PENN RUN — Recognition of service from a foreign government is one of the highest achievements an individual can earn.
This is the recognition Clarence F. Ray, 91, of Penn Run, received from the French government on June 6 when he was awarded the French Legion Medal of Honor for his service in France during World War II.
The medal, created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, recognizes men and women who have served France in exceptional capacities in military or civil affairs. It is the highest distinction that can be given by the French government to French or foreign citizens.
Born March 17, 1922, in Penn Run, Ray was the youngest of six children. Growing up during the Great Depression was difficult, and he worked his father’s farm from youth to early adulthood.
Ray registered for the draft on his 20th birthday and was soon drafted into the Army on Dec. 8, 1942.
“I could have had an exemption from being drafted,” he said, “but I wanted to go, and my dad was pretty patriotic. He didn’t even suggest I try to get an exemption.”
Ray began his boot camp training in Camp Van Doren in Mississippi. Following his training, he was sent to Camp Maxey, Texas.
He volunteered for overseas service in March 1944 because he “was tired of training and was ready for some action.” One morning, his first sergeant asked for 16 volunteers — one noncommissioned officer and 15 privates. Ray, being a buck sergeant at the time, was the first to step out and offer his service.
Ray traveled from Texas to New York and was then shipped to Scotland. Once in Scotland, he traveled by train to southern England, crossing the English Channel and landing on Utah Beach in France on June 10, “D-Day-plus-four.”
He saw his fair share of action as well as several close calls. Once, while operating in France, his unit was moving in to take over the town of Cherbourg. While traversing a sunken road, he climbed through some bushes and jumped down straight into a German machine gun nest. Instead of fighting, all the German soldiers immediately surrendered, he said.
“It’s a good thing they did,” he said. “They could have cut me in half with that gun.”
During the Battle of the Bulge, Ray was working in a small town called Kalterherberg inside the German border. His unit was operating an outpost that switched personnel every evening. After being relieved shortly before daybreak, he learned later in the day that the outpost had been attacked by Germans and all the soldiers in the outpost had been taken prisoner.
“I could have spent the war as a POW,” he said.
Ray also saw several injuries. In August 1944 he was hit in the right leg by machine gun fire. In March 1945 a mortar exploded outside a house he was searching. He took shrapnel wounds to his left side including his left lung. He was forced to drag himself from the house to a nearby aid station.
The latter injury put him out of service for good. He was transported from France back to England, eventually ending up in Memphis, Tenn., via Charleston, S.C.
Ray was discharged from the Army on Sept. 19, 1945.
With the help of his family, he applied for the French Legion medal. The medal is available to any veterans who served in any of the French World War II campaigns.
Ray served in four separate campaigns during his time overseas — Normandy, northern France, the Ardennes and central Europe.
He was awarded the medal at the French embassy in Washington, D.C., on the 69th anniversary of D-Day with 19 other veterans.
“It was a privilege to serve and an honor to do my duty,” he said in regard to the ceremony, “and I’m certainly no hero. I was just there and did what I was supposed to do the best I know how. I sometimes feel guilty, because here I am. I fought through that and survived, and enjoyed a good life, and I’m 91 years old. And some of the men who served under me didn’t have that opportunity.”
Ray lives with his wife, Marlynn, 76, in their home in Penn Run. He enjoys gardening and mowing the lawn on his riding mower.