Marion Charles Gray was born in Haydenville, Ohio, on April 10, 1919. Clay and coal were abundant in the hills of Hocking County; and Marion’s father, Charles, was a foreman at a brick factory, the National Fireproofing Company, in that small town.
When Marion was only two years old and his sister only a year old, Marion’s father deserted the family and moved away. For the next eight years until she remarried, Marion’s mother, sister and he lived with his maternal grandfather. It was in the middle of the Great Depression when he got a new step-father. Burt Tucker was a big, tall man but he was gentle, loving, and honest - the best father and mentor a boy could ever have. He worked in the factories for 45 cents an hour when he could find work. The mainstay of the family’s diet was navy beans, and the meat they ate had “RELIEF” stamped on it. They were poor, but they were a happy family. Besides, nearly everyone else in Haydenville was poor then, also.
During all four years of high school, Marion worked at Lee’s Drug Store in Logan to save money to attend college. After graduation in 1939 he was able to attend Ohio State University in the College of Pharmacy and take pre-med classes. Working his way through college was becoming harder and harder for Marion, however; and his future was in doubt. He couldn’t even afford three meals a day. So when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Marion went to Ft. Hayes the very next day and enlisted. He did it mostly out of patriotism for his country; but the opportunity of being provided three square meals a day along with steady pay, housing, and clothing also appealed to young Marion.
A train soon stopped to pick up Marion at Columbus’ Union Station as it picked up additional recruits at depots in various other cities while headed west. Basic training for Marion was at Camp Roberts, California, where he remained for nearly a year. Although he began training for Combat Intelligence, after basic Marion transferred to the Medical Hospital there. Not only was that his interest, but it would provide him with experience to later continue his education when he was released from the military. His next assignment was to Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, for months of advanced combat medic training in a variety of medical fields.
Marion was then transferred to Camp Shenango, near Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania. On a weekend pass from there, he returned to Ohio and married his sweetheart, Ruthie, on April 3, 1943. Within two weeks, he was forced to call Ruthie to tell her that he was leaving and would probably be gone a long time. Due to security reasons, he wasn’t allowed to tell her where he was going; and there was a major at his side during the phone call to ensure he didn’t violate that security. This time, the troop train took him to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey.
Under orders to report to the 29th Infantry Division of the US Army, Marion sailed from New York City aboard the Queen Elizabeth on May 27, 1943, arriving in Scotland on June 2, 1943. He would spend the next 27 months in Europe, never knowing if or when he would return to his family in Ohio.
From Scotland, he was transported by train to the 29th Division HQ at Tidworth Barracks in Wiltshire, England, not far from London. His 116th Infantry Regiment was formed - mostly comprised of soldiers from the Virginia National Guard - and soon transferred to Plymouth, England. There they trained constantly for the combat that still faced them across the English Channel. Although they had no idea what their future held at the time, they practiced perhaps half a dozen water assault landings at Slapton Sands Beach. In these “dress rehearsals,” the soldiers jumped from their landing craft and fought their way up a hill; a scenario not unlike the one they would later face at Normandy. The final simulation was in full battle uniform and gear, exactly as they would be outfitted for the invasion of France on D-Day. Even then, these troops had no idea what their immediate future held; and, of course, none had heard of Operation Overlord. Unknown to them, they would be part of history, the largest Allied invasion in the war, and the turning point in our victory over Nazi Germany in WW II.
The soldiers of the 29th Division also included the 115th Regiment (mostly from the Pennsylvania National Guard) and the 175th Regiment (the majority from the Virginia & Maryland National Guard.) They were all trained and ready for combat when they were transported to a fenced and guarded tent city at South Hampton. Nobody was allowed to leave, and armed guards maintained the quarantine. Each soldier was asked to put his “special effects” in a box and address it to his CONUS address. Time spent in this rainy, muddy camp was miserable enough without the dread of facing the unknown combat they knew was coming soon. Just prior to D-Day, the soldiers were briefed on Operation Overlord for the first time. Using 6’X8’ waterproof maps of the entire Normandy area, officers briefed the troops on the “big picture.” They were told exactly who was to be where and when. For the operation to be a success, different units had to be in certain places at certain times.
On June 4th, the 29th Division boarded the USS Charles Carroll for its voyage across the English Channel. They would remain on board for two days under miserable climactic conditions. The original D-Day was planned for June 5th, but inclement weather postponed the invasion for 24 hours.
