Category Archives: Uncle Ray

Hell in the Pacific

Readers of Jim’s Bike Blog may have noticed that I have dedicated a page to my Uncle Ray.

Uncle Ray

Uncle Ray

An unexpected bequest from Ray, who died at age 87 on Dec. 1, 2007, helped finance my 2009 bicycle ride across the United States.
Ray, who was my godfather, and his two younger brothers, Larry and Harold (“Hally”), were Marines who fought in the Pacific War at such places as Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Iwo Jima and Saipan.
Uncle Larry

Uncle Larry

That is what prompted this blog post.
Last weekend, my wife and I visited for the first time the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas.
Uncle Hally

Uncle Hally

The museum is there because Fredericksburg, in the Texas Hill Country, was the hometown of Fleet Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, who ran the Pacific War.
Statue of Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz at the National Museum of the Pacific War

Statue of Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz at the National Museum of the Pacific War

I was particularly interested in any information or displays on the Marines’ island-hopping campaign in the war against Japan, especially the Battle of Tarawa, one of the hellholes where Ray fought.

Tarawa, an atoll in the Gilbert Islands, was important because it had an airstrip that the Allies needed to launch bombing missions against the Japanese.
Tarawa was so heavily defended that Japanese Adm. Keiji Shibasaki boasted: “It will take 1 million men 100 years to conquer Tarawa.”
But Marines of the 2nd Marine Division took the atoll in four days of hellish fighting, Nov. 20-23, 1943. Here is a video of the museum’s summary of the battle.

Exhibit on Tarawa landing, National Museum of the Pacific War, Fredericksburg, Texas

Exhibit on Tarawa landing, National Museum of the Pacific War, Fredericksburg, Texas

We also visited the museum’s gift shop, where I found a book called Tarawa: The story of a battle, a reprint of an account published in 1944 by Robert Sherrod, a Time-Life correspondent who went into Tarawa with the first wave of Marines, as did Uncle Ray.
%22Tarawa - The story of a battle,%22 by Robert Sherrod, 1944Among the photographs in the book was one that was shot the evening before D-Day on the deck of a transport ship. It pictures Marines kneeling on the deck as a Roman Catholic chaplain says Mass. There, among his fellow Marines, is Uncle Ray. I wonder what thoughts were racing through his head at that time, a half a world away from South St. Louis where he came of age.
"Battle-clad Marines kneel in prayer before the Tarawa landing," from the book "Tarawa - The story of a battle," by Robert Sherrod, first published in 1944

“Battle-clad Marines kneel in prayer before the Tarawa landing,” from the book “Tarawa – The story of a battle,” by Robert Sherrod, first published in 1944

The outdoor part of the museum complex features a Memorial Wall, limestone walls embedded with metal plaques commemorating individuals, units and ships that took part in the Pacific War.
The plaques are made possible mostly by family members who wish to honor the service of their relatives.
In my mind’s eye, I see a plaque with images of my three uncles and a headline that says something like: “The fighting Sieve brothers of South St. Louis.”
It seems that I have a project in my future.



Filed under Americana, Cool stuff, History, Texana, Travels, Uncle Ray

The pull of the river

“To one who resides beside a river, its restless flowing can be as compelling as an eddy is for a piece of driftwood. A moving stream awakens the nomad in us. Its waters flow, as a riverboat captain once said, ‘out of the mystery above, into the mystery below.’ Who can watch the Mississippi without feeling the pull?”
— Norah Deakin Davis, preface to The Father of Waters: A Mississippi River Chronicle, 1982

