Location of story: United states, northern Ireland,Malta and Arnhem, Iraq, Palestine and Jordan. Unit name: Irish Fusiliers Background to story: Army
This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Bill Ross of the ‘Action Desk – Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Mary Gray, and has been added to the site with the her permission. Mrs. Gray fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
Although the early and final parts of this very moving story do not directly convey events of WW2, the bulk of it does so and in the sections that are accounts of the war experiences, there are reflections of the early parts, as well as forward references to the final outcome. The entire story is adequately epitomised in the Introduction that has been written by the wife of the author, and this will facilitate synchronisation of the various parts of the entire story.
Bill Ross (BBC Volunteer Story Editor).
This presentation was written by my husband, Joseph Patrick Gray. His journal tells his story of a big part of his life, from him being born in Philadelphia in the USA, and his youthful years. But mainly, it’s about his long army career from 1937 to1946 (+ 3 years reserve). He then lived in Northern Ireland where he joined the Royal Irish Fusiliers, aged 19.
After a period of training, he, along with the regiment, was posted to Malta, although it was still peace time. He was still there when war broke out. In total, he was in Malta for almost 6 years. The only time he got away was when Churchill announced that they wanted volunteers to start an army of airborne troops. My husband volunteered and he was sent to Egypt for rigorous training and to start parachute jumps. Then he and the rest were back to Malta – to starvation.
As no ships had got through the blockade, the soldiers and civilians alike had a bad time. There were air raids every day, over 3,000 of them in fact and they had no defence.
Well, at last, in June 1943, they were taken off Malta and boarded a ship, the first out of Malta for some time (they were still being bombed) and they landed at Port Said transit camp. He said that the first sight he saw that he’ll never forget was of piles of white bread; it wasn’t rationed either. The training was very hard but he enjoyed it. They were fully-fledged paras by now, doing 7 jumps a night. They were the first of a new battalion.
There is so much to tell in his story. I am and always will be very proud of him: what he went through, the theatres of war, Malta, Iraq, Egypt, Palestine, the Gaza Strip, Jordan, the Isle of Kos and more, but lastly, Arnhem. He landed there on the second day of the fighting, the 18th of September (his birthday) and he was captured on the last day. After a long journey by train in cattle trucks, they arrived in Czechoslovakia, to a prisoner of war camp. They were there for 18 months where they suffered starvation again, and worked in coal mines with rags on their feet. They endured this until they were liberated by the Russians.
There is another sinister story to tell in addition to this one, that being of a red tape incident that really broke his heart. When he went with the intention of laying a wreath from the Sheffield ex Paras Reunion, he was turned away at the Belgian border, purely because he was American by birth. He had a valid visa, but they would not accept it and he was escorted back to the boat, then sent back to England. All he could say was that they didn’t ask to see his passport when he jumped and fought at Arnhem and all the other places. He served 27 years in all.
My dearest husband passed away 7 years ago (in 1998) and on the wall of my home is a velvet based frame containing 10 medals from different theatres of war he was in. It will be passed on to my sons. My husband was worth a thousand of others, he was a HERO!
An Autobiographical Account Of A
By Joseph P. Gray
I am Joseph P. Gray and was born in Philadelphia, Pa. in the USA, to Patrick Gray and Mary, both from Co. Derry in Northern Ireland. They met and were married in the USA.
We lived in a terrace house at 1510 Gunter Street; my father worked at the local gasworks and my mother was a housewife. What she did before her marriage, I don’t know. I had sisters, Helen and Mary who were also born in the USA. I know my mother had her hands full looking after the three of our father, and us, plus having to deal with the housework.
I can remember back to being two years of age, based upon incidences that I have been reminded of. The house had three bedrooms, bathroom, large front room and a kitchen, plus a large hallway leading to a stairway, with doorways leading off to the lounge and kitchen, and a cellar beneath. The front door was about four steps up from the pavement outside. There was a window-like entrance to the cellar from the pavement, where the coke for the boiler, that supplied hot water and central heating, was stored.
