- At the World War II Memorial in Washington D.C., there are 4,048 gold stars on the Freedom Wall. Each star represents 100 military personnel who did not come home.
- Sgt. John Ray is one of the soldiers who did not come home. He was a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne.
- John was from Louisiana. He enlisted in the Army in January 1941. He returned home in spring for his mother’s funeral. He met Paula Freeman who lived in his neighborhood.
- John and Paula exchanged letters. They fell in love and were married on March 7, 1943 when John had a few days leave as he was training with the 82nd Airborne. They never saw each other again.
- After his wedding, John deployed as a paratrooper to North Africa, Italy and then to Normandy, France for the D-Day invasion. On D-Day, he landed behind enemy lines in Sainte-Mère-Église, a small French town near the Normandy coast.
- He landed on the church in the town square and then fell to the ground. A German soldier immediately shot him in the stomach. Two of his fellow paratroopers were caught on the church roof. As the German soldier aimed his gun at the two, John shot the German soldier, saving his two fellow paratroopers. This story formed the basis of of the movie, The Longest Day, although key details were not told in the movie. John died the next day from his wound.
- Paula did not hear of John’s fate until September 1944. She was teaching school. She received the standard one week off after losing her husband and then returned to work. She never learned the details of John’s final days and hours.
- Paula remarried in 1947. In 2000, her family was in New Orleans for the opening of the D-Day Museum on June 6, 2000. There she made connections that led to a phone call with Ken Russell, one of the two paratroopers caught on the church roof. Ken told Paula all of the details of John’s heroic actions.
- In September 2000, Paula and Ken went to Normandy to visit John’s grave at the Normandy American Cemetery.
- In 2004, Paula published Treasures in My Heart, A true World War II love story, a book that contains the letters she and John exchanged before he was killed.
Main photo above: Missing man formation on June 6, 2009, at the 65th anniversary of D-Day held at the Normandy American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach. (Photo: J.Miller/Redwood Learn)
There are 4,048 gold stars lining a curved wall, called the Freedom Wall, at the World War II Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. to honor the 405,399 men and women who did not return home. Sgt. John Ray, a paratrooper from Louisiana with the 82nd Airborne who landed behind enemy lines on D-Day, is one of those fallen heroes.
Paula Freeman met Pvt. John Ray in 1941 when he came home for his mother’s funeral. They began exchanging letters as John trained as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne, first at Fort Benning, Georgia and then at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. They fell in love and were married on March 7, 1943 when John had a few days of furlough. John then deployed to North Africa, Italy and finally, to Normandy, France for the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944. Paula never saw John again after their wedding.
Paula and John’s family had no information about him until July 1944 when they were told John had been slightly wounded. Paula kept sending letters but thought it odd she did not receive any letters from him as he was recuperating. In September as she began the school year teaching at a local elementary school, the family received a telegram that John had died on June 7, 1944 from injuries sustained on D-Day. Paula was given one week off of work, the standard time off for teachers who lost their husbands.
Paula remarried in 1947 and raised three children. After her husband died in 1994, Paula opened a cedar chest she had not opened in 50 years. Inside were 333 love letters and souvenirs John had sent to her from 1941-1944 during his training in the United States and service overseas. His last letter is dated June 6, 1944.
John’s letters form the basis of Paula’s 2004 book, Treasures in My Heart: A true WWII love story.
National D-Day Museum opens in New Orleans in 2000
On June 6, 2000, the 56th anniversary of D-Day, Paula and her family attended the D-Day parade in New Orleans where the new National D-Day Museum (now called the National World War II Museum) was opening. Stephen Ambrose, historian and author of Band of Brothers (1992), a book and movie about the men of Easy Company and the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division, the Screaming Eagles, founded the museum. It tells the story of the 16 million men and women who served in the military during WWII and the tens of millions of civilians who supported them in various capacities on the Home Front. Celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2020, it’s one of the most popular museums in the country.
For 56 years, Paula did not know how John died. From connections she made in New Orleans in 2000, she met Ken Russell, a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne who jumped with John on D-Day. On a phone call, Ken told Paula all of the tragic details.
Ken and another paratrooper were caught on a church spire when they landed in the center of Ste. Mere Eglise early on June 6, 1944. John landed on the church as well but fell to the ground where he was immediately shot in the stomach. Mortally wounded, John watched as the German soldier turned to shoot the two paratroopers but was able to grab his gun and prevent his friends from being killed.
In September 2000, Ken and Paula met in France. Together they visited John’s grave in the Normandy American Cemetery, located on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach. Approximately 9,400 American soldiers are buried there.
Paula’s story is one of more than 400,000 that are such an important part of WWII Home Front history. Gold star banners hung in windows in hundreds of thousands of homes across the country. Paula went to see the movie – The Fighting Sullivans – about a family from Waterloo, Iowa who lost five sons when the ship they were serving on together, the USS Juneau, sank during the Battle of Guadalcanal in 1942.
Their parents and sister promoted the sale of war bonds to help the war effort. Paula wrote to John that she had purchased a $75 war bond and wished she could do more.
Women who worked in factories during WWII recall women returning to work the next day after losing their husband or brother because they felt an obligation to work so other women would not have to endure the same grief.
On the back cover of her book, Paula writes that her goal in writing the book “is to tell the world about this brave young man and to give him the honor, respect, and gratitude that is due him.”
Paula passed away on July 16, 2019. She was 95.
Author’s note: In 2009, I learned of Sgt. John Ray’s service and ultimate sacrifice while covering the 65th anniversary of D-Day. Standing in the town square in Sainte-Mère-Église where Sgt. Ray was wounded on D-Day, it was difficult to picture what had happened there 65 years earlier. To this day, the small church in the town square honors Allied paratroopers with a stained-glass window and a parachute hanging from a church spire. In 2009, small French homes had Allied flags flying from their windows to honor the anniversary. Our tour group then visited Sgt. Ray’s grave at the Normandy American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach. Let’s keep this history alive.
- personnel: (noun) – people, usually associated with a larger unit such as a company or military division
- paratrooper: (noun) – a person in the military who is trained to jump out of planes wearing a parachute
- deployed: (verb) – sent to another destination, usually referring to a military deployment (noun form) with a specific mission or job
- recuperating: (verb) – recovering, usually from injury or disease
- approximately: (adverb) – about, referring to an estimate or number of something
- When did John and Paula meet?
- When were John and Paula married?
- What type of soldier was John in the U.S. Army?
- When and where was John killed?
- What job did Paula have in 1944?
- How did Paula finally learn how John died?
- How does Paula’s story represent millions of other stories as well?
- What emotions do you think Paula had as she visited John’s grave for the first time in 2000?
- It’s often said soldiers who die in war give the “ultimate sacrifice.” Discuss the societal impact of that sacrifice with John and Paula as examples.
- Read the headline again. Why do you think that headline was chosen for the story?
Treasures in My Heart: A true WWII love story by Paula Guidry, 2004. (ISBN: 0-595-30818-X)
Lesson idea with book: The 333 letters are chronologically presented with some notes and a prologue/epilogue by Paula to add context. Divide the class into groups of 3-4 students and assign each group to read letters from a certain time frame. After reading the letters, have the groups meet to prepare a class presentation covering the entire book. Assign groups to research the 101st and 82nd Airborne who trained as WWII paratroopers in Georgia at Fort Benning and Camp Toccoa to include in the presentation.
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