Trees stood bare, stripped of bark and leaves. Trucks, tanks and soldiers had carved deep ruts into the earth.
So much land destroyed, thought Navy Quartermaster 2nd Class Richard Gray. He realized then, looking out at the battle bruised island of Okinawa, that this is what happens in war. This is how bad it really is, how many innocent people suffer from decisions made by others.
While he would eventually leave, returning to his wide and open ranch land in Wyoming, the villagers here would stay, piecing their island back together.
Gray knew about land. He grew up on a ranch his father homesteaded and understood the connection between land and those who worked it.
He wanted to join the Navy, rather than be drafted into the Army. He didn't think his bad knee, injured playing basketball, could take all that marching. But he was so young, the Navy office told him he needed his dad's permission. But his dad wouldn't sign the papers -- not until after haying season.
Gray finally enlisted the day he turned 17. He was made a quartermaster and signalman on a small, 15-person ship called an LCT -- Landing Craft Tank. It traveled in three pieces on the top of a bigger ship, the LST. It was assembled on-site, ferrying goods and people between beaches and the ships waiting offshore.
He shipped out from New Orleans on July 4, 1944. He drew the night shift on the way to Cuba, and stood in the crow's nest during the roughest seas of his life. He landed in Hawaii, trained on the ship, and left again on New Year's Day, 1945.
The sailors island hopped through the Pacific and the Philippines. Loaded with Marines, they pulled up to Iwo Jima on Feb. 19 -- the first day of what would become one on of the fiercest battles of the Pacific Campaign.
Marines poured off Gray's ship to storm the beaches, just to return 30 minutes later, wounded or killed.
"It made you turn white sometimes. You got acquainted with them and as soon as they went out there, you knew they were in trouble."
Japanese fighters bombed the ships every night. Generally, they targeted bigger ones, but sailors were always on alert as hundreds of American ships moved through the water like chess pieces.
The battle of Iwo Jima waged for 35 days. On the fifth day, Feb. 23, five Marines and one Navy Corpsman climbed Mount Suribachi with an American flag. Using pipe they found on the mountain, they hoisted it over their heads, letting it blow in the wind. Photographer Joe Rosenthal snapped the picture that would become one of the most recognizable images of the war. (It was actually the second flag to be raised on the mountain. The first, a smaller flag, was taken down as a souvenir for a Navy officer.)
Gray and nearly everyone aboard watched from the ship. They thought they'd won the war.
But there was plenty of war left. Gray's ship sailed to Guam and the Philippines, finally headed for Okinawa and another beach invasion. His crew assembled their little LCT and ferried supplies from bigger ships to the beach.
"You didn't know what would happen. You just pulled up and hoped for the best."
On the first night, loaded down with 5- to 10-gallon barrels of gasoline, the rough seas hit their boat, knocking it to the side and beating it against shore. Gas went everywhere and Gray knew it could explode. The crew managed to straighten out and leave before a catastrophe. But as they were leaving, Gray looked into the water and watched dead Japanese soldiers float around the ship.
After three months, most of the fighting ended on Okinawa. Gray's LCT stayed in the Pacific, the seamen repairing damage to the boat and preparing to invade Japan. Then, on Aug. 6, 1945, the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb.
Gray still struggles with it. Dropping the bomb meant he would go home. And it saved thousands of lives, both American and Japanese, that would have surely been lost in an invasion. But, so many civilians died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Entire cities demolished.
He's just not sure.
Gray stayed on the ocean for five more months; he survived five typhoons, pointing the ship into the storm with all three engines roaring. When they came with warnings, he and his crew could find relief by motoring up rivers in the war-torn island jungles. There they'd see Japanese soldiers and civilians, trying to escape the same typhoons.
As he left for Wyoming in January 1946, he knew they'd remain, restoring the lands the war had destroyed.
On a 30-day leave, he married Betty Macy, a farm girl from Moorcroft. He was under 21, so he had to call his dad to ask for permission one more time.
He went to the University of Wyoming, earned a degree in animal production and returned to the high, dry desert he knew. He and his wife moved to her parents' land to raise cattle.
Gray wouldn't be satisfied just by ranching. He wanted to do more. In Moorcroft, he met a man running a program called On the Farm Training for Veterans. They formed a conservation district and Gray taught other ranchers about range management, building terraces and staking reservoirs. He met good people, he said, and passed along his passion for the earth.
A couple of years, Gray told his wife, then he would stay and work at home. He retired nearly 30 years later.
The couple still runs the ranch. At 85, Gray keeps busy moving cattle and bragging about his four sons. One of them lives near him now, and they work the land together.
Quartermaster 2nd Class Richard Gray
Ship: A small Naval landing craft tank, the LCT 689
War fronts: Participated in the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, ferrying people and supplies between the beach and the ships off-shore.
Family: Married with four sons, 11 grandkids and 11 great-grandkids
His words: "The sad part of it was that even the soldiers weren't the bad people. It was the government who brainwashed them. It was unnecessary death and destruction."