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Interview with Donald Gray, April 16, 2007 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with Donald Gray, April 16, 2007
April 16, 2007
Retired Commander Donald Gray enlisted in the Navy Air Corps in 1942, at the age of 18. After completing flight training, he was assigned to a flight group at Fort Ticonderoga. Near the end of WWII, he was stationed at Chincoteague, VA, and then assigned to Norfolk to deliver war bond planes. Commander Gray went on inactive duty in February of 1946.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee:  Gray, Donald W. Interviewer:  Zarbock, Paul Date of Interview:  4/16/2007 Series:  Veterans' Heritage Length  60 minutes


Zarbock: Good afternoon. My name is Paul Zarbock, a staff person with the University of North Carolina at Wilmington's Randall Library. Today is the 16th of April in the year 2007 and we're at Randall Library at UNCW. We're going to be interviewing Mr. Donald W. Gray and his activities during World War II. This is part of the oral history project at the university. Good afternoon, and how are you?

Donald Gray: Thank you, pleasure.

Zarbock: How, where and when did you get in the military?

Donald Gray: I actually got in the military by enlisting in Boston while I was going to college in Vermont. I was 18 at the time and the Navy had dropped its entrance requirements for a degree to two years of college.

Zarbock: What were you studying in college by the way?

Donald Gray: Studying pre-law.

Zarbock: Well, and that of course may not have been the greatest help in entering, it was the Navy Air arm. Is that correct?

Donald Gray: Navy Air Corps.

Zarbock: Navy Air Corps. Well, how did you get in the Navy Air Corps?

Donald Gray: Well, as a matter of wanting to get at the Japs. (laughs)

Zarbock: How old were you?

Donald Gray: Eighteen.

Zarbock: And did you enlist in the Navy?

Donald Gray: That's right.

Zarbock: And what year was that?

Donald Gray: That was 1942.

Zarbock: So, you're 18 in 1942.

Donald Gray: Right.

Zarbock: The war had just started.

Donald Gray: Yes.

Zarbock: What was it like in those days?

Donald Gray: Well, we were still in the depression, and you might say there wasn't much activity in general. In other words, the country was just coasting.

Zarbock: What was your hometown?

Donald Gray: Whitehall, New York.

Zarbock: A manufacturing town or farming town or...?

Donald Gray: Let's say it was a little bit of everything. It was a town of 5,000 people. It was actually known unofficially as the birth place of the American Navy, in other words the ships were built there to be in the battle of Plattsburgh Bay and during the French and Indian War it was a, you might say, a traveling touch for commerce.

Zarbock: Did you, what made you decide to go into the military? Patriotic fervor or see the world or get away from dullness?

Donald Gray: Patriotism, and most of my buddies were signing up also.

Zarbock: So did you enlist directly into the Navy?

Donald Gray: Yes.

Zarbock: And how were you picked for air training?

Donald Gray: Well, it was voluntary, and actually we were through training as volunteers. In other words, if you washed out, you were sent to the draft board. (laughs)

Zarbock: Is that something like being between the devil and the deep blue sea or something?

Donald Gray: Well, you might say so. Or I could've continued in college. But the Navy had a V12 program for college enlistees.

Zarbock: What do you mean V12?

Donald Gray: Oh, that was just a nomenclature they use for college people, in other words college trainees.

Zarbock: Well, were you sworn into the Navy? This sounds like a kind of an optional if this, then that.

Donald Gray: Well, after you pass the physical and the mental, they put you through the procedure of swearing in.

Zarbock: Did you have to go to boot camp?

Donald Gray: No, no. I actually was sent home for a period of four months. (laughs)

Zarbock: Pending what?

Donald Gray: Call up, training. I went back to college.

Zarbock: Where were you going to college?

Donald Gray: In Green Mountain College. I was there for a year, then I went to Cornell.

Zarbock: But you're still dangling in space waiting for the Navy to call you?

Donald Gray: That's right.

Zarbock: And eventually they did, is that correct?

Donald Gray: Yes.

Zarbock: And where did they send you when they called you?

Donald Gray: Well, about 110 miles away to RPI in Troy, New York.

Zarbock: What does RPI stand for?

Donald Gray: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. It's an engineering school.

Zarbock: And they're going to teach you how to fly there?

Donald Gray: Oh yes, we had both ground school and flying out of the local airport.

Zarbock: So you went directly from civilian life to the life of an aeronautical cadet. Is that correct?

Donald Gray: Well yes, however, we only had one single uniform and other than that we wore our civilian clothes.

Zarbock: What was the uniform?

Donald Gray: It was a CCC uniform.

Zarbock: What does CCC stand for?

