James Michael Ray
Sergeant, United States Army
Name: JAMES MICHAEL RAY
Date of Birth: 11/10/1949
Date of Casualty: 3/18/1968
Home of Record: WOONSOCKET, RHODE ISLAND
Branch of Service: ARMY
Casualty Country: CAMBODIA
Forever lost in the fog of war
Woonsocket's James Ray was one of the POWs who never returned from Vietnam. Nearly four decades later, his family decides that it's time to say goodbye.
WOONSOCKET, Rhode Island - Exactly what became of Army Staff Sergeant James M. Ray in the jungles of South Vietnam may never be known.
It's been nearly 38 years since Ray was reported to have died of disease and mistreatment in a Viet Cong prison camp somewhere near South Vietnam's border with Cambodia.
After years of hoping the official government finding would be proven false, members of Ray's family - along with soldiers who knew Ray in Vietnam and soldiers who never met him - gathered around a new white stone marker bearing his name in Arlington National Cemetery for a September 7, 2007, memorial service.
His brother, Charles Ray Jr., 51, of Woonsocket; his sister, Maureen Vien of Port Charlotte, Florida; and brother, Dennis, a retired North Smithfield police sergeant, worked on getting the memorial as a way to help bring the lingering mystery to a close.
Their mother, Mary Ray, died four years ago after working for years to learn more about his whereabouts. And while their father, Charles Ray, 82, of Virginia, still has hopes that James could be alive somewhere in Southeast Asia, he joined in their efforts and attended the ceremony near Washington, D.C. with his children.
"I was surprised by the number of people that were there," Charles Ray Jr. said of the ceremony. "There were probably 30 or 35 people there," he said, while noting the attendance of his brother's surviving unit members - and even members of the local Vietnam Veterans of America chapter, Memorial Chapter #818, dedicated in his name and operated out of the Lincoln Senior Center.
The Cemetery's honor guard fired a 21-gun salute for Ray and folded and presented his family with a memorial flag. In addition to his name, the stone bears Ray's rank, date of birth and the date, Nov. 30, 1969, he is believed to have died in Vietnam.
Even with the place of tribute at Arlington, Charles Ray Jr. said letting go of any thought of James still being alive somewhere is not easy to do.
"I still hope for him to come back," he said. There is no body so there is always a chance."
But as time steps into place, he thinks of what it would be like for his brother to have been a prisoner of war so long after the Vietnam War ended in 1973.
"I wouldn't want him to be there all this time," he said.
The family believes more should have been done years ago - as the Vietnam War came to an end - to answer all the questions remaining over missing soldiers.
There have been several attempts by the Army in the years since to locate the site of the jungle camp Ray is believed to have died in, but all have been unsuccessful to date.
Today, Charles Ray Jr., who had been 11 when his brother left for Vietnam, believes the political climate of the times may also have played a role in the lack of clear answers on his brother's fate.
"There is never a good time for war," he said. But with Vietnam, public sentiment against the war resulted in the government being pressured to end it - and to end it quickly.
"They just wanted to get out because it was a war they weren't going to win," he said.
The result leaves unanswered questions for Ray and the other 1,500 U.S. servicemen who never came home from Vietnam.
"I just wish they would have tried to do more than they did for him, because I feel they just left him there," Charles Ray Jr. said.
Unlike many others who were drafted into their
roles in the Vietnam War, James Ray actually had to work at getting
His first bid was an enlistment with the U.S. Marine Corps at the age of just 16, after he left school at Woonsocket Junior High School.
Ray made it into training at Parris Island in South Carolina, but after identifying the age discrepancy several weeks later, the Marines quickly discharged him and sent him back to Woonsocket, his brother said.
His father had been a Marine and Ray had always wanted to follow in that service, his brother said. But after reaching the age of 17-and-a-half, Ray signed up for the Army and joked that the "Marines had their chance," his brother remembered.
It was a decision supported by his mother's signature and one that set him on a path to service in Vietnam with a military advisor unit helping South Vietnamese Army forces in Lam Dong Province. The MACV Team 38 unit was made up of nine U.S. military personnel, including two Navy medics, and for a time fell under the direction of Army Captain Jay Garner, a future Army general and head of U.S. operations in Iraq.
Ray's immediate supervisor was Lt. John Dunn, today a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel living in Miami, who, like Ray, was assigned to military intelligence with the advisor group.
Dunn was captured by the Viet Cong with Ray on March 18, 1968, while the two and a third unit member, Sergeant Ghant, headed to clear a road block with a detachment of the South Vietnamese Army on March 18, 1968. Ghant was killed in the attack.
Dunn would be held with Ray for a time in the jungle prison camps and was eventually released from Viet Cong captivity during the first prisoner exchange following the cease-fire ending U.S. involvement in Vietnam in January of 1973.
Dunn also attended the memorial service for Ray at Arlington and spoke to the gathering about his former unit member and fellow prisoner of war.
Reached in Florida last week, Dunn said he has long believed Ray did die while being held in a jungle camp near the Cambodian border. The retired soldier said he bases that belief on the reports he received from other prisoners at the camp and the poor physical condition Ray had fallen into by the summer and fall of 1969.