As a Technician 3rd Grade (equivalent to a Staff Sergeant) Combat Medic, Marion arrived on a Higgins boat in the second wave landing at Omaha Beach on D-Day. One can only imagine what was going through his mind as he witnessed the scene unfolding before him. He says, “The first wave opened the gates to hell, and we entered.” Marion will tell you that the beginning scenes of the movie, “Saving Private Ryan,” are an accurate portrayal of what he witnessed and endured that day. So horrific was the experience that Marion never talked to anyone about D-Day - not even his wife, Ruthie - for fifty years. Even today, his eyes well up with tears as his memory relives the horror of that invasion.
He jumped from the boat and struggled ashore with bullets and shrapnel hitting the water all around him and killing many of his buddies before they could make it to the shore. Once ashore, Marion immediately gave medical treatment to a number of injured troops. While carrying a wounded soldier up the beach and searching for cover, he stopped to rest behind a huge barrier when something blew up next to him. His left arm was torn apart by shrapnel from a mortar round or a land mine. At about the same time, he was shot in the leg. Marion, like many others, never made it off the beach that day. His unit, Company A of the 29th Division’s 116th Regiment, suffered unimaginable casualties. Of 170 soldiers, 91 died there, 64 were wounded, and only 15 were able to continue fighting. The chaos of such a horrific battle is beyond words to describe it.
Marion was evacuated from the beach by a British landing craft and taken back to the USS Charles Carroll. He recalls being given a shot once aboard the ship and then not waking up again until he was being transported by train to a hospital in England. There he was treated and spent five weeks recovering from his wounds. It appeared for a while that Marion would not regain the use of his left hand and would, therefore, be shipped back to the states. By constantly squeezing a rubber ball, however, Marion was slowly able to gain back mobility and strength in that hand. He still has a dozen metal shrapnel fragments in his left lower arm and wrist. Ruthie relates that there was a special edition of the Columbus newspaper right after D Day, and she read in there that Marion had become the first soldier from Franklin County to be wounded in the Normandy invasion. It wasn’t until several days later that the War Department sent her an official telegram notifying her that he was a casualty.
After his wounds had mostly healed, Marion once again sailed from South Hampton to Normandy. On July 13th he was reunited with his unit just west of St. Lo, and he joined them just in time for the difficult battle which later in July liberated that village after many more American casualties. The 29th Infantry Division is generally credited for the liberation of St. Lo, a key battle in the defeat of Nazi Germany in France. Things were now totally different for Marion. His colonel had told him upon his return of all the friends he had lost during the initial invasion, something Marion learned then for the first time. There were very few soldiers remaining in the unit now that he knew prior to D Day. After losing so many good friends, Marion had no desire to get close to anyone again; lest the pain of losing buddies would once again happen.
The 29th was headed towards Paris but was diverted south by truck towards Brest, France, to secure a submarine pen there, which they finally did on September 18. After almost 15 weeks of constant combat, the 29th deserved some R&R, but they were only given six days to rest before being hauled by train across France and Belgium to a part of Holland on the German border. From there they fought their way to Achen, where they joined General Patton’s 5th Army headed for the Rhine River and the invasion of Germany. Living in foxholes in the terrible winter cold and snow, they were participants in numerous serious battles as they fought their way eastward. Marion Gray continued to serve as a medic through all kinds of combat. He treated innumerable wounds and illnesses and had numerous soldiers die in his arms. One friend in particular that Marion vividly recalls was blown up by artillery fire. Upon reaching him, Marion knew there was no saving the man. All he could do was inject morphine to ease the soldier’s pain. As Marion held the guy on the snow-covered ground, the soldier looked up and said, “Wouldn’t a chocolate milk shake taste good right now?” And then he asked Marion if he’d make it back to the States to see his girlfriend again. Marion assured the man he would, just as life left him. That night Marion prayed to the Lord for forgiveness for lying to a dying man.
Eventually the 29th had fought its way to a small German town called Hitzacker on the Elbe River. On April 24th, 1945, the 116th Regiment was the first to reach the Elbe. That was their last battle. They were told not to cross the Elbe, because the Russians were on the other side; and the war was nearly over. When the Germans finally did surrender on May 8, 1945, Marion’s work as a combat medic was still not over. He arrived at Buchenwald only three days after those prisoners were liberated. He and two other medics were assigned the task of delousing prisoners who had been liberated from another POW camp. There was plenty of work to keep a trained medic busy in that area, and he was transferred to an aid station in Bremerhaven for a period. Marion was there on the first anniversary of D Day.
