a judge a couple of times.
“The second time (I had a hearing) the judge said, ‘You know, I’ll give you an opportunity to change your life path. You can be a guest of the state (juvenile detention center) for six months or fulfill military obligations,’” Friend said.
Friend’s dad, Mel, was with his son at the hearing. Mel, who is now deceased, piloted B-17 planes in World War II.
“My dad says, ‘Your honor, he’ll be in the Navy by the end of the day,’” Friend said. “It was one of those things that I hated at the time, but it was one of the best things that ever happened to me.”
Indeed, Friend said being in the Navy helped him mature, and just as important, kept him out of trouble.
“When I was in high school, I was ready to fight in a drop of a hat,” he says. “I even got in a fight on the bus to the Navy base. I was one of those kids who didn’t want anyone telling me what to do. The Navy breaks those habits real quick.”
Since Friend is involved with American Legion and the VFW, he’s always helping out fellow vets in tangible ways. Whether it’s the American Legion rides that help raise money for vets or transporting them to places they normally can’t get to, Friend befriends his fellow vets. Friend said the Memorial Day weekend conjures up a wide range of emotions.
He’ll reflect on how the Navy turned him from a troubled teen to a responsible adult, and the community he had serving aboard the Enterprise. The scars from the explosion on the Enterprise are never far away, and it makes him ponder sometimes why he didn’t suffer the same fate as the 28 other sailors who were killed.
In the end, Friend honors all of the men and women who have died in military service, knowing they gave up their lives for this nation.