Serving one’s country personifies John Wesley Gray — all four of them.
The Gray family sent a John Wesley to serve four times: as a 16-year-old who joined the Grand Army of the Republic in the American Civil War, as an Army Air Corps pilot who gave his life in World War II, a Marine during Vietnam and lastly, a Navy chopper pilot during the second Persian Gulf War.
The John Wesley Grays’ contributions, along with millions of other American veterans, are among those that we remember Wednesday — Veterans Day.
This year is the 46th observation of Veterans Day. President Dwight David Eisenhower signed the commemoration into law on June 1, 1954, changing the name from Armistice Day.
In November 1919, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Nov. 11 as the first commemoration of Armistice Day. The date was selected because it was the day that signified the end of World War I.
But the Gray family has been involved in defending American soil for far longer.
The third Gray, John Wesley Gray Jr., grew up in New Jersey but now resides on Fort Myers Beach with Charlotte, his wife of 59 years. In fact, Veteran’s Day is the couple’s wedding anniversary.
“We met in chemistry lab at the University of Miami,” Gray said.
“We were looking for unknowns at the bottom of test tube,” Charlotte Gray said.
Since they were married on Veterans Day, still called Armistice day by some then, Charlotte Gray laughingly said people would ask her: “Were you trying to end a war, or start a war?”
The Gray family takes war and military service seriously.
“My great-great grandfather was a Civil War veteran,” Gray Jr. said. “He joined at 16 but was too young to carry a gun, so they made him a drummer boy.”
Gray, a spry 82-year-old who runs and bikes daily, said his great-great grandfather, who hailed from Philadelphia, eventually was handed a rifle and after the war became commander of the Camden, New Jersey, G.A.R. post.
A wall of military mementoes at Gray’s Fort Myers Beach waterfront home is dedicated to his grandfather and includes a faded sepia-toned photograph showing a handsome Union soldier, a 11-inch-by-16-inch frame containing John Wesley Gray’s Civil War discharge papers, and Gray Jr.’s Marine sword.
“I cut our wedding cake with that sword,” he said.
The second John Wesley Gray saw service as an Army Air Corps pilot in World War II.
Gray said that family member was a cousin killed in action.
“I remember his funeral. I was about 7,” he said. “I remember picking up the brass after the 21-gun salute.”
For years after, he recalled, his aunt had a gold star placed in a window, a notification to the public that a family member had given their all during the war.
Gray, who Charlotte Gray said carries the “junior” sobriquet among the four namesakes, joined the U.S. Marines in the 1960s, a step ahead of the draft.
“The Vietnam War was going on,” he said. “There was a draft going. I elected to go to Officer Candidate School rather than get drafted.”
He trained as a combat engineer and served as an embarkation officer, directing the loading of ships sending war material to the troops in Vietnam.
“That’s probably why I was never deployed,” he said.
Gray mustered out of the Marines as a captain and worked for the Ford Motor Co. and Midas Mufflers before retiring and moving to Fort Myers Beach more than 20 years ago.
He and his wife lived on their sailboat by the Matanzas Pass bridge for a couple years before buying a home.
The couple, parents of twins, a boy and a girl, had considered Sanibel, but a waterfront property there was too exorbitant.
“If we were going to live in Florida, it had to be on the water,” Charlotte Gray said.
That twin boy is the last Gray who served in the military.
Now 57, John Wesley Gray IV graduated from Villanova University and had an opportunity via the ROTC to go either Marines or Navy.
“I told him don’t go to the Marines,” his father said with a chuckle.
He followed dad’s advice and became a Navy helicopter pilot, serving in the first Gulf War, becoming the second military pilot in the Gray family.
“It was a privilege to serve,” his son said from his home in San Diego. “My dad embodied that.”
Gray IV served during Iraqi Freedom, the second Gulf War, as a naval helicopter pilot, taking off and landing from the fantail of a destroyer or cruiser in a Sikorsky H-60.
“We carried torpedoes and guns,” he said, serving in a defensive and offensive capacity protecting Naval assets.
Gray IV was just a baby when his dad retired from service, but he remembers his dad’s military bearing.
“Once a Marine, always a Marine,” he said. “I do remember he loved the Marines. We’d wake up on Saturdays to the Marine Corps hymn and he’d want us to go do something.”
For his father, the military was an important aspect of his life that has bearing today.
He says he notices more people these days being cognizant of military service.
“A lot of people say ‘thank you for your service’,” he sad, especially when he’s wearing his red U.S. Marine Corp ball cap. “I think people are just as patriotic these days.”
He also remains active in the Marine Corps League and celebrated the corps 245th birthday this year.
“When I look back I get a real sense of family,” he said of the John Wesley Gray lineage’s contributions. “It was part of our culture growing up. We all served our duty. Just in different branches.”
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