The Vietnamese also acknowledged Ray as having died in captivity when the prisoner exchange lists were prepared and released in 1973, Dunn noted.
"I was convinced that he had died when I came home and I told the family that too when I went to visit them in Woonsocket," Dunn said.
Ray's mother still held out hope for her son at that time, Dunn recalled, and over the years of keeping in touch he learned of many steps she took, including trips to Washington and to Southeast Asia in 1974 and 1975, while seeking more information on her son.
The fact that many of the camps holding prisoners were just temporary locations in the jungle, locations possibly disturbed by bombings and combat after their use and now long overgrown, is a major hindrance to efforts seeking to locate gravesites or recover remains, according to Dunn.
The passage of time is another hindrance, he noted. "Anybody that might have known anything is getting older," he said.
From what he has been able to glean from reports about the search for Ray over the years, it appears the Vietnamese government has assisted U.S. military personnel seeking to recover the remains of missing soldiers still in Vietnam, Dunn said.
"At least they are cooperating and have been cooperating over the last 10 years," he said.
Dunn, now 64, said he and Ray were captured after an ambush that included a rocket-propelled grenade landing near their position.
Dunn suffered a serious shrapnel wound that would permanently cost him full use of his right arm and Ray suffered shrapnel wounds as well but did not let up in his fighting, Dunn said.
After Sergeant Ghant was killed, Dunn and Ray suffered additional wounds from a hand grenade but Ray continued to fight as his lieutenant used his wounded, but still functioning left arm to call for help over the radio.
The pair ran out of time when a group of the South Vietnamese stood to surrender and the Viet Cong moved forward toward their position.
Dunn said Ray continued to fire until he had to change magazines and he asked what they should do. Dunn responded it was over and the two stood up to be captured.
Dunn was surprised that the Viet Cong took them immediately to one of their hospitals to be treated for their wounds and they received good care there while recovering over a two-week period.
The two prisoners were then taken on a journey by foot lasting six weeks and ending at the first of their jungle prison camps, he said.
While traveling to the camp, Dunn said he and Ray were able to talk about things, tell each about their families and even to share jokes.
"He liked to talk and have a good time. And he was a very pleasant young man," Dunn said.
They also held a belief that somehow they would make it out of their predicament, he said. "If you don't think that you don't last very long. You are optimistic or you are dead, it is as simple as that," Dunn said.
Once in the camp, however, the prisoners' treatment changed. They were kept in chains all the time and locked in underground holding pits at night.
The 7- to 8-foot long chain was attached to the prisoner's leg and stayed on them when them were led to a latrine or a place to occasionally clean up, he said. It was used to secure them to the area of their pit during the daytime. At night, the prisoners slept in a hammock slung between two poles driven into the ground of their pit, the chain locking them inside.
The prisoners were interrogated with beatings on a regular basis but apparently not for any specific propaganda purpose as was the case for those held in North Vietnam, he said. The hardest part was the isolation that resulted from the prisoners being separated and held in their individual pits.
Dunn and Ray were moved to new camps a number of times during their captivity and Dunn said he remained in contact with Ray through Christmas of 1968. Dunn was eventually put in with a group of other prisoners and was able to learn some things about Ray from prisoners who were held closer to him.
Ray is said to have made at least two attempts
to escape from captivity and may have borne the brunt of a guard response
when one of the prisoners in his area, Tom Van Puttam, made a successful
escape in the spring of 1969.
The reports Dunn gleaned from others listed Ray as going downhill from there. Most of the prisoners had some type of illness during their captivity and malaria and dysentery were common.
They were also poorly fed. Dunn had weighed about 165 pounds before being captured, and believes he dropped to a weight of 95 to 100 pounds while in captivity.
While there have been different dates listed for Ray's death in captivity, the official date on his memorial is November 30, 1969.
Dunn said that would agree with the period of time that he believes Ray to have died during from the reports he received from other prisoners.
No one actually saw Ray die or saw his body buried, Dunn said, but that would be in keeping with the Viet Cong's practices for handling prisoners who were sick or near death.
"If you got sick, they took you away from other prisoners," he said. "They never admitted anybody had died; they would just say they had taken them to the hospital," he said.
Dunn said he believes it is significant that Ray was listed as having died when the exchanges were finally made in February of 1973. The prisoners had known for several months at that point they could be set free and their treatment had improved as they were gathered in a temporary camp near the exchange area and cleaned up.
Dunn's group of prisoners was eventually brought
to a landing zone where U.S. helicopters came to pick them up.
Dunn remembers have troubling seeing under all the bright lights since he been in the jungle for so long. He also remembers it was a challenge to make decisions again for the first time in nearly 5 years.
Dunn said he thought a lot about James Ray and that's why he made the visit to see his family a first priority upon his return to the States.
He still thinks about Ray today and Dunn says he will never forget him. To Dunn, Ray is still that young man from Woonsocket who fought so gallantly beside him the day they were captured. Ray holds a silver star for valor and two purple hearts for his service in Vietnam.
During his remarks at Ray's memorial service, Dunn told Ray's family he was a "fine soldier, a very brave soldier, a braver soldier than I."
Ray's photograph, he said, "has been on my
wall or on my desk in every place I have lived since 1973 - and indeed
I will carry his memory with me until the final days of my life."