It was an honor, Sir.

This year at General Assembly one of the reasons the Peacemaking Statement of Conscience was referred back to the Commission on Social Witness for another year of further study was the ambiguous line it seemed to walk in some people’s mind’s when it came to our UU’s serving in the armed forces and those who have served in the armed forces.

There are a lot of Unitarian Universalists with an uncomfortable attitude towards the military. Some even express sentiments such as “how can you support the military and be a UU!”  I find this sad.  Unitarian Universalists don’t always agree politically, socially or culturally.  Unitarian Universalists have, do and will serve proudly in the armed forces.

I wish I could have invited all those concerned to Colonel John Ray’s memorial service today.  Someone who had met the Ray family while her own family was serving with the Rays in Burma said of them that they are an unlikely military family. She said they, inspired by the Colonel, immersed themselves in the local culture.

There was music and poetry and art. There was reverence and a crisp folding and presentation of the flag by grandchildren. There was a playing of taps and the only one in uniform was a representative of West Point who brought along with him the Colonel’s West Point yearbook photograph.

One of The Colonel’s nephews showed me an article from the July 5, 1999 issue of U.S. News and World Report titled The Warrior Class, a spotlight on the 60th reunion of John Ray’s West Point graduating class.

Colonel John Ray was featured in both the story and the photographs (sadly, the photos are no longer available online):

Among the ’39-ers, there are countless tales of derring-do, but few match those of John Ray. He was a young major working for Gen. Omar Bradley in North Africa when he was captured by the Germans–the first time. He was put to work carrying stretchers loaded with German wounded. “My friends,” Ray notes, “were now shooting at me.” He escaped but was recaptured and placed in solitary confinement. But fortune soon smiled on him. Two hours later, the camp commander summoned Ray and said he intended to turn over the camp and the prisoners to Ray in a few hours. “Why not now?” Ray asked. At which, Ray recalls, the German handed over his pistol, “and I put him in solitary.”

Fraternal connections. Ray rejoined General Bradley and accompanied him to England to begin planning the invasion of Normandy. On June 7, 1944, Ray landed on the beach, right alongside Bradley.

During the Battle of the Bulge, Ray, by then a lieutenant colonel, was captured again. He had been instructed to travel the American front lines, warning the widely dispersed American units of the German breakthrough. On Dec. 17, 1944, as he was setting out, Ray met his kid brother, Roger, West Point ’43, a lieutenant in the infantry, and gave him his West Point Class of ’39 ring for safekeeping. Not long after, Ray came under German fire. He took a round in the helmet and suffered a grazing wound to his head. Once again, he was a POW of the Germans. This time, he was put to work filling captured American vehicles with gasoline. A German soldier ordered Ray and the other prisoners to walk away from the fuel dump and wait. He planned to shoot them in the back. Ray balked. “If you shoot an American,” he said, “you are going to shoot him in the face.” The German relented. Sent to a POW camp at Hammelburg, Ray soon went to work boosting prisoner morale.

Relief soon arrived in the form of an American task force commanded by Capt. Abraham Baum. After marching 1 mile away from camp, the prisoners were given three choices. If they were well enough to fight, they could join Captain Baum and fight their way back to the American lines. If not, they could try to make it back on their own. Or they could simply return to the German-occupied camp. Ray and most of the others opted to stay, and it was a good thing for them. On its way back, Task Force Baum got shot to pieces. Of 307 men who began the mission, 15 managed to get back with a few POWs. Nine were killed, 16 were missing, 32 were wounded. The rest all ended up as POWs themselves.

Back to Asia. The prisoners who stayed behind with Ray were shipped by rail to Munich. On May 5, 1945, the German commander surrendered the camp with tens of thousands of POWs to Col. Paul R. (Pop) Goode, West Point Class of ’17 . During a meeting of his senior officers afterward, Goode was interrupted by a major with a message. He read it aloud: “To: Col. Paul R. Goode. Please release Lt. Col. John Ray to 1st Army Headquarters.” The order came from Supreme Headquarters. Ray left the camp with the major. In June 1945, Ray boarded a ship headed home to America. Aboard was his brother Roger, who gave back Ray’s class of ’39 ring. The troop transport was part of a convoy that included the destroyer-escort USS Martin H. Ray. The ship was named for their brother, a Naval Academy graduate who was killed at the Battle of Midway.

Today was a special day of ministry for me, remembering a special life of a Unitarian Universalist with a special family. I hope and pray that all UU military families have the love and support from each other and from our faith that was evident today.
I led the memorial service with my colleague Rev. Tom Wintle and we received a lot of thanks from the Colonel’s family and friends, but as is the case so often, what you give is returned to you a hundredfold.   Such was my encounter with Colonel John Ray, who insisted, as many recounted that there were no officers at the family home in Gloucester, just John.  Be that as it may..

It was an honor, Sir.

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