Gateway Arch

As one who resided beside the Mississippi from birth into early adulthood, I can testify to the powerful allure of the Big River. As a kid, I fantasized about rafting down the river like Huck and Jim. Later, I saw that “strong brown god,” as T.S. Eliot called it, as a magic carpet that could transport a traveler far from my hometown, Alton, Ill., downriver to such exotic places as Memphis and New Orleans, and from there to the ports of all the seven seas.
I still travel frequently to Alton, perched on limestone bluffs a few miles upstream from St. Louis. I’ve bicycled down the river from Minneapolis to St. Louis and have frequented the bike trails along its banks in the Alton-St. Louis area.
But until this fall, I had never ridden a relatively new section of trail that allows a cyclist to travel from Alton to the Gateway Arch in downtown St. Louis — a round trip of about 60 miles from my sister’s house in north Alton.
The newest portion of the route is the Riverfront Trail on the Missouri side of the river — 11 miles from the Missouri side of the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge to the waterfront in downtown St. Louis.
Planning for the Riverfront Trail began in 1987 and the first portion opened in 1999. But not until 2005 did the final segment open: the link between the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge and North Riverfront Park.
I had ridden several times from Alton, along trail and levee service road, and crossed the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge into Missouri. But I had turned around and headed back because I would have had to ride along busy Riverfront Boulevard, heavy with truck traffic, to get to downtown St. Louis.
With completion of the Riverfront Trail, you can now ride through a panorama of American history at one of the world’s great crossroads: Just upriver from Alton, at Grafton, the Mississippi is joined by the Illinois River, which brought French explorers to the Mississippi from the Great Lakes. Just downriver, between Alton and St. Louis, is the confluence of the Mississippi and the Missouri, which opened the Louisiana Purchase to waves of westward migration.
Along a paved trail just downriver from downtown Alton is the National Great Rivers Museum at the Melvin Price Locks and Dam. The museum, like the locks and dam, is operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It provides an overview of the lay of the land and water of America’s most important river system, its flora and fauna and the history of human habitation.

Barge traffic on Chain of Rocks Canal

A few miles further down the trail near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri is the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, a fine museum on the Corps of Discovery’s expedition up the Missouri led by Capts. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark; a recreation of Camp DuBois, the fort where the Corps spent the winter of 1803-1804 before embarking May 14, 1804, on their exploration of the newly acquired Louisiana Territory; and the newly opened Confluence Tower, which affords a panoramic view of the meeting of the great rivers from a 150-foot-tall vantage point.
All along the Illinois side of the river, beginning just south of Alton, is a flood plain encompassing about 175 square miles, a region of extremely fertile farmland felicitously called the Great American Bottom.
“This soil cannot be surpassed in fertility by any land upon the globe,” traveler Richard Lee Mason wrote in 1819. “Eighty and one hundred bushels of corn to the acre are common crops without any labor except that which is necessary for planting. This, in truth, is the promised land — the land that flows with milk and honey.”
Still on the Illinois side of the Mississippi, a section of service road atop the levee passes along the Chain of Rocks Canal to the Illinois end of the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge, a cycling and pedestrian path across the Mississippi into Missouri.
