Remembering Air Warrior “Rocky” Gray on Memorial Day, 2024

  • Published
  • By Lt Col Terrence G. Popravak, Jr., USAF (Retired)
  • 142nd Wing/Historian's Office

On this Memorial Day, 2024, we remember one of our wing’s air warriors from World War II who had a keen sense of being able to find the enemy in aerial combat, until one day when he inexplicably fell from the war-torn sky. 

Rockford Vance “Rocky” Gray, Sr. was born on May 3, 1914 in Washington Township, Pike County, Indiana, the son of Hope and Lucy Gray.  His father was a World War I veteran, a Sergeant First Class in the 160th Aero Squadron. 

He was a mechanical engineer with four years of college as World War II approached America.  “Rocky” enlisted in the US Army Air Corps from Hamilton County, Ohio, on February 8, 1941 at Ft. Thomas in Newport, Kentucky.   His enlistment was for three years and he was given Army Service Number 15065756.  Circumstances soon changed and his service would be “for the duration.”

“Rocky” underwent the various phases of flight training at Sikeston, Missouri and then Goodfellow Field in San Angelo, Texas before earning his wings at Selma, Alabama in 1941.  He was commissioned as an officer and assigned a new service number, O-427720.  Lieutenant Gray was retained as an instructor pilot for more than a year before transfer to a combat unit.

With the 359th Fighter Group

In March, 1943 now a Major (Select), Gray was assigned to the P-47 Thunderbolt-equipped 359th Fighter Group where he assumed command of the 369th Fighter Squadron.  The group deployed overseas to Europe in October, 1943 and joined 8th Air Force.  It was based at East Wretham in England from October, 1943.  At around this time, October 22, Maj Gray moved up to a position on group staff.

In early December, Maj. Gray and 16 other pilots of the group went to Duxford to try and get some operational flights with the 78th Fighter Group and by mid-December some of them succeeded.

On January 29, 1944 Maj Gray he was awarded half-credit for a Luftwaffe Me-110 twin-engine fighter, which was apparently the group’s first aerial victory.

The next day he engaged in aerial combat again as his former squadron covered 8th Air Force heavy bombers returning from a mission to Germany.  They bounced a formation of eight Ju-88s in a line abreast formation as they were approaching the left rear flank of the bombers, probably planning a rocket attack to break up the bomber formation. 

As this took place, six Me-109 fighters dove through the bomber formation.  In the melee that followed, Maj. Gray was credited with one aerial victory over an Me-109 fighter.  Other pilots in his squadron accounted for another Me-109 and a Ju-88 destroyed, a probable Ju-88 probably destroyed, two more Ju-88s damaged along with an Me-109 damaged. 

Gray was officially credited with 1.5 confirmed aerial victories while flying some 24 missions with the 359th FG. 

With the 365th Fighter Group

Perhaps coincident with the 359th Fighter Group’s conversion to the P-51 Mustang planned to begin in April, 1944, and/or to import combat knowledge to a new group in the ETO, Maj. Gray was transferred to the P-47-equipped 365th Fighter Group in 9th Air Force on February 19, 1944. 

A seasoned combat pilot, he flew on the new group’s first combat mission on February 22, an escort mission to Holland.  Although this first mission was uneventful, he later achieved two more aerial victories while assigned to the Hell Hawks as the 365th FG was called in World War II. 

One source indicates that he commanded the 388th Fighter Squadron from April 24 to May 30 before he moved on again.  By the time he left the 365th Fighter Group, he had earned the Air Medal with an accumulated 14 bronze oak leaf clusters.

With the 371st Fighter Group

On the day before D-Day, “Rocky” Gray arrived at Bisterne to join the 371st Fighter Group staff on June 5, 1944.  He was soon in action again.  (Note:  The 371st Fighter Group was redesignated as the 142nd Fighter Group in May, 1946.  It is today’s 142nd Wing)

Attached to the 406th Fighter Squadron, he was on the squadron’s third combat air patrol over the Normandy landings on the afternoon of June 8, 1944 when he encountered enemy aircraft over France.

Unfortunately, Maj Gray’s combat report for this aerial engagement appears lost to time – it was submitted as Inclosure #3 to a series of seven claims sent up to higher HQ (IX Tactical Air Command) in correspondence dated June 10, 1944 but it is not present in the digital or paper archival holdings of these records at the Air Force Historical Research Agency. 

