Louisiana veteran saved stars from American flag while imprisoned in WWII
(Tribune News Service) – A lot of people ignore Flag Day, but it never was for JS and Alyne Gray – and not just because it was their birthday.
Before marrying in Jonesville and later settling in Greenwell Springs after World War II, the Grays were connected to two special flags. One was one of the most famous ever deployed — and the other they tried to make better known.
While JS Gray served in the Pacific, Alyne Swayze worked as a civilian at the Army’s Camp Livingston in central Louisiana. She regularly traveled to Alexandria to attend functions at the USO, which provided service members with a place to socialize.
“You would meet such wonderful, well-educated people, then poor souls…but you had to treat them all the same, which I did,” she told The Advocate in 2004.
This spirit helped her meet a participant in one of the most memorably photographed moments of the war.
On May 30, 1945, two of the servicemen who had planted the flag on Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi came to Alexandria for a war bond rally. PC Navy. Rene Gagnon and Navy Pharmacist’s Mate 2nd Class John Bradley were among the six who hoisted the flag as Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal captured the image. Three of the soldiers pictured were killed on the island.
The photo had given the home front a dose of patriotism. The rally featured Gagnon, Bradley, another Iwo Jima soldier not involved in the flag raising, and local dignitaries, urging all citizens to purchase war bonds to support the effort. Each of the soldiers was assigned a date for the occasion. Swayze was Gagnon’s date.
Gagnon and Bradley recreated by planting the same flag that had flown in Suribachi – now scarred by bullet holes and frayed by a strong wind – as the national anthem was played.
When the date was over, she found a signed note from Gagnon in her purse. He said, “To a beautiful girl that I would like to know better.” However, neither of them contacted the other again.
All over the world, her future husband knew nothing of all this. He was just trying to survive.
Hours after attacking Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces struck the Philippines, where Gray was stationed. After four months of desperate fighting on the Bataan Peninsula, most American and Philippine forces surrendered on April 9, 1942.
Gray was one of the malnourished and dehydrated prisoners forced to endure the Bataan Death March, a multi-day march in tropical heat as they were brutalized by their captors. The march ended at the infamous Cabanatuan prison camp. Eventually, Gray was sent to another prison camp.
There, a Japanese officer brought an American flag and told the prisoners to destroy it. The prisoners hatched a plan. Prisoner Paul Spain cut out the 48 stars and distributed them to a few healthy comrades. They burned the rest of the flag to satisfy the Japanese, but kept the stars hidden inside their clothes.
“If we got caught with these stars, they’d kill us,” Gray said in 2003. with the men. … We just wanted those stars to last until the end of the war.”
Whether the men would last was uncertain. After about two years, the prisoners were sent to Japan aboard a ship that had been used to transport cattle, Gray told The Advocate in 1992. The prisoners were stuck in the sweltering hold, their ankles stuck in the animal excrement. Left there for two months, some men went insane and others died, and their bodies were not removed until the men landed in Japan. Cold weather in Japan has contributed to more deaths from pneumonia.
Finally, when Japan surrendered, American B-29 bombers dropped much-needed food into the camp. The parachutes were red, white and blue.
Spain collected the stars and set about creating a flag from the parachute fabric with an available sewing machine. When the single needle on the sewing machine broke, Gray made two needles from thread to hand-sew the last stars in place. The prisoners made him climb on the pole of the prison camp. Gray, about 100 pounds lighter than at the start of the war, said he and others saluted.
Gray would soon return to Jonesville, where he and Alyne were married on June 14, 1946. Before his death in 2003, he spoke about his experiences to church and civic groups. Over time, the memories made him too emotional, so Alyne spoke while wiping away her tears, often sharing the story before her death in 2012.
“When you see our flag flying over the post office, on the schoolyards and maybe in your house, take a good look at it,” she said in conclusion, “because as long as Old Glory is flying, we live in the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
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