Donald Gray: Civilian Conservation Corps. It was started during the depression. It was a green uniform like the jacket I'm wearing and it was what we call a piss cutter hat, in other words no visor. And it was, the uniform had been stored in mothballs since the CCC had been you might say disbanded. (laughs) And the aircraft that we flew were, it was a gathering of all types of low powered aircraft. The particular aircraft I was involved with was called a WACO, a UPF7, a WACO style biplane, and we proceeded to solo and fly that through acrobatic training and so and so forth. All the instructors were barnstormer pilots.

Zarbock: By the way, had you ever flown before?

Donald Gray: No, no, never been in an airplane before.

Zarbock: What motivated you to go into the Navy Air Corps.

Donald Gray: To get at the Japs. (laughs)

Zarbock: And that was the way to do it?

Donald Gray: That was the quickest way.

Zarbock: Well, you know, this sounds a little like a spit and string outfit with you've got a uniform from a Civilian Conservation Corps, you're flying in aircraft that are low powered and all sorts of kinds of them and you say your instructors were civilian?

Donald Gray: Oh yes, barnstormers.

Zarbock: Again, for the purpose of history, what's a barnstormer?

Donald Gray: A person who flies at air shows, puts on demonstrations of stunts and so on and so forth. In fact, I attributed my overall success and then going to the Navy program because of this early barnstormer training. In other words, there were no holds barred. (laughs)

Zarbock: They sound like a bunch of derry-do guys.

Donald Gray: Well, it was all authentic and it was very you might say basic and it just, well, was showmanship.

Zarbock: Were they good instructors?

Donald Gray: Oh yes. (laughs) Superior.

Zarbock: That's amazing. They clamp you into an airplane, you had never been into an airplane, and your instructor is a guy that made his living out of doing swashbuckling things, and he's supposed to teach you?

Donald Gray: Well, if I might give you an incident, should I?

Zarbock: Please.

Donald Gray: In my second flight, we were looking over the so-called practice area where we were supposed to do the aerial work, and this instructor sat over the gossboard [ph?], that was an air tube between the cockpits. He said, "Those are friends of mine down there" and I look and there's an open touring car outside a clump of woods, so he said, "Let's flush them out." (laughs) So we flew down amongst the trees and did a loop and came down and I looked and there are three couples coming out of the woods in different directions. (laughs) He says, "Those are my friends." And this was on a Sunday.

Zarbock: How long did that training last?

Donald Gray: It lasted for two and a half months.

Zarbock: And did you solo after that?

Donald Gray: Oh yes, soloed after four hours.

Zarbock: You were in the cockpit for four hours and you soloed?

Donald Gray: Right.

Zarbock: From that point on, were you, was an instructor with you after you solo?

Donald Gray: Had to go through a training program, in other words different types of maneuvers and also precision flying, which took instruction. In other words, you had to verbally understand these procedures.

Zarbock: When you say precision, do you mean formation flying or what?

Donald Gray: Basically landing to a circle, a hundred foot circle, slipping to landings, acrobatics of all different sorts and some formation flying.

Zarbock: Did you like it?

Donald Gray: Oh yes, it was very trying, very upbeat. (laughs)

Zarbock: Was there a high attrition rate?

Donald Gray: Yes, yes.

Zarbock: What could wash you out?

Donald Gray: Being unable to meet the syllabus under this pressure. In other words, they had to train people during a rather short period of time, so if you didn't meet the syllabus, you were out.

Zarbock: So it was done quickly and well?

Donald Gray: Oh yes, yes, yes.

Zarbock: Well, after you finish your training there, where were you assigned?

Donald Gray: After that training, went to Chapel Hill, all right, and that was strictly a muscle effort with a little bit of discipline involved, and there we went through all the major contact sports, competition, and we had a bit of you might say indoctrination for the Navy or from the Navy and then if you survived that, you went on to what they call elementary flying.

Zarbock: By the way, are you still wearing your CCC uniform?

Donald Gray: (laughs) No, this is a tailor-made job. (laughs)

Zarbock: Are you a commissioned officer at this time?

Donald Gray: No, no, you were commissioned after Pensacola.

Zarbock: And tell me again, how long were you at Chapel Hill?

Donald Gray: Three months.

Zarbock: And really, you simply, it was build up your body time?

Donald Gray: That's right, yes. And swimming was (laughs) a major ______. In fact, the Navy built a swimming pool. They didn't have any swimming pool before we got there. (laughs)

Zarbock: Well, you've got quite a career behind you. Where were you sent next, Pensacola?

Donald Gray: No, out to Indiana at what they call an E Base, in other words elementary flying.

Zarbock: I thought that's what you had been doing?

Donald Gray: Well again, what I'd been doing was sort of a pre-screening effort for the military, in other words they washed out a number of people in that stage and they went on to another stage to try and be washed out. (laughs)

Zarbock: So the population continuously got smaller and smaller?

Donald Gray: Oh yes, right, right.