In addition to the central heating system, we had a fridge; it’s noteworthy that this was c. 1920 (it was 1953 before I was able to afford a fridge in Britain, and 1978 before we got central heating, which we can ill afford to run now in 1990).
We had plenty of relatives living close by, my father had four brothers and three sisters, all married with families. To my knowledge, my mother had three sisters; so really, we had an Irish community of our own. I remember we always had big birthdays, Christmases and Easters. Halloween was a jolly time over there, dressing up and playing tricks on each other.
We had a good playing area because as far as I can remember, our street was traffic free, so there were no worries for our mums. The main traffic and the trolley cars (or trams) were at the bottom of Gunter Street. We had a corner shop where we got our goodies. I used to fetch my dad’s Camel cigarettes, which I think cost 10 cents a pack then.
I started school before we left Philadelphia, but I don’t think I went for long because I can’t remember much about school, only that we were taught by nuns, whom I thought then were cruel, which I suppose they were at the time.
There are plenty of childhood memories that I have, but they are only ‘kid things’, which we all have. I never really found out why we left the USA at all, but I suffered a lot of illness at the time; I seem to have had everything that was going around, including having my tonsils out. Because of this, I always thought it was because of me. When I grew up, my father and I were never the closest of friends, a fact I may mention later.
We arrived in Ireland, which, as far as I know, was in 1925, so I would be about 7 years old. I seem to remember things better between 2 and 4 years, than I did after 5 years. I remember lots about the boat trip home, the cabin we had, the bunks we slept in. I remember standing at the rails and throwing a cent out into the ocean and I often wondered if anyone found it or fished it out. We sailed up the River Foyle into the city of Derry. The ship stopped well outside the city, so we entered Derry by a small tender. We arrived on the left bank, but we had to board another tender to cross over to the right, as the South Derry trams ran from that side.
Before I go any further with this, I must tell you that I have been talked (forced) into this by my wife and family, even supplying the material, but I am no Jeffrey Archer. I can’t write, I can’t spell and my memory is not so good, so if there are any wrong spellings, you will have to make the best of it, because I’m only saying this once, I’m not re-writing anything or tearing out pages, for the sake of wrong spelling, so there!
I can’t remember the journey from Derry to our destination, which was a small village in South Derry called Draperstown. The locals called it ‘The Cross’ because there were four roads going through it and they crossed in the centre of town. I can’t even remember arriving or what sort of welcome we had, I suppose I was that excited about our new surroundings. Can you imagine the difference between Philadelphia and Draperstown?
The first I remember was the next day when I went out into the street and a crowd of kids gathered around me. My Aunt Nellie, back in Philly gave me a good impression of Ireland (encouragement I suppose), about all the good things. One of them was that apples grew on trees. I’d only seen them in shops in Philly. Referring to the kids again, I was asking them where these apples were. Years later, I realised that the kids were only around me to hear me talk.
Anyway, we stayed with my father’s mum and dad; where we slept, I don’t know because it was such a small house. I don’t know how long my mum and dad stayed there, but it must have been a while because I started school in Draperstown, but I can’t remember much about school.
The reason I was left with my grandma and granddad was that my dad had bought a farm, which was about four miles up in the hills. He and my mother were trying to get it ship shape, which I often heard was a right tip, but they eventually got it into a liveable state so then I moved into my new home. Compared to Philly however, it was a wilderness.
This farm was bought from my mother’s brother Pat; it had been left to his wife by her family, the Cleary family. It is situated on a hill with two other farms, they were all called Cleary, so the locals called it ‘Cleary’s Hill’. This hill is between two rivers: The White Water and guess what, Cleary’s Burn. Often, after a rainstorm and floods, we could neither get in or out; we would have to stay at one of the nearby farms until the rivers went down. There were no bridges of course, only foot sticks as they were called.
