If you are a friend of Capt. John Wesley Gray, you will hear the words “Semper Fi.” It is the Latin phrase for “always faithful” and it is the motto of the U.S. Marine Corps. Gray is a Marine who was in active service from 1960 to 1966. On Sunday Nov. 10, Gray and the Marines celebrated the 244th birthday of the proud force, one day before Veterans Day.
Gray has an interesting family history with four men sharing the same name who all served their country. The Fort Myers Beach resident is the great-grandson of John Wesley Gray, who served with the Union Army in the Civil War after enlisting at the age of 16 as a drummer. He fought with the Second Regiment of Artillery, a Pennsylvania-based outfit which was the largest regiment in the Union. After the war, Gray became the first commander of the American Legion in Camden, New Jersey.
Captain Gray’s cousin, whose name was also John Wesley Gray, was a pilot who was killed after being shot down in the European theater during World War II. He remembers going to his cousin’s funeral as a young boy and picking up the shell bullets. His mother helped out in the World War II effort, working in a factory that produced bombs.
Captain Gray’s son, John Wesley Gray, just retired as an aviator from the Navy with the rank of commander. The younger Gray served overseas during the Persian Gulf War.
“It gives a lot of personal value, moral value and direction” having that type of military heritage dating back to the Civil War, Gray said. “It’s always given me a direction to go in.”
On Monday, the 81-year-old was entered into the Midpoint Madness Veterans Day 5K in Fort Myers. He started running 40 years ago over the Atlantic City boardwalk each day. Gray said running “kept my sanity” during a business career in which he spent half of every week traveling as a salesman for Midas. Before Midas, he worked for Ford.
He has been in Fort Myers Beach the last 20 years. He grew up in Atlantic City, not far from Camden, where his great-grandfather and great-great grandfather were farmers. He attended the University of Miami, earning a degree in industrial engineering. Upon graduation, he went to Officer Candidates School, which prepared him to be a Marine. He picked the Marines because he wanted a challenge.
During the Vietnam War, Gray was a lieutenant in charge of a combat engineering group and he also handled the loading of weaponry onto ships. He was fortunate to not be sent into combat in Vietnam. “I was really lucky,” he said. “I saw the boxes come back.” He lost friends that he served with.
Gray not only passed down the military tradition of his family but also keeps the farming bloodlines going. In Gray’s backyard, he has planted coconut trees that now tower over his backyard. He also has goldfish that he feeds. His backyard borders a lagoon, where his sloop “Charisma,” is docked. That lagoon feeds into the Gulf of Mexico, allowing him to sail into the ocean down to Naples. He and his wife Charlotte enjoy sailing to Port Royal, he said. They sailed down together from New Jersey after his retirement and lived on the boat for two years before finding a home on Fort Myers Beach.
They fly the Marine flag on their boat and outside their home. Sometimes, strangers will see the flag and knock on their door. “I’m a Marine at heart,” Gray said. “It’s the greatest fraternity in the world.”
The Marine birthday is a special one for Gray. For 30 years, he would call his former sergeant every year on that day.
As he prepared to run in the 5K on Monday, Gray said his fellow Marines who didn’t return from Vietnam would be on his mind. “When I cross that bridge, I will be thinking of those that didn’t come back,” he said. “The young ones get killed. That hurts.”