Zarbock: What happened to the people who washed out?

Donald Gray: Well, I never followed most of them. They probably were sent, you know, to their draft board first and then from there on I don't know what happened.

Zarbock: By the way, you're in Indiana, what year is this?

Donald Gray: This is early in '43.

Zarbock: So you've been involved with the military what for about a year?

Donald Gray: No, about six months.

Zarbock: Okay. Well, you made it through Indiana too.

Donald Gray: (laughs) Indiana wasn't easy. We were flying in the early winter in open cockpits.

Zarbock: These are all single engine planes?

Donald Gray: Oh yes.

Zarbock: Biplanes?

Donald Gray: Yes, two-seaters.

Zarbock: And would the instructor be with you?

Donald Gray: Most of the time, yes, yes.

Zarbock: Would you know when you reported to the flight field in the morning we're going to practice this or we're going to practice that?

Donald Gray: Oh yes, there was a very tight syllabus as a matter of stages. In other words, the initial landing, takeoff and then you progress to acrobatics and then to formation flying.

Zarbock: And you passed through that successfully?

Donald Gray: Without a down check, yes.

Zarbock: A down check?

Donald Gray: That was a failure, a flight failure.

Zarbock: Would one wash you out?

Donald Gray: No, one would get you some extra time and more checks, and then you were washed out.

Zarbock: Oh. Well, and from there what happened?

Donald Gray: Well, from there Pensacola.

Zarbock: Wow, the sunny south.

Donald Gray: (laughs) I got down there in the wintertime and it wasn't so sunny. For the first time in 60 years it snowed in Pensacola. (laughs) The snow just followed us from Indiana I guess.

Zarbock: What was your duty assignment at Pensacola, what were you supposed to do?

Donald Gray: Be a cadet. (laughs)

Zarbock: So far you're really sort of in limbo when it comes to military designation?

Donald Gray: Well yes, as far as the general military is concerned, yes. It's different than, you know, the general military itself. There was no boot camp or you might say that Chapel Hill was our boot camp. (laughs)

Zarbock: How old were you when you got to Pensacola?

Donald Gray: Eighteen.

Zarbock: You certainly have packed an awful lot of life in 18 years so far.

Donald Gray: (laughs) Well again, you must remember that we were in a depression and looking at my grandsons and their actions and what I see on the campus here, we were much more mature at that age than people are today, much more. (laughs)

Zarbock: Yeah. How long did you, were you assigned to Pensacola?

Donald Gray: Pensacola? I went through the training program there in I believe it was five months, yes. And then we were commissioned and from there we went to what they call operational training. In other words, we were assigned to the type of aircraft that we would be flying for the fleet, and that happened in Melbourne, Florida. Melbourne, do you know where that is, it's on the coast, right. And after that I was assigned to San Diego transit and assigned to the Hawaiian islands. I was trying to remember the name of the small base that's at Pearl Harbor. I was there for about two weeks, and then I was assigned to an air group, on other words a carrier group at Kaneohe, which is on the north side of Oahu.

Zarbock: Where did you learn to land on an aircraft carrier?

Donald Gray: In (laughs) Lake Michigan.

Zarbock: Sure.

Donald Gray: (laughs) After Pensacola, the procedure was because of German subs in the Atlantic, they put flat-tops, landing decks on two excursion boats, two paddle-wheelers, and we landed on those.

Zarbock: Again, did you have an instructor when you?

Donald Gray: No, we landed the Hellcats on the ships.

Zarbock: This is a single passenger aircraft?

Donald Gray: It's a fighter plane.

Zarbock: Well, somebody must've given you instructions on how to land?

Donald Gray: Well actually we got that in Melbourne, in other words at the fighter base I was sent to after commissioning. They call that field carrier landing practice. You have a landing signal officer on the runway and you practice with him on the signals and so on and so forth.

Zarbock: Do you remember the first time you ever landed on a ship?

Donald Gray: Oh yes. (laughs)

Zarbock: Was it scary?

Donald Gray: It's a relief, you know, in other words you're so pent up, you know, and all this time you spent with the landing signal officer on field carrier landings, and you pull out on the wire and it runs through your mind that it's all over. In other words, this is it. (laughs)

Zarbock: Do you happen to remember how fast were you going when you hit the deck of the carrier?

Donald Gray: Actually, we ran those procedures in about 75 miles an hour.

Zarbock: Dropped the tailhook?

Donald Gray: Oh yes, right, right.

Zarbock: And you stopped rather quickly, didn't you?

Donald Gray: Well, on a short deck like that, yes. (laughs)

Zarbock: Well, would they catapult you off the ship?

Donald Gray: No, there were no catapults on that type of operation. The catapult came aboard you might say the first carrier I was assigned to in the Pacific. Those were the first catapults _____.

