‘It had to be done’ New Albin’s Ray Mulholland looks back

Ray "Bear" Mulholland and his dog, Little Bear, at home in New Albin. Photo by Mike Butler, courtesy of Iowa Outdoors

Editor’s note: The following article originally appeared in the January/February 2012 issue of the Iowa Outdoors magazine. It is being reprinted with the expressed permission of the staff members of Iowa Outdoors.

By Mike Butler

At 91, Ray Mulholland has seen the worst of Mother Nature in Iowa: calamitous flooding, destructive tornadoes, and fearsome blizzards. But Ray has more good memories than bad of a life lived mostly outdoors.

Old age has a way of bringing pleasant, not-so-extreme experiences to mind. Like that fine spring afternoon when a carefree kid on a bike raced up and down the brick streets of Lansing in Iowa’s northeast corner. Or that perfect, endless summer night when a rebellious teenager splashed in the shallows of the Mississippi River. And that brilliant autumn morning when a young man, profoundly humble and grateful after seeing the worst of human nature during World War II, walked among ancient effigy mounds.

Ray lives up to his nickname, “Bear,” physically and—sometimes in winter—emotionally. Unable to go outside much when the snow piles high, he growls and paces and stares out the windows of his comfortable New Albin home. A hefty slice of one of wife Bonnie’s homemade fruit pies—lard crust, of course, plus a scoop of ice cream—eases the cabin fever.

Flipping through the scrapbooks helps, too. Crammed full of personal snapshots and yellowed newspaper clippings, the albums trace the arc of Ray’s life in the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Army, and Iowa Fisheries. He scrambles down the hall to his bedroom to fetch the scrapbooks. Ray gets along fine with the help of a cane, but you can tell those 15 jumps he made as a paratrooper have taken a toll on his knees.

Rolling on the river

As with many members of the Greatest Generation, Ray knew money was scarce when he was growing up. But he never felt poor. His dad could always find work as a carpenter, but everything went to keep a roof over Ray’s head and those of his eight brothers and one sister.

During Prohibition, certain entrepreneurs would pay Ray and his friends a nickel for any whiskey bottles they found that had been thrown into the river or roadside ditches. Ray could also make 50 cents a week or so selling freshwater mussel shells to the Lansing Button Factory. (Several pearl button factories sprouted and boomed on the banks of the Mississippi River in Iowa early in the 20th century. Before then, most buttons used in America had to be imported.) “You could see right through the water in those days,” Ray recalls. “We called it pollywogging.”

When Ray graduated high school in 1938, the Great Depression droned on and there simply were no jobs to be had for young men. Fortunately, the CCC, begun in 1933 by Franklin Roosevelt, was going gangbusters. Ray signed up for a six-month term at the McGregor Camp that fall and liked it so much he re-enlisted for three more.

“That was the good life,” says Ray. “We made $30 a month and sent $20 home.” Plenty of money, considering that a movie in town on Saturday night cost 10 cents. It cost another dime to treat a girl you were sweet on to ice cream. “I’ll never forget the first meal I had in the Corps,” Ray says. “We had pork chops. I didn’t hardly know what a pork chop was. We ate real good and slept real good.”

Ray spent his days on a survey crew, crucial to the work that followed: cutting trails and constructing the beautiful stone buildings that still sparkle like jewels in many Iowa state parks. (Iowa had 49 CCC camps at the height of the program, with about 200 men in each camp.) But “conservation” was the project’s middle name, and some of the most important work consisted of planting trees, controlling flooding, and preventing soil erosion by helping farmers create contours and terraces.

“Roosevelt’s Tree Army” ran with military precision and this had an unintended benefit for a nation on the eve of World War II. The 2.5 to three million men who had passed through the CCC were physically fit, accustomed to following orders, used to hard work outdoors and versed in working together for a common purpose.

Over there

A stint working inside the Lansing Button Factory after leaving the CCC temporarily clogged Ray’s lungs with dust. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Ray volunteered for the Air Force, but doctors mistakenly thought he might have tuberculosis. Drafted a few months later, Ray stood before a beleaguered Army induction doctor who wasn’t going to send a ruddy, strapping Irish kid from Iowa anywhere other than boot camp.

Ray and every other G.I. assigned to the 101st Airborne was on a rendezvous with destiny. Some units played critical roles in the D-Day invasion. Others, including Ray’s battalion, distinguished themselves in the Battle of the Bulge.

