NEW YORK – In 1943, Fred Gray was an 18-year-old laborer working construction with his father. One year later, he found himself an Army 1st sergeant embroiled in World War II’s battle for Iwo Jima fighting alongside the Marine Corps.
Gray might very well have been a Marine, as so many people are led to believe when he tells his stories about Iwo Jima. But Gray, of Capitol Heights, could never have been a Marine in the South Pacific in 1943. Marines at that time where white. Gray is not.
Now 79, Maryland’s oldest delegate to the Republican National Convention is still proud of his unheralded unit’s service at Iwo Jima and that military experience has come to inform his political views.
Gray is a strong supporter of President George W. Bush, despite his spotty attendance record in the Texas Air National Guard. To Gray, it’s not service records that matter, but Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry’s actions when he returned from Vietnam that moves him to anger.
“I am disgusted with John Kerry,” Gray said. “While our men were over there getting killed, he was in concert with the enemy, he was saying all manner of evil things about our troops.”
For Gray and other veterans at the GOP convention here this week, Kerry’s anti-war protesting after his return from Vietnam, as well as the allegations he made that U.S. troops were committing atrocities far outweigh his combat decorations. Gray is willing to overlook the fact that, as his critics charge, Bush used his family’s connections to avoid overseas service by serving in the Air National Guard.
Gray is among the veterans and other voters that a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth is trying to reach. The organization recently launched a controversial campaign to discredit Kerry’s war service — saying his Bronze and Silver stars were undeserved and calling his leadership into question. The Bush campaign has disavowed any connection to the group, but has not criticized its message.
While many Democrats voice concerns about the impact of the Bush administration’s policies on American prestige abroad, Gray is concerned about how veterans are treated at home. He said he believes Kerry’s behavior contributed to the stigma that Vietnam veterans encountered when they returned.
“As an African-American who has suffered the horrors of segregation, I know what it’s like to be treated like a second-class citizen,” he said. “We think that he hurt the prestige of this country by giving aid to the enemy.”
If anyone can claim to have made a sacrifice for the country, Gray and his family certainly can. His older brother, Norman A. Gray Jr., was also drafted into the Army, and was killed in Italy in September 1944. He was 21. Gray received the message while en route to the South Pacific.
Gray served on Iwo Jima with the Army’s 476th Amphibious Truck Company, ferrying supplies from ship to shore and evacuating wounded. His vehicle was the “Duck,” a half-truck, half-boat that can be seen today ferrying tourists around the Potomac River in the District.
Though many Marines were awarded citations for their service on the island, none of the African-American soldiers in Gray’s unit were honored until 34 years later, when all of them were awarded the Navy Commendation Ribbon. Gray finally received his in 1979.
Although he is a fervent supporter of President Bush, Gray has not always been a Republican. Upon his return to the U.S., he cast his first presidential ballot for a Democrat.
“I voted for Truman, naturally, because he brought me home,” he said.
The vote did not sit well with his father.
“He said, ‘What’s the matter with you, boy? Abraham Lincoln freed us. Ain’t nobody in this family a Democrat,'” Gray said.
Even so, he didn’t cast his first vote for a Republican until 1984, when he voted for Ronald Reagan. But Gray hasn’t quite been able to hold his all-Republican family together. Despite her grandfather’s admonishment, Gray’s daughter Harriet is a Democrat, while his wife, Helen Eloise, and daughter Gail join him in the GOP. But to Gray, it’s not so much about party. Trumping all political interests is an unrepressed love of country.
“Of all the mishaps and setbacks that we’ve had,” he said, “I haven’t found a country yet I would trade for the United States.”