Zarbock: So, if you're on Lake Michigan and you land on one of those made-up aircraft carriers, the ship had to go back to shore to offload the airplanes?

Donald Gray: Well, if there's an accident, they had to go back to the shore anyway. There was no extra space (laughs) for an accident. That was quite an experience.

Zarbock: I think you've won a prize in understatement right there.

Donald Gray: May I put in an aside here?

Zarbock: Please.

Donald Gray: The field that we flew out of was Glenview Naval Air Station that's near Chicago, and we had a curfew there at 7:00 at night, 1900 and 0700 in the morning, two curfews, so the people, these young you might say pilots or innocents wouldn't spend too much time in Chicago in the bars, (laughs) so what four of us did was we got a taxi driver and we had him pick us up after the 1900 muster [ph?] in the evening and drive us into Chicago, and hotel rooms if I remember were quite scarce then, so we would rent a hotel room and the four of us would spend you might say the night (laughs) carousing around Chicago. And he'd come by early in the morning and drive us back to the base. (laughs) That was different. Had to use all that Chapel Hill training. (laughs)

Zarbock: Yes, yes. When did you leave Pensacola?

Donald Gray: That was early in '44. That's when I was assigned to Melbourne, the fighter operational training, and that went on for a few months and from there on I was assigned to the fleet.

Zarbock: Things are now getting serious?

Donald Gray: Very serious. The air group that I was assigned to had been in training for at least nine months and the carrier, the Ticonderoga, that had been on a shakedown cruise with the fleet in the Caribbean, so they were an experienced lot by the time I joined them. And the town of Ticonderoga is 25 miles from where I was born, that's the Fort Ticonderoga, and after I was on the ship for awhile, someone learned that I was from the area so they had me put on a verbal presentation to the ship's personnel, right? (laughs) There are 3,000 people on one of those CVs, and that was quite an experience. (laughs)

Zarbock: For, what, you're now 19 years of age?

Donald Gray: Yes, right.

Zarbock: That's quite a classroom size, 3,000 people.

Donald Gray: (laughs) For a single time, first time.

Zarbock: How were you received by the other pilots when you joined your squadron?

Donald Gray: Well, if I remember correctly, I reported to the skipper of the fighter squadron in this Quonset hut at Kaneohe Air Field, and as I left the Quonset hut, I heard him say "God dammit, they're sending me Boy Scouts now." (laughs) So I thought, "I'm gonna show him, you know, who's a Boy Scout and who isn't." (laughs)

Zarbock: Tell me a little about the aircraft. What was the armament?

Donald Gray: Well, the Hellcat was a real advanced fighter. In fact, the Grumman people made 13,000 of them and we destroyed 5,000 Japs with this aircraft besides all the strafing and bombing and everything else that went with it. The Hellcat was designed by Roy Grumman for relatively inexperienced fighter pilots, inexperienced carrier pilots. In other words, pilots who didn't have you might say the necessary rudiments for becoming a carrier pilot. In other words, people who are green. And the aircraft saved a lot of pilots' lives. The aircraft was a very stable aircraft. In other words, when you work around a carrier say at 10 knots above stalling speed, you can't make any mistakes. You spin in or you have, you might say, a serious accident, usually fatal, so what happened with the course there was that instead of stalling, instead of turning inverted like a Corsair does, the Hellcat would fall through, you know, they would stall and fall straight through, and in many cases the pilot would probably survive. So, that plus the fact that it was a very rugged aircraft, catapulting is very rough on aircraft, especially in those years, so it was a plane that was comfortable. (laughs) I mean, it was a pilot's dream you might say, whereas the Corsair was just the opposite. The Corsair was a faster plane, more aerodynamically clean, it had a lot of you might say, well, basics that made it superior to the Hellcat but it was not a comfortable, you might say, lasts like the Hellcat was.

Zarbock: Didn't that Corsair have a huge engine in it?

Donald Gray: The engines were the same. (laughs)

Zarbock: Oh, were they?

Donald Gray: But it was a design. In other words, the overall design of the aircraft itself that made it a little more tricky and difficult.

Zarbock: Now one of the aspects of the difference in design was the wing. Tell us.

Donald Gray: Gull wing. That was part of it, right.

Zarbock: The gull wing on the Corsair?

Donald Gray: Right, right. Also, the cockpit on the Corsair was farther back on the fuselage, so when you land aboard a carrier, it didn't have the visibility that you had with other aircraft, and the Corsair had a 260 gallon fuel tank between the engine and the pilot, and when you had an accident, the plane would actually break up through that section of the fuselage.

Zarbock: This is not good. In the Hellcat, what was the armament that you carried?

Donald Gray: Six 50 calibers, same for the Corsair, same for most aircraft, American aircraft.

Zarbock: Could they also carry bombs?