A major that Marion had served with earlier asked if he’d volunteer to join the 69th Division and assist with the Army of Occupation for a while. Marion agreed to leave his unit and join the major.
Needing some R & R, Marion obtained a 30-day furlough and headed down to Paris for a USO show. From there he was headed by train to Torquee, France, “a place similar to Ft. Lauderdale,” as Marion puts it. He bought a “Stars and Stripes” newspaper to read on the train, and it was there that he first learned that the Japanese had surrendered. WW II was over! Marion skipped the rest of his R & R and returned to Camp Lucky Strike in France to see about getting released to go home again to Ohio.
The records of Marion’s old unit (minus him and a few others now assigned to the 69th) had been shipped to an ordinance unit in Berlin; but they had earned enough points to be sent home. Two direct calls to SHAPE HQ in Paris put the 29th near the top of the list to be sent back to the US. At 69th HQ in France, the soldiers (in a process quite similar to in-processing when one first enlisted) got new temporary orders and uniforms before being discharged and released back to the States.
According to official records, the 29th Infantry Division had experienced 242 days of combat in Europe and suffered 3,720 killed, 15,403 wounded, 462 missing, and 526 captured.
In early September, 1945, nearly 7,000 troops from a variety of units were crammed aboard the Army transport Edmund B. Alexander in Le Havre, and they docked in New York City on September 16th. Marion Gray was among them, and a week and a half later he was discharged.
Marion Gray was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army on September 27, 1945 (which just happened to be his wife’s birthday.) Among his medals and awards were: Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart Medal, Good Conduct Medal, American Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle Easter Campaign Medal with Bronze Star Attachment (Quadruple) & Arrowhead, WW II Victory Medal, Combat Medical Badge 1st Award, Honorable Service Lapel Button WW II, and Marksman Badge & Rifle Bar. The MOS Ratings he earned included: X-Ray Technician, Rifleman, Intelligence NCO, Observer, Scout, Medical Laboratory Technician, and Surgical Technician.
Upon returning to Columbus, Marion used the G.I. Bill to continue his education at OSU. Following Ohio State he was a chemist for several years but simply tired of the test tube and laboratory atmosphere. So he went to work for Sinclair Oil Company as an Industrial Lubrication Engineer. Two years later he was Manager of Consumer Sales for all of Ohio. In 1964, Marion and two other gentlemen designed and built Pine Hill Golf Course in Carroll, Ohio; and in 1970 Marion resigned from Sinclair to work full time at the golf course. In 1975 he sold out his partial ownership in the golf course and considers that his retirement date. “I have always believed,” says Marion, “that if you’re not happy with what you’re doing, get the heck out. That has been my philosophy of life.” Since then he has worked a number of different jobs just to stay active.
One of those jobs, working at a Meijer store, was a way for Marion to earn some extra money to take Ruthie back for a visit to Normandy. Stan and Gigi Wielezynski, natives of France and owners of LaChatelaine bakeries and cafes in Columbus, heard about Marion working for this trip. Not only did they pay for all the expenses of the 10-day trip to France, they sent their daughter, Charlotte, along as a tour guide and interpreter. So, in July of 2001, 57 years after his landing at Normandy, Marion and Ruthie traveled to France to visit the beach where he had experienced his life-changing event. An obviously emotional Marion Gray bought out the entire inventory of a nearby florist and spent a whole day at the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, researching who had died there and who were listed on the monuments as missing as a result of that horrific battle. He waded into the ocean below on Omaha Beach to capture the view he had experienced so many years before. Even though the beach head was empty and serene this time, the memories were still vivid to Marion of what he had experienced so many years before. Marion says he has now made his peace with his buddies who didn’t come home from Normandy; and he has no desire to return to France again. Charlotte had arranged a comprehensive tour, including honors from mayors and thankful French citizens who will never forget the sacrifices American troops made for their liberation.
Those who don’t know the enormity of the Allied invasion of Normandy on D Day may be surprised to know that more than 5000 boats and ships and 11,000 aircraft were involved, in addition to the more than 150,000 Allied ground troops who landed with Marion on June 6th, 1944.
