Battle haunts WWII vet

'I see those dead people . . . every day'

jwilkinson@thestate.comSeptember 15, 2008 

  • ABOUT THIS SERIES

    Each week between Aug. 31 and Veteran's Day, The State profiled a local veteran chosen to visit the National World War II Memorial on the Nov. 15 inaugural Honor Flight.

    Read more about the Honor Flight program

    Click on a name to go to each veteran's story

    • Nealy Sweat: It was just before dawn in March 1945 on the smoking, stinking, moon-like island of death that was Iwo Jima. Nealy Adolph Sweat of Summerville was carefully peeking over the rim of the shell crater that was keeping him alive when a shot cracked out.
    • Henry Austin Browder: Henry Austin Browder of West Columbia began World War II on horseback. Browder — a mechanic in a mechanized war — had never ridden a horse.
    • Mary Crum: Mary Crum still remembers that April day in 1945 when she and thousands of others gathered at Union Station in Columbia. It was Friday the 13th, by chance, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage the day before in Warm Springs, Ga.
    • William C. Wildman: The sky was black with flak over the Brenner Pass in the Italian Alps, the shells bursting like lethal popcorn all around the bobbing B-24 “Liberator” bomber piloted by William C. Wildman.
    • Thomas E. Grove: It was Jan. 5, 1945, and Pvt. Thomas E. Grove watched in horror as the massive German Panther tank slowly raised its long 88-mm cannon toward him.
    • Fred Andrew Shealy: It was midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1944, near the French-German border in Alsace, when the Nazis came down like howling ghosts, apparitions of death in white camouflage.
    • Solomon Bright: Solomon Bright felt the impact, but didn’t see the kamikaze slam into the bridge of destroyer escort USS Bowers as it cruised off Okinawa on April 16, 1945.
    • Irv Levine: Irv Levine didn’t think about the amulet until it was gone. His grandmother gave a kemeye, a cameo blessed by a rabbi, to each of her six grandsons who went off to war in 1941.
    • Fritz Gray: Fifty-two bodies — German or American, Fritz Gray couldn’t tell — lay frozen in a minefield.
    • Anna Bell “Wendy” Wendelburg Zeigler: Wendy Zeigler began work at 6:30 that December morning in 1944, in a sprawling Gothic hospital in Paris, to pandemonium, blood and screams.
    • Russell V. Meyne: Russell V. Meyne was sitting down to breakfast when he noticed, through the chow hall window, a fighter plane skimming the airfield about a quarter mile away.

    How to contribute: Call (803) 582-8826, go to honorflightsc.com, or send a check payable to South Carolina Guard Foundation Inc., 551 Granby Lane, Columbia, SC 29201-4655.

    Official Honor Flight homepage

    VIDEO

Fifty-two bodies — German or American, Fritz Gray couldn’t tell — lay frozen in a minefield.

They were there for five weeks in the winter of 1944 as Gray shivered in a foxhole in the shattered Hertgen Forest, on the German-Belgian border, during the Battle of the Bulge.

The sight has haunted Gray for 64 years.

“I see those dead people in front of my gun every day,” said Gray, 83. “They were lined up like football players in the snow.”

Pvt. Gray, a teenage draftee from Gadsden, was ill-prepared for the sight and has undergone therapy ever since. Even now, he attends monthly meetings for World War II veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Gray never has spoken publicly about his experiences.

“Until the past few years, he didn’t talk about it at all,” said his wife of 60 years, the former Pearl Abernathy.

Gray said the images are getting worse and, perhaps, a public airing will help exorcise them. “It’s manifesting itself more now than 10 years ago,” he said.

Gray is one of 100 veterans who will be on the inaugural Honor Flight to the nation’s capital Nov. 15 to visit the National World War II Memorial.

Local organizers hope to raise $300,000 to charter six flights to take 600 veterans to Washington for free. Priority will be given to veterans in ill health or those who have not seen the memorial.

Frederick D. “Fritz” Gray, son of a Gadsden farm family, was a reluctant warrior.

He was drafted in March 1943, when the United States — running out of soldiers — lowered the draft age to 18 from 21.

“They said, ‘I want you!’” Gray said from the living room of his neat home close to the Dorn Veterans Hospital, where he worked for 38 years.

Gray didn’t particularly want to go to war. In fact, he had never spent the night away from his parents until he was inducted in March 1943 at Fort Jackson. And he had only traveled outside of South Carolina once — on a family trip to Virginia Beach.

“The first couple of months were rough,” he said. “I was homesick. But there were other Carolina boys there like me. We were all in the same boat.”

Gray says death always made him queasy. He remembers as a child always getting a little sick and not being able to eat at a “set up,” an old Southern term for a home funeral.

Because he had learned to type at Lower Richland High School — a skill that served him well throughout his life — the Army made him a clerk.

He was assigned to the 269th Field Artillery Battalion at Fort Bragg. But Gray wasn’t taught to fire the battalion’s 240-mm “black dragon” howitzers — guns that could throw a 360-pound shell 17 miles. “I was a mail clerk,” he said.

In April 1944, Gray sailed to England on the Queen Elizabeth, a luxury liner that had been converted into a troopship. At D-Day plus 44 — July 20 — he crossed the English Channel and landed on Omaha Beach in France in a landing ship. His unit spent the next two weeks in the hedgerows shelling St. Lo.

That action marked the beginning of 10 months of continuous fighting. The battalion, at one time or another, supported every Allied army on the Western Front.

In December 1944, the farm boy-turned-clerk found himself manning a captured German artillery piece in the cauldron of the Ardennes.

“Our shelling. The German shelling. It looked worse than when (Hurricane) Hugo hit,” he said.

The 18 guns — captured 105-mm artillery pieces — had been pre-positioned by someone. Gray and his buddy Oscar “Bennie” Groves would just load the German shells and pull the lanyard, praying the ammunition hadn’t been sabotaged. One member of their unit had been killed when a sabotaged shell exploded.

Gray said he didn’t know what killed the men in the minefield.

For weeks, the two men would sleep huddled together for warmth in the snow-covered foxhole, within 50 feet of the 52 bodies.

“It was so cold,” Gray said. “At least, there was no odor.”

Despite his phobia about corpses, Gray ate every meal brought to him. “You gotta do what you gotta do,” he said.

Finally, a unit entered the field to remove the dead. But one man stepped on a mine and was severely injured as Gray watched.

Gray remembers a medic — a conscientious objector — ran into the field to aid the injured man.

“The medic said, ‘I was going to help someone. So if I stepped on every mine, God wouldn’t let them go off,’” Gray remembered.

Eventually, Gray’s battalion moved on to other battles and he returned to duty as a mail clerk.

When the war ended on May 7, 1945, “we mixed all the (liquor) we had together and had a party,” he said. “And when I got to New York, I kissed the ground.”

Despite his disturbing experience, Gray joined the S.C. Air National Guard after the war and saw service in Alaska during the Korean Conflict and in Spain during the Berlin Airlift.

He was in the Air Guard for 22 years while working at the VA, again as a clerk.

“Because I could type,” he said.

Reach Wilkinson at (803) 771-8495.

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