Donald Gray: Oh surely. Oh, in the Navy they just load everything on. In other words, you're no longer you might say a simple pursuit pilot, you became a bomber pilot, you became a strafing pilot, you became about everything you could do with an aircraft. (laughs)

Zarbock: Well, so we've got you in Hawaii and you find out that you're considered by your squadron leader as this pejorative Boy Scout?

Donald Gray: Yes. (laughs)

Zarbock: Well, what happened after that? Did you push off?

Donald Gray: Oh yes, I'll never forget it, the first time we were all you might say off the carrier was that we had what we called a group grope. In other words, it was an exercise in which all the other aircraft off the carrier were airborne, and we went through a procedure of attacking a toad spar [ph?] behind the carrier, that meant torpedoes, bombing, strafing and whatever, and also fighter direction work, which was primarily the part of the Hellcat fighter effort. And it was a very you might say extensive exercise and I'd never been in a plane before for more than an hour and a half, you know, all the training, and this particular flight lasted for five hours, (laughs) and it got to be different.

Zarbock: Yeah. You had enough fuel for five hours?

Donald Gray: Oh sure, had enough fuel for eight hours.

Zarbock: Were you ever in combat?

Donald Gray: Oh yes, our operation for seven months is stretched from what was then Indochina to Tokyo, and all the ports in between.

Zarbock: What was the name of the ship?

Donald Gray: Well, one was the Ticonderoga. We got kamikaze'd on that, and we were transferred to the Hancock, which is another CV.

Zarbock: When you say you got kamikaze'd, tell me about that.

Donald Gray: Well, kamikazes were insurgents like you see in Iraq now. In other words, they were suicide people, and they would fly these aircraft right into the ships.

Zarbock: And you were on shipboard when they hit the ship?

Donald Gray: Oh yes, right. In fact, one of them hit 120 feet away from me on the flight deck.

Zarbock: Well, that gives you pause, doesn't it?

Donald Gray: Well, it could be a bad headache. (laughs)

Zarbock: What were you doing on the flight deck?

Donald Gray: Well, we had already been hit by two kamikazes and I was giving first aid to two Marine gunners and I was supplying burn ointment and also giving them morphine shots when one of them shouted, "Here comes another one" and it hit the island about, again, 120 feet away from us.

Zarbock: Did the ship sink, by the way?

Donald Gray: Oh, no, no. I think we lost 260 people and 100 and some number wounded.

Zarbock: Of that number, how many were pilots?

Donald Gray: No pilots, no pilots.

Zarbock: So they transferred you off of the Ticonderoga?

Donald Gray: To the Hancock.

Zarbock: To the Hancock?

Donald Gray: Right. We started in all over again.

Zarbock: Is this a big aircraft carrier?

Donald Gray: The same size as the Ticonderoga, right. They call them CVs, in the independence class. They were 27,000 ton ships.

Zarbock: As opposed to the...?

Donald Gray: Now they're up around I think 80 or 90,000 tons and the flight decks today are four and a half acres in size. (laughs)

Zarbock: By the way, are the flight decks made of wood?

Donald Gray: They were in our era. Now they're all steel, right.

Zarbock: Why were they wooden?

Donald Gray: Probably for weight more than anything else, right, and of course the flight deck had to be flexible. I don't know how they design them today. I've only been on one as an observer.

Zarbock: Well, you're on your second aircraft carrier, and where were you steaming?

Donald Gray: Well again, it was part of that effort that I mentioned before from Indochina to Japan. We made the first carrier strikes on Tokyo.

Zarbock: Were you part of that?

Donald Gray: Yes, right, right.

Zarbock: What was that like, tell me?

Donald Gray: Well, it was a cold winter's day, bleak and the air was filled with broken clouds at around 8 or 9,000 feet, and other than that it was the same as before. (laughs)

Zarbock: Was there antiaircraft fire?

Donald Gray: There was no antiaircraft fire but there were plenty of Japanese planes around.

Zarbock: By the way, did you ever shoot down a Japanese plane?

Donald Gray: I was what's called a wing man. In other words, you owe your so-called life to the leader, to the leader of the division. Division is made up of two sections, two aircraft rather in each section, and the division you might say operates defensively, and of course offensively. And the division is a very integrated unit, in other words you could maneuver with using hand signals, you didn't have to use the radio, which was part of the act. In other words, you didn't want the enemy to know where the hell you were.

Zarbock: What were the Japanese flying in those days?

Donald Gray: Oh, they were flying Zeros, which also included another type of aircraft with a radial engine called a George and a Tojo and I believe that was as far as fighters are concerned.

Zarbock: Good aircraft?

Donald Gray: Well, they were more maneuverable to a degree than we were, but they also were quite you might say fragile in comparison to our aircraft, right.

Zarbock: You had, what is the phrase I'm looking for, sealed gas tanks or self-sealing gas tanks?