Prior to them leaving for France in 2001, a nationally syndicated story told of Marion’s experiences and the generosity of the Wielezynski family. Further generosity was soon shown by a patriotic woman in Corona, California. She had never heard of Marion Gray nor did she have any particular ties to Normandy, but Naomi Wieland was touched by the story. She promptly mailed Marion a check for $100 and asked him to use it to buy flowers for his buddies at the cemetery. He did, and the two of them still correspond.
Marion’s wife, Ruthie, retired from the Groveport School system in the mid-1970s after 26 years of service. The Gray’s still live in the home they built on the 20 acres in Groveport that they purchased for $4000 in 1945. (Marion jokes that the land eventually was free, because that’s what he was paid by the electric company for a power line easement across the property some years later.) Neither Marion nor Ruthie can recall exactly when (but it was a couple of years after the war and while they were living in their home) a package arrived for Marion. It contained the “special effects” that Marion had packed up prior to him crossing the English Channel. Noticeably missing were a sheepskin jacket that Ruthie had sent to him while he was in England and a German Luger.
In years past the Grays have traveled to the D-Day memorials and museums in Virginia and New Orleans, as well as to the (long overdue) WW II Memorial in Washington DC.
Their two daughters, Linda and Peggy, have provided the Grays with four grand-children and seven great grandchildren, who give great joy and company to Marion and Ruthie. They are both still active in church and community activities in the area, and we are proud to have them as members of Motts Military Museum. Keeping alive the legacy of great American heroes like Marion is our museum’s mission. We are honored to personally know Marion and to tell his story, thus keeping it alive for future generations.
I wanted to attend this, but I called Marion last evening and was told it's by invitation only. His family is all here and will attend, which is wonderful!
D-Day Vet Receives French Honor
By Jeb Phillips
The Columbus Dispatch Sunday February 26, 2012 11:18 PM
The first Franklin County man wounded in battle on D-Day was Sgt. Marion Charles Gray.
The Dispatch reported it after the June 6, 1944, Normandy landings. Gray’s left arm and right leg were hit with shrapnel when he finished dragging a hurt soldier onto Omaha Beach.
Gray’s arm was paralyzed. He was evacuated to a hospital in England when the smoke cleared.
“The government said he could go home,” said Linda Neth, 64, Gray’s daughter, who jumps in and tells the heroic parts because sometimes her father doesn’t.
“He wouldn't do it,” she said. “He wanted to go back with the 29th (Infantry Division).”
Gray rehabbed the arm and went back to France five weeks later to find that most of the division’s soldiers he had known were dead. But he fought on: Saint-Lo, the Rhine, the Roer River. Right on through to V-E day on May 8, 1945.
France proved yesterday that it has not forgotten what Gray did.
The 92-year-old Groveport man became the country’s newest Knight of the Legion of Honor, an award presented to people “who have achieved remarkable deeds for France.” The French government has made knights of thousands of American World War II veterans in recent years.
“I was surprised,” Gray said of receiving the letter in December telling him he would receive the honor. “ I didn’t realize that was happening.”
Gray’s son-in-law, Greg Neth, learned that Gray might be eligible when they took a trip to Normandy for the 65th anniversary of the landings a few years ago. Neth applied for his father-in-law through the French Consulate in Chicago.
In Ohio, that award is typically given during a special ceremony at the Statehouse. Gray had the same option, his family said, but he wanted the ceremony to be at his French home in Franklin County: La Chatelaine French Bakery & Bistro in Upper Arlington.
“You saved us all, and we will never forget,” said Graham Paul, consul general of France, during the presentation of the medal to Gray today at the restaurant.
Stan and Gigi Wielezynski, who own the restaurant, have held a D-Day commemoration there every year since 1994. Gray attended the first one, and the Wielezynskis met him then. They learned that he was working at a Meijer store to earn money to visit Normandy.
They decided to pay for the trip by Gray and his wife, Ruth, who have been married 68 years. The Wielezynskis sent their daughter along as a translator.
Stan Wielezynski, 64, speaks with a French accent. His family is from Normandy. He grew up playing on the beaches. Gray helped liberate his family and friends, Wielezynski said.
People there “talk about the United States,” he said. “Not the flag. Not Obama ... they talk about American troops. They are talking about angels.”
Gray talks about the troops, too. The guys he knew and lost. The guys who also deserve to be called heroes.
“I’m just so damn lucky to be sitting here,” he said.
Thanks Ron for posting the story on Mr Gray. Ive known about his D-Day story as the Dispatch usually will have something about him every D-Day anniverary. I really like the military pic and his pre and post war story.