Ray, John P.

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Ray, John P, born 15-08-1922, in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana,  enlisted in the Army in January 1941. He returned home in spring for his mother’s funeral. He met Paula Freeman who lived in his neighborhood. John and Paula exchanged letters. They fell in love and were married on 07-03-1943 when John had a few days leave as he was training with the 82nd Airborne. under command of Major General Matthew Bunker Ridgway. They never saw each other again. John and Paula exchanged letters.

Private John Marvin Steele, second from right, who along with John Ray, Philip Lynch and Vernon Francisco comprised F Company, 505 PIR’s 60mm mortar squad, just before D-Day at camp Quorn, Leicestershire, England. John Steele was the only one of the four to survive the war. Philip M. Lynch was born on 31-08-1921 in Tillamook, Tillamook County, Oregon. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II as a Sergeant in Company F, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division. He died from his wounds received in battle on 13-01-1945 in Liège, Belgium and is now buried in Custer National Cemetery, Crow Agency, Big Horn County, Montana, USA. and Vernon Francisco died from his wounds received in battle on 04-01-1945 (at the age of 20) and is now buried in Walton Cemetery, Walton, Delaware County, New York, USA.

After his wedding, John deployed as a paratrooper to North Africa, Italy and then to Normandy, France for the D-Day invasion. On D-Day, he landed with the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, Company F, under command of Colonel Reuben Henry Tucker III  behind enemy lines in Sainte-Mère-Église, a small French town near the Normandy coast.

Death and burial ground of Ray, John P.

He landed on the church in the town square and then fell to the ground. A German soldier immediately shot him in the stomach and buttock. Two of his fellow paratroopers were caught on the church roof. As the German soldier aimed his gun at the two, John shot the German soldier, saving his two fellow paratroopers. This story formed the basis of of the movie, The Longest Day, although key details were not told in the movie. John died the next day from his wounds.

The town in St. Mere Eglise had been the target of an aerial attack, during which a stray incendiary bomb had set fire to a house east of the town square. The church bell was rung to alert the town to the emergency, and townspeople turned out in large numbers to form a bucket brigade supervised by members of the German garrison. By 1:00 am, the town square was well lit and filled with German soldiers and villagers when two planeloads of paratroopers from the 1st and 2nd battalions, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, were dropped in error directly over the village.

The paratroopers were easy targets, and John Marvin Steele, Private, of the 3rd  Battalion, was one of the few not killed. He was wounded in the foot by a burst of flak. His parachute caught in one of the pinnacles of the church tower, leaving him hanging on the side of the church. Steele hung there limply for two hours, pretending to be dead, before the Germans took him prisoner. He escaped four hours later from the Germans and rejoined his division when US troops of the 505th’s 3rd Battalion attacked the village, capturing 30 Germans and killing another 11. He was awarded the Bronze Star for valour and the Purple Heart for being wounded in combat.

Though injured, Steele survived his ordeal. He continued to visit the town throughout his life and was an honorary citizen of Sainte-Mère-Église. The tavern, Auberge John Steele, stands adjacent to the square and maintains his legacy through photos, letters and articles hung on its walls.

Steele died of throat cancer on 16-05-1969, age 56, in Fayetteville, North Carolina. He was buried at the Masonic Cemetery in Metropolis.

Another para of the 505 Regiment was killed on the church square as he landed in a high tree  Lieutenant Walter J. Gunther Jr.  died as he hung in a parachute caught in the trees at Sainte-Mère-Église, shot by a German soldier, probably the same one who shot John Ray. The story was largely unknown to Gunther’s daughter and his cousin. Both knew he had been killed at age 26 in Normandy, but they knew little else.

Another killed para hanging on the church square in a tree in Sainte-Mère-Église was, Ladislav “Laddie” Tlapa, age 21,

Paula did not hear of John’s fate until September 1944. She was teaching school. She received the standard one week off after losing her husband and then returned to work. She never learned the details of John’s final days and hours.

Paula remarried in 1947. In 2000, her family was in New Orleans for the opening of the D-Day Museum on 06-06-2000. There she made connections that led to a phone call with Ken Russell, one of the two paratroopers caught on the church roof. Ken told Paula all of the details of John’s heroic actions.

In September 2000, Paula and Ken went to Normandy to visit John’s grave at the Normandy American Cemetery. In 2004, Paula published Treasures in My Heart,  A true World War II love story, a book that contains the letters she and John exchanged before he was killed. Ken Russell was meant to be the guest of honour at the 60 anniversary celebrations in Ste Mere Eglise. Sadly he died in his sleep, age 77, on the anniversary of D-Day at almost the same time the German took aim at him 60 years before.

The 82nd Airborne Division lost a lot of men during their European campaign: Casualties total 9,073, killed in action 1619, wounded in action 6.560, missing in action 279 and prisenor of war, 615.

There are 4,048 gold stars lining a curved wall, called the Freedom Wall, at the World War II Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. to honor the 405,399 men and women who did not return home. Sergeant John P Ray, a paratrooper from Louisiana with the 82nd Airborne who landed behind enemy lines on D-Day, is one of those fallen heroes.

John P Ray is buried at in Normandy American Cemetery, Colleville-sur-Mer, France. Plot E Row 26 Grave 36,

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