Donald Gray: Self-sealing, oh that was a big factor. (laughs) That's what the Japs didn't have, right.

Zarbock: And also their armament, I think, was less than?

Donald Gray: Yes.

Zarbock: They had a couple of maybe 7.62 or thereabouts automatic weapons on their aircraft?

Donald Gray: Yeah, right.

Zarbock: Well, when you, on this first flight of yours over Tokyo, were you on a bombing mission too or just escorting?

Donald Gray: No, no escort, straight fighter, destroy aircraft.

Zarbock: Ahh, you were picking a fight?

Donald Gray: Yeah, that's right. (laughs) But we were the first planes since Doolittle to fly below 30,000 feet. The Army Air Force had stayed at 30,000 feet and above in their bombing efforts but we were the first, you might say, since Doolittle to get down to the nitty-gritty.

Zarbock: Where else did, what other combat activity?

Donald Gray: Well, in this overall terrain that I mentioned in the China Sea, that was different because it was the wintertime, and the weather there is terrible, the air, the cold China air mass is moving over the China Sea, the Siberian air mass is moving over the China Sea, over the water, it creates this horrible weather. It's rough. The overcast can run from 1,500 feet to 10,000 solid.

Zarbock: Not the best of flying weather?

Donald Gray: No. (laughs)

Zarbock: What was the technology like in those days when it came to radar?

Donald Gray: Well, the ships had the radar, the aircraft didn't have any radar except, you know, the aircraft, the four-engine [ph?] planes I think had radar but the radar was strictly a carrier effort for fighter control.

Zarbock: With weather being that rancid, were you able to fly?

Donald Gray: Always. We just kept right on flying.

Zarbock: But you're flying into invisibility?

Donald Gray: That's right.

Zarbock: That'll certainly make you old quickly, wouldn't it?

Donald Gray: (laughs) Well there weren't any Japs around, that's for sure.

Zarbock: How would you find your carrier?

Donald Gray: Well, we had a radio device called a ZB that was a homing device, and it ran on a circle, and there were letters and each one of these segments, and they would change that every day for security reasons, and you would home in on the letter coming through this overall radio effort. That was the only homing device we had. The real you might say touch was that when you were sent on a mission, you had to be back at a certain time, almost exactly. In other words, you had to, because of fuel problems with the aircraft but not only that the fleet itself wanted you at a certain time and a certain you might say place, so it was mandatory that no matter where you were sent or what you did on a mission, you had to be back at this time.

Zarbock: But with the weather such as it was, how high was the ceiling?

Donald Gray: The ceiling was around 9 or 10,000 feet.

Zarbock: That's the top?

Donald Gray: Right, right.

Zarbock: What's the bottom?

Donald Gray: Oh, 1,000, 1,500 _____.

Zarbock: So you could see the aircraft carrier when you...?

Donald Gray: Got below the 1,500. (laughs) And there was very heavy rain at times, so when you get into the landing pattern, and you lose sight of the carrier in the landing pattern, that's different. (laughs)

Zarbock: In addition to a choppy sea?

Donald Gray: Yes. Well, the fleet went into a typhoon northwest, northeast of Luzon and we were returning from a fighter sweep on Luzon itself, and I'll never forget this as long as I live, the whole you might say atmosphere was black and that's where the fleet was so when we got inside the envelope of the typhoon, the carrier was not only pitching, it was rolling too, in other words, it had a screwy effect and I saw the screws of a ship the size of the North Carolina here in the harbor sticking out of the water, and there was a fire on one of our smaller carriers in our group, and that wasn't a nice view. (laughs) In those years, we always had a destroying moving behind the carrier for picking up any pilots, and the destroyer, you could see on the top of a wave and then you couldn't see it again. It turned out that the waves were 75 feet high.

Zarbock: How old were you?

Donald Gray: Well, I think I turned 20 then. (laughs) But it was an experience to have a cut from the landing signal officer, which was mandatory. In other words, when he dropped his arm, you had to land, period, and this time I was two-thirds of the way up the flight deck and I was trying to keep my eye on the landing signal officer when he gave me the cut, when I came down the ship was moving out from underneath me, and I hardly rolled at all off the wire, after I caught the wire I just lost all forward motion because of the wind over the deck was at least 105 knots. We lost three destroyers during that storm. One of the cruisers lost its bow and one of the other major ships had returned to the states for overhaul.

Zarbock: What did you do with being frightened?

Donald Gray: Beg your pardon?

Zarbock: What did you do about being frightened?

Donald Gray: Well, I think that fright is a part of the act. In other words, you had to adjust, you had to think more. (laughs) In other words, you had to put you under, you might say action, put you, you might say, up to par and just made you better. (laughs)

Zarbock: It's something I've heard from so many men and women that in times of crisis their training took over.