I really enjoyed the wilderness when I was small and senseless; the wide-open spaces, as compared to Gunter Street, but even so, I had to go to school, but as I grew up, things became different.
I didn’t mention that my dad was robbed completely for this farm. It cost him over £600.00 at that time (1925). They say it was worth only £200.00, but my dad, not knowing anything about farming, fell for it, and to say it was from my uncle, my mother’s brother. They were never the best of friends afterwards.
Naturally, I had to go to school, which was about two miles away across fields and woods. There were two rivers to cross in all weathers. You can imagine the winters up there. The school was a small one in the town land of Bracke, therefore, naturally called Bracke School. We had two teachers, the head teacher Mrs Bradley and the juniors’, Miss Bradley (no relation). We stayed there until we were 14 years old, I never heard of anyone going to higher education, well, not while I was there anyway, but if anyone did, it had to be paid for.
While we were at school, my dad was working the farm with a hired hand whom he paid 2/- (2 shillings (10p) a day, getting the ground ready to plant. If it was potatoes, when we arrived home from school, we would have a scone, then put on a bag apron, fill it up with as many spuds as we could carry, and start dropping them into the drills that my mum and dad had been preparing all day until it got dark.
In the harvest time, we were never out of the fields after school. We were stucking corn, gathering up hay, up to the moss to foot, clamp or stack turf for our winter fire. When the spuds were ready, my dad and the helper would be digging all day. The spuds were laid on the ground and were waiting for us coming out of school to gather them up and store them in the pits before it got dark. Turnips had to be pulled up, de-rooted and leaves cut off and chucked into carts. This was mostly done in frosty weather and snow. After all that, we’d fetch the cows in and maybe milk them. After all this, we’d come in for a bowl of porridge.
I am now reaching school leaving age and believe me, I didn’t want to leave. I was really getting into learning and wanted to continue, but it was too late, so in September 1932, I was a man of 14 years of age, but really, still a kid, working at a man’s job on the farm. There was no machinery at all, just a spade, fork, a horse and a plough. Being only 14 years old, I would take the place of the hired man, but I didn’t get 2/- (2 shillings (10p) a day. Perhaps when a beast was sold at the fair, I’d get the two shillings, and honestly, you would think he was giving me a fortune.
The farm we lived on had belonged to Francis Cleary, the next farm belonged to Margaret Cleary and the one at the back belonged to Mick, so all Clearys. They eventually all died off, so my dad bought the lot, therefore, he ended up owning Cleary’s Hill, now Gray’s. Margaret’s farm was half as big again and the one we lived in, Francis’s was about 300 acres. Mick’s was about 100 acres and together, they cost about £400.00, but not forgetting, he paid over £600.00 for the first one. What a sucker eh? All this was about ten years after he bought from his brother in law.
My dad was no farmer to start with, that’s why he hired hands at first. They showed him everything, so he carried on in his rough and awkward way. Everyone was wrong except for him; he really was a cruel man, not only to the animal but to us, his kids. We were blamed for all the cattle going astray, breaking into crops, anything and everything that could go wrong on a farm. Our punishment wasn’t just a slap on the face, but a rod around the legs, which were always bare to the knees. This rod was like a cane; it used to wrap around the legs and leave black whip marks around both legs, visible to everyone. We always hid them the best we could from everyone, we were that ashamed, but he wasn’t.
We did have our good times playing in the summertime, wading in the river and bathing in the big holes in the rivers, playing hide and seek, gathering berries when they were ripe. This was mostly when dad was off somewhere and well out of sight. By now, I had another sister, Catherine, and a brother, Danny. I’d be about 12 when my mother died giving birth. I got to know later, but then, we were ignorant of such things, unlike today’s kids.
The day she died, a Sunday, she woke me up to go to mass at 9 o’clock, which was about 3 miles walk away, I was to go down to town, to my grandmother’s and tell her she was wanted. She gave me a bowl of tea (there were no cups then) and a scone. She just left me and told me to make my own way home when I’d finished. She knew what my mother meant when she said to fetch the doctor. There were no hospital births in those days; it was all done at the farm.
