James A. Gray, who survived World War II in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp after being captured during the first days of the Battle of the Bulge, died Dec. 23 at his Garden City home.
Gray, 91, an Army infantryman who made a career as a Nassau County public relations employee, had briefly battled cancer.
“He would insist the only hero in the family is his father, Maxwell Henderson Gray, who won the Silver Star for bravery in WWI,” his daughter, Pamela Ahearn, said in a written eulogy. “But he was a hero to my mother and me.”
In a 2014 interview, the 1943 draftee told Newsday that he nearly perished from starvation during World War II after his combat unit was captured on Dec. 20, 1944, in Belgium’s snow-choked Ardennes forest.
His capture led to his imprisonment at the notoriously brutal Stalag IX-B, a converted children’s summer camp east of Frankfurt, where lack of food and warm clothing pushed his weight to below 100 pounds, and cost him two toes to frostbite. Gray, a lifelong nonsmoker, recalled swapping cigarettes he received in Red Cross ration packages for warm socks.
“When he was captured, we couldn’t have been more than a mile and a half apart from each other,” said William Mueller, president of the Long Island chapter of Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge, who survived the 1944 assault that led to Gray’s capture. “It was a ‘holy Christmas’ kind of day. The shelling was so bad, we were all pinned in our foxholes. It meant a lot to me to have known a man who went through the same thing I did.”
After Stalag IX-B was liberated by members of his 106th Infantry Division, Gray was discharged on Nov. 22, 1945, and returned to his native New York City, where he studied marketing at New York University.
While he revered the memory of his veteran father, he also came to question whether nations too readily resort to war.
Two years ago, Gray told Newsday in a story about his and his father’s war experiences that he regretted that the World War I carnage his father endured did not prove to be the “war to end all wars,” as many had hoped.
“The technology of World War II that killed people faster and more thoroughly still came along,” Gray said.
After marrying the former Ann Louise Leonard at Garden City United Methodist Church in 1949, the couple moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he worked for advertising agencies. The couple moved to Garden City in 1957, and Gray went to work for the Nassau public works department. He retired in 1990.
A lifelong Democrat, he was active in local politics, prisoner-of-war organizations and in later years became a used book scout along with his wife, who died in 2013. He played softball and tennis into his late 80s.
He is survived by his daughter, of New Orleans, and a grandson.
Visiting is Thursday from 2 to 4 p.m., and 7 to 9 p.m. at Fairchild Sons Funeral Home in Garden City. Burial is Friday at 10:45 a.m. at Long Island National Cemetery, in East Farmingdale.