Fittingly, the Screaming Eagles were also there in Berchtesgaden to secure Hitler’s “Eagles Nest” and end the war in Europe. The division’s exploits were celebrated in the classic films “The Longest Day” and “A Bridge Too Far.” A new generation of Americans came to know Easy Company, of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, through Stephen Ambrose’s book “Band of Brothers” and the HBO miniseries of the same name.

In December 1944, 101st soldiers were put squarely in the way of the Germans’ last-chance Ardennes offensive and took heavy casualties defending the strategic city of Bastogne, Belgium, in the days leading up to Christmas. They endured withering artillery fire in bitter cold, snow and fog, which prevented planes and gliders from providing support and dropping supplies. It was eight divisions against one.

The Germans, who had surrounded the town, had so much of an upper hand that they demanded surrender. To that, acting 101st commander General Anthony McAuliffe famously replied: “Nuts!” The Germans came back with a grim, four-letter word of their own: “Fire!”

As the day before Christmas Eve dawned, skies finally cleared and much-needed ammo and rations dropped out of the sky. Reinvigorated, the 101st began turning the tables. Then, the day after Christmas, elements of General Patton’s 3rd Army shot their way into town and broke the enemy ring for good. “Seeing all those dead friends on Christmas Day—that was the worst of it,” says Ray.

Although the siege of Bastogne was over, the Battle of the Bulge raged on.

PFC Ray Mulholland’s duty as a forward observer in the 377th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion was to sneak up on the enemy and radio back so gunners could accurately fire against Panzer tanks. On a hellish Jan. 3, Ray was doing just that when his batteries fizzled. He had already seen his lieutenant shot dead. He wasn’t sure where his sergeant was with the other radio—or if he was dead, too. Ray knew where he could get fresh batteries, but it would require a sprint of more than 100 yards across fire-swept terrain in full view of the enemy. Dodging tank, mortar, machine-gun and small-arms fire, he snatched the batteries and returned unscathed to his position. Incredibly, his microphone then went on the fritz, requiring Ray to repeat the mad dash. He earned a Bronze Star for his bravery that day. “I was pretty scared, to tell you the truth, but it had to be done.”

Home again on the river

Newsreels at war’s end often contained flickering scenes of exuberant G.I.s from Europe and the Pacific kneeling and kissing the ground as they landed on home shores. Ray sympathized with that sentiment, especially when he saw his beloved river again. How reassuring it was to ascend the bluff in Pikes Peak State Park, on a trail he helped build, and see the Wisconsin River pouring into the Mississippi. Fishing  and duck hunting helped Ray orient himself and put the war behind. So did hiking the mounds and forested overlooks soon to become Effigy Mounds National Monument in 1949.

Ray says he felt lucky to land a job at the Lansing Fish Station in 1947. They were going to pay him good money—a fortune compared to the CCC and Army—for working outside and fishing? Managed by the Iowa Conservation Commission, forerunner of the DNR, the busy Lansing station hatched and delivered millions of northern pike and walleye to lakes all over the state until the unit closed in the early ’70s.

Every cold and blustery March, right after ice out on the river, Ray and his four fellow “river rats” pulled up 50 nets a day full of spawning fish. The men usually ate a quick lunch on shore around a campfire. Working from wooden launches made by a boatwright in Lansing, the crew also netted catfish, crappie and bluegill needed for myriad state lakes and streams every season. Ray says they often dumped truckloads of bullheads into city park ponds too, much to the delight of youngsters just discovering the joy of fishing.

Although Lock and Dam 9 below Lansing relieved most of the annual flooding, there were still some years when great schools of fish needed to be rescued after high waters receded. Another small but important job of the Lansing station for many years: stock those very popular aquariums at the state fair pavilion. Ray says the pace slowed in late fall and winter. He and the others mended and knitted new nets by hand in the hatchery “dungeon.”

“We had some good times,” says Les Stahl, who worked with Ray in the ’50s and ’60s and became a close friend. “I could kind of tell he’d seen a lot of bad stuff in the war, but he kept quiet about it. Most guys did. We hunted a lot together. Ray was a pretty fair shot.”

Ray might be thinking about ducks and pheasants now as finches and sparrows attack the feeder outside. One of his living room walls is devoted entirely to World War II: photos, citations and souvenirs. It’s an impressive display. He suddenly heads back to the bedroom and returns with the service award the fisheries staff gave him when he retired after 35 years. The simple plaque is one of the first and last things he sees each day. He beams.

“I think being outside all my life helped me live this long. I loved it. I’ve been really lucky.”