The Chain of Rocks Canal, excavated by the Army Corps of Engineers and opened Feb. 7, 1953, diverts river traffic around a series of rocky shoals across the Mississippi just upriver from St. Louis. At the southern end of the canal is Lock No. 27, the last of series of locks and dams that maintain a navigational channel at a minimum depth of nine feet from St. Paul, Minn., to St. Louis. Below the Chain of Rocks Canal, the river flows unfettered by locks and dams to the Gulf of Mexico.
The Old Chain of Rocks Bridge was once the Mississippi River crossing for old Route 66, which, as the song says, “winds from Chicago to LA, more than 2,000 miles all the way.” Built in 1929 and closed in 1967 to motor traffic, the old Chain of Rocks Bridge is now a span for cyclists and pedestrians.
The bridge, fitted with such Route 66 memorabilia as road and motel signs and a vintage Texaco gas pump, offers a view of turbulent water rushing over the rocky ledges, two castle-like structures in the river just below the bridge that are intake towers for a St. Louis municipal water-treatment plant just downstream and the skyline of the city on the southern horizon.
The remaining 11 miles of the trail, including the newest parts, take a rider along the river through Riverview Park and then along the flood wall — sometimes inside and sometimes on the river side. It passes through the industrial northern edge of downtown, past the clatter and clutter of a scrap metal resalvage yard, rusting, derelict barges moored at bankside and a shantytown of ramshackle dwellings occupied by homeless people. The trail ends at the old Laclede Power Plant, built to supply electricity to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, and now set for renovation as offices and as the St. Louis gateway to the trail upriver.
A poem by Jane Ellen Ibur, “Song of the Mississippi,” muralized on the flood wall, well describes this section of the trail: “Recalling time before man, I marvel at my landscape pocked with cement pilings, steel beams, factories belching soot that sinks to silt on my floor, stench of industry, erosion on my banks, tangled iron rods, broken-glass embedded.”
From the Laclede Power Plant, it’s a short ride south on Lewis and Commercial streets, past the old SS Admiral, a five-deck, Art Deco-style excursion steamer in her mid-century heyday, later a casino and now awaiting a new role — or the scrap yard.
Then it’s under the Eads Bridge, completed in 1874 as the city’s first span across the Mississippi, to a 91-acre green swath that’s home to the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, otherwise known as the Gateway Arch.
The arch, one of America’s iconic structures like the Washington Monument, Statue of Liberty, Golden Gate Bridge and the Empire State Building, was built in the 1960s to commemorate St. Louis’s role as the gateway of western expansion.
Designed by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen in 1947 and finished in 1965, the tapered curve of stainless steel soars to a height of 630 feet, the tallest memorial in the United States. At the base, the legs are 54 feet wide, narrowing to 17 feet at the top.
After a lunch of power bars and bananas, as I watched the tourists gaping at this modern American wonder and listened to Dixieland jazz wafting from a loudspeaker for an excursion company along the levee, I hopped back on the bike and headed back up the trail to Alton — a southerly wind at my back.
A long bicycle ride through familiar terrain, whose features and landmarks rekindle memories from childhood and adolsescence, affords ample time to ponder such things as “roots” — the place where you were born and the people you grew up with, a place that you’re continually drawn to even though you’ll probably never live there again.
I have a friend who feels most at home on the treeless plains of West Texas. Others prefer the mountains or a rock-bound sea coast. For me, it’s the Mississippi River, in all it’s moods, as it rolls inexorably to the sea.
Many songs have been written about the Mississippi. But one by Jimmie Rodgers from 1929, “Mississippi River Blues,” sums up pretty well the pull of the river on those who once lived beside it:
Oh you Mississippi River, with waters so deep and wide.
My thoughts of you keep risin’, just like an evening tide.
I’m just like a seagull that’s left the sea
Oh, your muddy waters keep on callin’ me.


