The story of Sergeant Ross F. Gray, USMC “The Deacon” WWII Medal of Honor

Published 4:11 pm Friday, January 15, 2021

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The “Deacon” was an unlikely candidate for the Medal of Honor. Ross Franklin Gray earned that nickname from his fellow Marines for his quiet, shy demeanor and his devotion to his Bible which he read every night before going to bed. The nickname was given out of respect, not to tease the young Marine because of his habits. Just a few days before he was killed in action on Iwo Jima, Gray was asked about his nickname by a war correspondent. Gray replied, “I guess they call me Deacon because I do their praying when the Chaplain’s not around.”

Ross Franklin Gray was born August 1, 1920, to Benjamin Franklin Gray and Carrie Wood Gray in Marvel Valley, Bibb County, Alabama. He was one of eight siblings. He attended elementary school in Bibb County and spent three years at Centerville High School before leaving in 1939 to go to work with his father as a carpenter.

Ross. F. Gray enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve in Birmingham on July 22, 1942. He was immediately placed on active duty and sent to Parris Island, South Carolina, for basic training. After finishing basic, Gray was sent to New River, North Carolina, for additional training, then assigned to the 23rd Marines, 4th Marine Division. In April 1943, Gray was promoted to Private First Class and transferred to A Company, 1st Battalion, 25th Regiment, 4th Marine Division. He was sent overseas in January 1944 where he took part in battles at Kwajalien, Saipan and Tinian. Gray had been promoted to Sergeant and undergone training at the 4th Marine Division Mine and Booby Trap School. Although qualified to instruct troops, there were no openings for an instructor, so Gray was still listed as a carpenter because of his religious beliefs.

When his best friend was killed on Saipan, Gray asked to be trained as a rifleman. He underwent training on Tinian and further training aboard a troopship, the USS Napa [APA-57] which was to take part in the invasion of Iwo Jima. When the invasion of Iwo Jima began, the Marines from the Napa landed on February 19. Shortly after landing, Gray’s Lieutenant was killed, leaving him in charge of the platoon.

On the 21st, Gray’s platoon was advancing near Airfield No. 1, when they were targeted by a barrage of enemy grenades. Gray withdrew his platoon out of range of the grenades and moved forward to reconnoiter the situation. He found that the Japanese were behind gun emplacements that were connected by covered trenches, all fronted by a minefield. Still under fire from enemy bullets, Gray cleared a path through the mine field up to the nearest fortification. He then returned to his platoon, picked up three volunteers and made his way to the battalion ammunition dump. He and his men picked up 12 satchel charges and took them back to a defiladed [protected] area near his platoon. Under covering fire from his three volunteers, Gray made his way through the path he had cleared and threw the satchel into the enemy bunker. Immediately after he threw the satchel, a machine gun opened fire from another part of the bunker. Gray returned to his platoon, picked up another satchel charge, made his way back to the bunker and finished demolishing it. He then spotted another gun emplacement and proceeded to repeat the same maneuver. Gray made over eight trips back to get satchel charges to destroy the gun emplacements. When he was finished, he had destroyed six enemy bunkers. It took 12 trips back and forth through the enemy mines before the last bunker was destroyed. While Gray was conducting his one-man attack, he was unarmed so that he could carry the heavy satchels. He was also under small arms fire and grenade barrages throughout the attack.  One grenade landed close enough to blow his helmet off. After eliminating the bunkers, Gray proceeded to clear the entire minefield before rejoining his platoon. Word got around about his heroics on February 21 and a combat correspondent sought him out for an interview. When asked to talk about the action that day, Gray replied, “I had to set the fuse short or the Japanese would have had time to throw it back at me. I crawled up to that one twice and they ran me off with hand grenades. The third time I got it.”

Although unscathed during the battle on February 21, Sergeant Gray was fatally wounded by an enemy shell, six days later on February 27, 1945.

For his personal valor, intrepidity, with complete disregard for his own life, Sergeant Ross. F. Gray was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on February 21, 1945. His mother died before the presentation. Her family said she grieved herself to death. The medal was presented to Sergeant Gray’s father by Rear Admiral A. S. Merrill, on April 16, 1946 at Centerville, Alabama High School. Alabama Governor Chauncey Sparks was present for the ceremony. Mrs. Gray and her two sisters had sent 13 sons to fight in WW II.

Sergeant Gray was initially buried in the 4th Marine Division Cemetery on Iwo Jima. His body was later brought back and reburied at Ada Chapel Bible Methodist Church Cemetery in West Blocton, Alabama. The United States Navy commissioned the frigate, USS Gray [FF-1054] in 1970 to honor Gray.

John Vick

[Sources: Wikipedia; Marine Corps University; Encyclopedia of Alabama article, “Ross Franklin Gray” by Christopher Maloney; Tuscaloosa Area Virtual Museum article “Slain Marine Sergeant is Unlikely candidate for Honor” by Ben Windham]