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Memoir recounts man's days as a POW

Russell Ray, who died Oct. 2 after a four-year battle with cancer, survived almost a year in a German prisoner of war camp during World War II.

By JAY CRIDLIN
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 11, 2002


INTERBAY -- Katie Ray received the telegram on June 12, 1944.

"Mrs. Katie M. Ray," it stated. "The Secretary of War desires me to express his deep regret that your son Sergeant Russell M. Ray has been reported missing in action since twenty nine May over Germany. If further details or other information are received you will be promptly notified."

Nearly a year to the day later, Mrs. Ray heard the good news. Her son was finally coming home.

Russell Ray, survivor of a war that killed more than 400,000 Americans, died Oct. 2 after a four-year battle with prostate, colon and liver cancer. He was 78.

Only a decade ago, Mr. Ray found the telegram to his mother, along with a collection of photographs, maps, letters and memories. He sat down at a manual Smith Corona typewriter and pecked his way through Trials, Tribulations and Shoe Leather Express, a detailed memoir of his time in a German POW camp.

The manuscript is unpublished, but it recalls in remarkable detail a year its author barely survived.

Young Russell had been a happy child growing up in the mountains of eastern Tennessee, riding his bike and, once, dancing on a country-music version of American Bandstand that broadcast out of Knoxville.

Not much changed when he entered the Air Force at 18. He moved to Tampa and kept on dancing with his buddies in Ybor City. He marveled at his first visions of grapefruit groves, though grander sights would follow.

Mr. Ray was a ball turret gunner on a B-17 aircraft, situated underneath the plane with his gun facing backward. From there, he could see the war swirling around him.

"The sky was black with flak," he recalled of one flight over the English Channel in 1944. "I was petrified, thinking I would be hit before anyone else since I was hanging below the aircraft."

On a mission to bomb a German assembly plant, Mr. Ray and his fellow crew were hit by enemy fire. He suffered lacerations on his right leg, and the B-17 lost tail control. Bombs exploded a few feet from them, and a half-dozen German fighters shot up the fuel tanks.

The crew bailed out moments before the plane exploded in a blast so gruesome, a gunner on another plane later admitted to losing his breakfast right there in the cockpit.

"I remember seeing our aircraft flying away just after I bailed out," he wrote. "I think that was the most lonesome feeling I've ever experienced."

He and crew mates were taken to a detainment camp. "For you," a German major told him, "the war is over." They were herded into tiny, windowless boxcars with 35 other prisoners of war. "No wonder I now have claustrophobia and can't go into a dark room without windows," he wrote.

The men were taken to Stalag Luft IV, a prison camp near Kiefheide, Germany. Their rooms were overcrowded, with few amenities, and their diets were torturous: no breakfast, a lunch of barley soup, and a dinner of cabbage soup or stewed greens.

Occasionally, the men were given a small loaf of impenetrable bread. "I brought a quarter of a loaf home with me," he wrote. "We did use it for a door stop. It turned into a great conversation piece. I never found out what the ingredients were, but am pretty sure it had a lot of saw dust in it."

Few prisoners dared escape. Two who did were shot climbing a fence and left to die where they fell.

Mr. Ray lived in Stalag IV for eight months. He and the others mustered what normalcy they could. The YMCA and Red Cross helped with sporting equipment, books, musical instruments, cigarettes and even food.

On some evenings, the men would gather for mock burlesque shows and dances. Sure-footed Mr. Ray volunteered to slow and fast dance with some of the other men to raise their spirits.

Occasionally, he could send letters home. "I'm feeling okay and wish I was home," he wrote to his mother on July 27, 1944, his 20th birthday. "Tell everyone hello, and I'll see them soon. Pray for us here. Lots of love."

One Christmas evening, the prisoners were allowed to gather and sing carols beneath the open sky. At the end of the service, as the guards were ordering the POWs back to their bunks, one man stood up and said, "We will now sing God Bless America."

The men did. "It was a beautiful performance," Mr. Ray wrote. "War-hardened men had opened their hearts unashamedly and sang proudly, while tears streamed down their cheeks."

On Feb. 6, 1945, a new form of torture arrived. Word had spread that Stalag IV would be evacuated, and the prisoners would be marched to another camp.

On that rainy morning, the men began their journey, anywhere from 15 to 23 miles each day, carrying what belongings they could.

Blisters deteriorated into abscesses, some leading to amputations. Disease struck, bringing diphtheria, pneumonia, tuberculosis and dysentery. En route, the men scavenged for food, finding old potatoes and on one lucky occasion, a horse.

For the next three months, they were herded about 470 miles across Germany. But on May 2, a Canadian Army jeep pulled alongside them, bringing long-awaited news.

"Finally, free at last!" Mr. Ray wrote.

On June 3, he arrived in New York City at the base of the Statue of Liberty. "The impression she made on me that day, and the feeling I got as we passed, I'll never forget!" he wrote. "As we passed her, I don't think there was a dry eye in the bunch."

He took the bus to Chattanooga, Tenn., where he met up with an old friend who agreed to drive him to his mother's house in Daisy, about 20 miles north.

It was 4:30 a.m. The friend knocked at Katie Ray's door. "Mrs. Ray," he said. "I have something for you."

"You could hear her shouting all over that mountain," Mr. Ray wrote. "She kept shouting and thanking the Lord for taking care of her son and that he was back with her. We all had a good cry."

Mr. Ray was awarded a handful of commendations, including the Purple Heart. He got married in 1947, just before re-enlisting in the Air Force. In 1965, he and his wife, Mary, moved to Tampa.

Mr. Ray was an accountant in the Air Force and in the private sector for nearly 50 years. He served as a lifetime deacon at Palma Ceia Baptist Church. A few years ago, he helped his son, Ronald, build a house in North Carolina.

He and his wife took many vacations throughout the country, including nine trips to Hawaii. Mr. Ray had one son, one daughter and 57 more Christmases.

But his memoir captured a year of life that never left him.

Ronald figures writing it helped his father attain a sense of closure about the war and captivity.

"I WAS FINALLY HOME!!!" Mr. Ray wrote in the book's final pages of the reunion with his family. "For me, THE WAR WAS NOW REALLY OVER."

-- Jay Cridlin can be reached at 226-3374 or cridlin@sptimes.com.

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