Filed under History, Journeys, Literary musings, Travels, Uncle Ray

They’re all gone now

“Casualties many; Percentage of dead not known; Combat efficiency; we are winning.”
— Marine Col. David M. Shoup, battle report from Tarawa, Nov. 21, 1943

A tribute on this Memorial Day to three brothers — Ray, Larry and Harold (Hally) Sieve — who fought in such Pacific hellholes as Guadalcanal, Tarawa and Saipan during the Marines’ island-hopping campaign to Japan in World War II.

Ray Sieve

Ray landed with the 2nd Marine Division at Tarawa, where four Marines were awarded the Medal of Honor. Shoup, commander of the 2nd Marines, was the only one of the four Medal of Honor recipients to survive the four-day battle for the tiny atoll in the Gilbert Islands, but he was wounded in the assault.

Larry Sieve

All of the Sieve brothers survived their hell in the Pacific and came home to St. Louis to build lives and families.
They were my uncles — my mother’s brothers.
Ray was my godfather.
They’re all gone now. RIP.


Filed under Americana, History, Uncle Ray

The Uncle Ray Memorial Bike Ride

Uncle Ray with pipeI wrote in an April 23 post, “Thank you, Uncle Ray!”, that a timely, unexpected bequest from my late godfather and uncle, Ray Sieve, is helping to finance my planned bicycle ride across America.
A few more words are needed:
Raymond John Sieve died at age 87 in a nursing home in a St. Louis suburb on Dec. 1, 2007. He was the second-oldest of my mother’s four younger brothers: Clarence (Corky), Ray, Larry and Harold (Hally).
They were city boys from a German neighborhood of south St. Louis called “Dutchtown,” where the residents had names like Kleekamp, Straatmann and Eichelberger, and the streets were named for states or Indian tribes — as in Virginia and Meramec, an intersection a short walk from the Sieve homestead at 3920 Virginia Ave.
But the Sieves had roots in the country. The first Sieve, Heinrich Herman, arrived from Cincinnati in 1866 and settled in the rolling foothills of the Ozarks in the Franklin County hamlet of Moselle, Mo., about 60 miles southwest of St. Louis. Sieve relatives still live in the area.
Uncle Ray SieveRay and two of his brothers, Larry and Hally, enlisted in the Marines during World War II and fought in such Pacific hellholes as Guadalcanal, Tarawa and Saipan. Corky, as the oldest, had to stay home to help support the fatherless family (their father, my grandfather, Henry Sieve, died in 1925 after his ice truck rolled over near Union, Mo., when my mother and uncles were children).
Ray was somewhere in the Pacific on the Marines’ island-hopping campaign to Japan when I was born in 1942. He was my godfather by proxy at my christening. But I met him for the first time on Dec. 6, 1944, when my mother, Virginia, took me to Union Station in St. Louis along with Ray’s girlfriend, Jeanne Duffy, to meet a special furlough train that brought Ray, a 24-year-old sergeant, and 10 other St. Louis-area Marines home from the war. “At the station to greet him was a two-year-old nephew, Jimmy Piper of Alton, born during Sgt. Sieve’s absence,” said a Dec. 8 St. Louis Post-Dispatch story, which misspelled my last name.
As his first-born nephew, or niece, I guess I enjoyed a short-lived special status. And Uncle Ray showered me with gifts as a child — a baseball glove, a football, a basketball — long before I was able to use them.
From late childhood to budding adolescence, I spent time every summer at a fishing cabin — known in the family as “the clubhouse” — that Corky and Ray kept on the banks of the Bourbeuse River, a tributary of the Meremac, on a bottomland farm run by my Great Uncle George Sieve, his wife, Tante (Aunt) Dina, and their son Jake.
As surrogate fathers, my uncles taught me how to do things that I never saw my own father do: shoot a .22 rifle; hunt squirrels; set and tend a trot line; gut, scale and fillet a fish; drive a 1950 John Deere tractor; build a wooden rowboat for use on the river; tie a thread to the leg of a June bug and fly it around like a tiny motorized kite; and hypnotize a chicken.
Uncle Ray, who always had at hand a pipe and a leather tobacco pouch, was a blue-collar guy, a steam-fitter/pipe-fitter like my dad. After the war, he went to work for the Shell Oil Co. refinery in Wood River, Ill., across the Mississippi from St. Louis, and worked there until he retired.
Ray and Jeanne, who married shortly after the war, never had any children. But they always had dogs, who would appear on their annual Christmas cards bedecked in bows and Santa hats. The one I remember best from childhood was a black-and-white cocker spaniel named Sparky.
Jeanne died in 2001 and Ray eventually went into a nursing home. After the move out of his house, the nieces closest to him in his last years salvaged some mementos and passed them out to their cousins. I got a 1940s vintage floor fan, which will be a thing of surpassing beauty when I’ve finished restoring it, and a handsome Westclox electric clock that sits beside my computer, a daily reminder of Uncle Ray.
The fan and clock were fine remembrances, and all I expected. But last year, as I was planning this bike ride, I received a check for a substantial sum from Uncle Ray’s estate. I learned from one of my sisters that all of Ray’s nephews and nieces — 35 on our side of the family alone (Larry and Hally were particularly prolific) — received the same amount.
So in gratitude for all that Uncle Ray and his brothers taught me as I was growing up, and for Ray’s generosity to his nieces and nephews after his death, I believe I’ll call this transcontinental journey “The Uncle Ray Memorial Bicycle Ride Across America.”


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Thank you, Uncle Ray!


A timely, unexpected bequest from my late godfather and uncle, Ray Sieve, is helping to finance my planned bicycle ride across America.
Thank you, Uncle Ray, for your generosity to me and your many other nieces and nephews and for helping me live a dream.

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