Donald Gray: I would say that also I think that it's your basic nature too. In other words, people who don't go off the deep end easily, people who don't get frustrated, people who just like to keep absorbing the punishment. (laughs)

Zarbock: Where were you when the war ended?

Donald Gray: I was here in the states going aboard the Roosevelt, another air group and at that time, I became a division leader. In other words, I had three other planes following me now instead of my following somebody else. (laughs)

Zarbock: And what was your rank?

Donald Gray: Ensign.

Zarbock: You were still an ensign?

Donald Gray: That's right. During the war, the Navy had a setup whereby you were an ensign for 18 months and then you were automatically promoted. In other words, there wasn't any you might say fitness reports for a promotion like they have now, an hour later promotion during the war, so 18 months you're an ensign. All right? (laughs)

Zarbock: But you were in the states at the time that the war ended?

Donald Gray: Yes. We had a program going where we used to fly the initials FDR, make a formation FDR, and that we did with Corsairs. And we're stationed at Chicoteaque, Virginia. Have you ever been there?

Zarbock: Oh yes.

Donald Gray: That was great. The oysters were as big as the palm of your hand. (laughs)

Zarbock: Yes. I'll be darned.

Donald Gray: And I would like to put into this a little political touch that happened. My family was Republican, my grandmother's mother helped start the Republican party, right? So, my grandmother had heard I was going aboard the Roosevelt, so she saw this FDR that I'd been flying in and the family knew that I was involved with that, and she got the overall, what do you say, thought that I wouldn't be safe on that carrier. Right? So at the time New York State was the empire state of the country, so she got in touch with the two senators of the state to the effect that I should be transferred from that air group, I wouldn't be safe on the FDR, and they got in touch with the bureau of personnel, and I got transferred. (laughs) And when the carrier commander called me in to tell me that I was going to be transferred, he said, "Ensign, I got my appointment from a member of the House of Representatives, and here you got two New York State Senators working for you. How did you do that?" (laughs) So that was a blow to me. I couldn't imagine anything like that happening.

Zarbock: Where were you transferred to?

Donald Gray: I was transferred to Norfolk, and my assignment there was delivering what they called war bond planes. In other words, the planes would be used for raising donations for war bonds, and you'd fly to a city and you would give a spiel to the principles or perhaps fly to a university and do the same, and that was it. And my first assignment was at Palm Beach, (laughs) which was, you know, kind of hard to take. (laughs) So, I got down to Palm Beach on the 21st of December and they put me up in the Breakers, and I could stay there for the rest of the month I guess, but I had to go home, I wanted to get home for Christmas, so I left sooner than they wanted me to. (laughs)

Zarbock: Well the war ended in, with Japan in August 1945.

Donald Gray: Right, right.

Zarbock: And were you at, were you stationed in the Virginia area at that time?

Donald Gray: That's right, yes, yes.

Zarbock: What happened to you personally after the end of the war?

Donald Gray: I went back to college.

Zarbock: How quickly were you mustered out?

Donald Gray: I got out by February of '46, right, right, back to Cornell.

Zarbock: You had been in the military for what, three years?

Donald Gray: Yes, yes. So then I, because of the Cold War, I got involved with the Reserves, and I was down at Floyd Bennett in New York, and there I became through the years, you might say, I transferred into swept-wing jets on weekends. I don't suggest that to anybody. (laughs) So, after that phase my family sort of impressed upon me that I should go on inactive duty, (laughs) which I did.

Zarbock: What was your rank at the time you went on inactive?

Donald Gray: Commander.

Zarbock: What, other than speed of course, but what are the differences between a piston-driven aircraft such as you flew during World War II, and the jets that you flew?

Donald Gray: Well, the major difference is that the World War II aircraft, the engine was in the nose of the plane and the plane you might say rotated around the engine, (laughs) and the jets, the weight is more distributed, there's less concentration of weight in any part of the aircraft and the acceleration differences is important also. In other words, the jet cannot accelerate like a prop-driven plane can.

Zarbock: Cannot?

Donald Gray: Right, I'm talking about initial acceleration. In other words, change of speed at low speeds. In other words, a jet takes longer to get its act together, whereas the prop plane, you know, it's a pull it's quick.

Zarbock: I didn't realize that.

Donald Gray: But the aerodynamics are different because, for example, when a prop plane you might say loses its ability to fly, it spins and it rotates like this towards, gravity towards the earth, whereas a jet will waller [ph?] in the sky, in other words, it's sort of a big amount of blob that moves around. (laughs)

Zarbock: What causes that?

Donald Gray: Well, the lack of weight in one area of the aircraft and the gravity takes the whole aircraft, and it just, you know, floats and flobbers around. (laughs)

Zarbock: Did you like jets?