To me, my mother was that morning, as any other morning. I can even remember her dress; it was a big loose green satin one. I know why now, but I didn’t know then. It was one that came from the USA in a parcel with others. I hung around the town and spent my pennies, then I went round a few gardens that I knew had some gooseberries.
I filled my pockets to take some home for my mum and the younger kids and collected some apples from Clark’s farm, so I had a good feed on fruit on my way home, which was about an hour’s walk up Cahore Road and across the moss banks and fields, over two rivers, then a climb up a hill to our house.
When I got to the house, there seemed to be a lot of strange people about. The doctor was just leaving and a few of the neighbours were standing around. I went inside; the first person I saw was the priest, Father Welsh. He came to me, patted my head and explained that my mother had gone to a nicer place, or words to that effect. I was 12 years old then, but I could understand that my mother was dead; why, only a couple of hours earlier, she was well, walking about and rushing me off to church. I just burst out crying and I took a lot of calming down. Through it all, I can’t remember seeing my father. I suppose he broke down like me, in another corner. I can’t remember anything about the funeral, except that at the graveside, I was in a bad state. Someone was holding onto me, as if I was trying to jump in. I was just in a daze.
I can’t remember who looked after us then; I was the oldest so there was no older sister to do the job. I suppose it was my grandmother, my dad’s mother. I did have three sisters and a brother Danny, who was about 2 when my mother died, so we took some looking after.
I was still at school, but I still had plenty of chores to do despite my dad having someone to help him on the farm; mowing, digging and all by hand, no machinery in those days. They would be digging potatoes all day and we came home from school and had to pick them up. If they were mowing hay, we had to shake it out to dry it. If it was corn, we had to gather up all the sheaves to stand up in fours, or ‘stuck’ as it was called.
All this was just endless, according to the season, plus feeding the stock, mucking out the byres and stables, plus herding the cattle to keep them away from the crops. If they did get into the turnips or cabbage, the cane came down and believe me, we had a few black and blue rings around our legs. I used to be afraid to face strangers in case they noticed them, because they were noticeable for quite a while. Yes, he was a very cruel man, my father. I always seemed to take the blame for all that went wrong.
All this went on until I became strong enough to dig, use the horse and cart, more or less, a man sized job, yet I was still only 14 and had just finished school. I loved school; I was just beginning to learn and pick things up when I had to leave.
I don’t think I mentioned that Cleavis Hill was in a town called Corrick in Co. Derry. It consisted of 3 farms, ours, Margaret’s and Mick’s. Margaret’s was the largest, then ours, then Mick’s. They still lived in their farms up until I was 16; I used to visit Mick regularly, as he played the flute. He told some tall stories.
From what I gather, Margaret lived all of her life with two brothers; they would go to market in the town every Wednesday, and the fair, which was once a month; selling and buying, from what I heard, mostly getting drunk. Someone in town would put them in the cart, point the horse in the direction of home, and off it would go and get them home safe. We had a horse called, Old Johnnie, which often brought my dad home. There were some tricky corners to take, but he always made it.
When Margaret’s brothers arrived home and went to bed, she always went through their pockets and helped herself, and in those days, it was gold sovereigns. Years afterwards, we discovered that she would have collected a right hoard, had she kept them all together. But she had to hide them, so she stuck them in holes in the walls, in the thatch or anywhere that she could think of. This we found out ages after she had died. When we knocked the old house down, the thatch was dumped in the middle and was eventually scattered over the fields.