Donald Gray: Oh, a jet is like sitting in a bank vault. There's no noise or vibration, you know, it's (laughs) great.

Zarbock: Did you ever land a jet on an aircraft carrier?

Donald Gray: No, no.

Zarbock: But of course you've landed a jet someplace?

Donald Gray: Oh. (laughs)

Zarbock: If you went up, you came down. What about our current air arm? Do you keep up with the aircraft that are being used?

Donald Gray: Oh yes, yes. I belong to a group of Naval Marine aviators here in town, and we meet once a month and we have speakers who of course have been in Iraq and so on and so forth, and yes, I keep up with what's going on in the military.

Zarbock: What's our current, would you give me your impression of the current military air armament, what's it like, strengths and weaknesses?

Donald Gray: It's something to behold today. We are it in the world. In other words, you can't compare with another country, so it's, you know, it's stupendous in comparison to what we have been in the past. And right now they're getting in shape a fighter known as an F-35, which will, for example, take off and go straight up to 50,000 feet, I mean no effort whatsoever. (laughs) It's a different world.

Zarbock: Hmm. What's the flight time capability, an hour, two hours, three hours?

Donald Gray: You mean of these jets?

Zarbock: Yes.

Donald Gray: Well, they differ and of course they can load on external belly tanks, external fuel and so on and so forth. And the speeds they go at, there isn't any sense in trying to think about it, that, because of what they can accomplish in a relatively very short time.

Zarbock: I've been alerted to one of the most rapidly changing technologies in the United States has been in the aircraft industry that it went from wood and fabric to what is now exotic ceramics and exotic metals.

Donald Gray: That's right.

Zarbock: Which were not invented maybe 20 years ago.

Donald Gray: And they don't construct aircraft today like they used to with rivets and so on and so forth.

Zarbock: What do they now construct them?

Donald Gray: Well, it's lamination and laying you might say elements together and for example a modern jet will have a titanium leading edge, you know, (laughs) this is big thinking, this is big money.

Zarbock: So, Rosie the Riveter is gone?

Donald Gray: Gone, that's right.

Zarbock: We're just about out of time, and I've enjoyed every minute of it, but I may have not given you the opportunity of saying something, reminiscing. Anything else comes to your mind, I do enjoy a good story, I enjoy a bad story.

Donald Gray: Well, I thought I'd thrown in one or two during the discussion?

Zarbock: Yes, you have. What did you do when you got out of college? Did you stay in the air field at all?

Donald Gray: Well yes, as I mentioned, I stayed active in the organized Reserves that the Navy has.

Zarbock: But how did you earn your bread and butter?

Donald Gray: Oh, out of school, my first overall assignment, rather a job, was with Good Housekeeping. I was a what they call a manager there of a department that handled the space sales, the space in the magazine, the advertising space, and I got tired of the organization that owns Good Housekeeping, so I was hired by a publisher in the midwest that he publishes agricultural media, that is, periodicals and textbooks, and I stayed with him for 35 years and I became their eastern manager. That was it.

Zarbock: And did you enjoy it?

Donald Gray: Oh yes, yes, yes.

Zarbock: And how did you end up in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Donald Gray: Well, this is a different story. As you learned, I'm of Scottish descent, and I had learned the fact that North Carolina per capita has more Scots than any other state in the country, so we were, Marilyn and I were married approximately 13 years ago, so we started to think about the mountains of North Carolina, and Marilyn had never been to this state before. She was a retired teacher, so we went down to Andersonville and a few other places in the mountains and I began to get the premonition that Marilyn would get cabin fever in the mountains, so we headed for Chapel Hill and I didn't take to Chapel Hill, I thought it's a university town, it'll never change, that's it. So then a friend of mine told me about Wilmington. So on the way to Wilmington we went and one of Marilyn's distant relatives was a retired doctor from the hospital here, so we were having dinner with them over at the Cape Fear Club and his wife said, "Now, you have to be careful with this city. It's not as quiet and peaceful as it looks on the surface." She said, "When you drive down Dawson Street, you're liable to get a brick through the windshield." Right? Or she said, "When you're over here in Independence Mall, watch your pocketbook." (laughs) So I said to the doctor, I said, "Well, is there a gated community (laughs) in town?" Well, he said it's Landfall, so we drove out to Landfall and that was it, here we are.

Zarbock: Sure enough.

Donald Gray: (laughs) And so in Wilmington we got annexed, right, and a number of us of course fought the annexation. We couldn't see any reason for it, period. So that's when I learned all about politics in North Carolina. (laughs) We went to Raleigh a number of times and spoke to legislators and so on and so forth, spoke to the governor. (laughs)

Zarbock: Well, on behalf of my part of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, I'm pleased that you came here and I'm very grateful for this interview. Thank you very much, Mr. Gray.

Donald Gray: Pleasure.

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