I was weeding the potatoes one day. I pulled up chickweed, and underneath was a gold coloured medal, as I thought at the time. Nobody could say what it was, as gold sovereigns had been out of circulation for years. Eventually, relations from Belfast arrived at our next-door farm and they let us know what it was, so I was now a rich man. This coin got there through the thatch, which was spread on the fields. I found two more, ages after that, in another field, one when sheafing corn and the other while chasing the cows. One of them dug it up with its hoofs, as I was chasing it and there it was sitting on the top of the freshly dug up soil. They say hungry eyes see far, these finds were spread over quite a few years. The first I found, I got £1.50, that is all I got for each of the others, and to think that today, they are worth £80.00. I bought a lamb and a second hand suit of clothes with the first one and I had some change.
As for the other two, I was much older, smoking, enjoying an odd Guinness, and going out to dances, so you can see how they got spent. I had lots of friends while it lasted. Back to my mother, she died in August I think, 1931.
So, back to the gold coins; I’m sure there are stacks of them still all round the fields. It would be worth getting a device to detect gold, of course, they may be down deeper now I suppose.
In 1932, my dad remarried because he had to have someone to care for us, as I had got another sister aged about 5 then; Catherine, and a brother Danny, my only brother, he would be about 2. So, it was for our sakes I suppose.
We all liked her, we always knew her as she lived in the next-door farm; Annie McFalls, believe me, she didn’t know what she was taking on. Not only us, but he was a demanding man. She had two brothers, Patrick and Johnny, both single and never married. My dad detested both of them and a lot of that hatred came back to Annie, now his wife. As I grew up, I began to understand things. I used to pity her; she just couldn’t do enough as far as he was concerned. In our eyes, she was great.
Now, he had a second family: Johnny, Winnie, Sally, Anna, Patrick and Peter. Where they all sleep is beyond me, four or five in a bed. There were only two bedrooms and a bed in the kitchen in a little offshoot. It was called ‘outshut’. My father’s mum, and dad now moved in with us and they slept in the ‘outshut’. My granddad died first. He was a great man to me anyhow. He bought me a young calf, so now, I had a couple of sheep and a calf. This would be about 1935 and I was about 16 ½. My dad allowed me to help out certain farmers with the hay and spud gathering. I’d get 2/- (10p) a day. Now, it would cost that to go to the toilet.
Seventeen now, so I’m off out at night making friends and taking sides, which was not easy. Only dad was Irish through and through. I wouldn’t say I.R.A., but nearly, so I tried to ‘friend up’ with his mates’ sons, but they ignored me simply because my dad’s second wife Annie and her brother were Hiberians. They were a recognised party in the north then, and the I.R.A. was banned.
The Hibs, as they were called, had a hall in every district and all had different types of bands. They were allowed to parade and march twice a year: the 17th of March and the 15th of August. So I think that is why they ignored me, thinking I’d been influenced by her, which of course, I was, so I palled up with them and joined the Downtown Hib. Band 317, and had some great days out. We paraded a different town or village every time. All the I.R.A. could do then was to hang their flag up trees on Easter weekend at dark of night, as they were barred in the six counties at that time, what a pity things altered. Just look at them now. As I mentioned earlier, my dad was that way inclined.
One day after Easter, he and I were on our way to a field which he had rented, near the town. It was a right round about journey and we never had anything to say to each other. I noticed on our way, there were no flags, someone had cut them down, but all of a sudden, my dad was smiling as we sat in the cart and I wondered, so I looked around and lo and behold, away up on the hill, about a mile away, was a flag flying from the top of a tree, so I thought to myself, “You won’t be smiling tomorrow morning.” And he wasn’t.
That night, I went to the top of that hill and to the top of the tree. The tree was stripped of all its branches and a strand of barbed wire from the bottom of the tree, which was really a pole now, wrapped around to the top and back down again, but I managed to get the flag down and only got a rip in my trousers and a few fingers bleeding. As I was climbing, I thought, if I got shot, I would have a soft landing and that is true, so I made my way to the Hib. Hall, and burnt the flag in front of a few of the lads who were playing cards and naturally, they all said bravo. The old fellow’s face had no smile next morning, but there was one on mine.