But fortunately, the encounter is described in a pilot’s diary account which was transcribed in the group’s warbook, The Story of the 371st Fighter Group in the E.T.O., and is shared here for posterity to see:

“Maj. Gray and Lt. Firestone were flying spares, when at 5000 ft. near Le Havre they caught seven FW 190s lobbing rockets at shipping in the channel.  The spares firewalled everything and bounced, but the Germans were awake and made for the overcast just above them.  Firestone fired at and got hits on one while they were going up through, but eventually lost contact with both the FW 190 and Maj. Gra, who was busy chasing after the other six.  When Gray broke through above the clouds he found himself 100 yards behind one of them, closed to 75 yards, squirted, and flew through the resulting explosion.  Almost right away he was able to position himself on a second, and gave him the same treatment from a slightly longer range.  He was on the tail of a third and had observed strikes on it when a fourth of the six, guns blazing, whipped over on Gray’s tail and the Major decided that it was an auspicious moment to get the hell out of the way.  He did.”

“Hitting the ‘water’ and split S’ing back from the blackout that followed, he found that he had nearly mushed into a clump of trees – not so good – and that the Hun was still on his tail – worse yet.  By racking into a hairy turn to the left, glancing back over his shoulder, the Major was much relieved and somewhat pleased to see the Nazi spreading himself like peanut butter over the several hundred feet of turf.  Evidently the FW had hit a high speed stall in the turn and snapped in.  I wouldn’t hazard a guess as to whether or not he was happy about the day’s hunting, but some P-47 returning alone from that mission zooted down the runway of the home field at about 300 feet and did three consecutive victory rolls before dropping around for a landing.” 

Gray received credit for all three FW 190s.  These rocket-firing FW 190s may have been from I./JG 2, the first group of fighter wing 2 “Richtofen” which was noted in action firing rockets against shipping on D-Day.  At least one pilot, a Leutnant Wolfgang Fischer of 3./JG2 (the third squadron in the first group of fighter wing 2), claimed he hit a Victory class allied transport vessel in his air-to-surface attack.

Later in June, Maj. Gray and the rest of the group moved across the English Channel from England to France and carried on operations at Advanced Landing Ground A-6, Beuzzeville Airfield, just outside Sainte-Mère-Église in Normandy, France.

On July 23, Maj. Gray was awarded the 23rd and 24th bronze oak leaf clusters to the Air Medal during a ceremony at A-6. 

On July 24, 1944, Maj Gray claimed one Me-109 destroyed.  He described the engagement in his combat report as such:

“I was flying as a spare with the 404th Fighter Squadron , and after completing a dive bombing mission near Periers left the Squadron near St. Lo and climbed to 8,000 or 9,000 feet, which was about 3,000 feet above the overcast.  I then headed in a south-easterly direction, made a few orbits about 10 miles S. E. of St. Lo, and turned east.  As I did, I noticed a plane coming out of the overcast, heading north west.  It looked like an Me 109, so I dove from out of the sun and got close enough to identify it definitely as an Me 109.  I then started to fire at a range of 800 yards but he turned into me and I ended up in a head on pass.  I observed hits on his wingtip and tail.  The Me 109 then split-S into the clouds and I made a split-S and followed him below the overcast and up through again where I found myself positioned for a twenty degree deflection shot, at a range of 400 yards.  I gave two short bursts and observed hits on his engine and fuselage.  His plane gave off much black smoke and did a wing over into the overcast.  I followed him down but lost him below the overcast.  I then observed two planes about three miles to the S. W. and immediately climbed above the overcast to an altitude of 8000 feet, made one circle and returned home. I claim one (1) Me 109 destroyed.” 

Maj. Gray’s claim was not credited by higher HQ, one of several which were not, apparently, even though several sources he had up to 11 aerial victories.  But it shows the eagerness with which he sought out the enemy in the war torn skies over Normandy. His final officially credited score was 6.5 aerial victories, his triple victory of June 8 making him an ace, as recorded by the American Fighter Aces Association in their Aces Roster.

Gray’s attacks were not confined to the enemy in the air.  The 406th Fighter Squadron official history for June, 1944 mentioned that Maj. Gray flew with the 406th on the squadron’s second mission of the day on June 12 “…and a motorcycle and driver and a truck were strafed and burned about 1230 W. of Falaise by Major Gray.”  The major returned from that mission and promptly led the third mission of the day, albeit uneventful.

In another example of his air-to-ground work, on August 7, 1944 while flying with the group’s 405th Fighter Squadron in P-47D-25-RE serial number 42-26400, a bubbletop Thunderbolt, he claimed to have damaged a Luftwaffe Ju-88 bomber on the ground:  “I was leading the spares of the 406th Fighter Squadron which was flying on Armed Column Support for the 4th Armored Division.  We had just completed a dive bombing mission on German vehicles in the area N.W. of Nantes and were returning back over an airfield NW of Vannes where we had previously seen two e/a on the ground and received some flak.  My wing man, Major A. C. Wright, Jr., and I peeled off from 4,000 feet, dove down and strafed a Ju-88 on the south end of the field.  Numerous hits were seen on the motor and cockpit section.  Much small arms and light flak was observed on the airdrome and I received battle damage in the tail section,  I claim one (1) Ju-88 damaged.” Maj. Gray’s claim was confirmed by his wingman, Maj. Alonzo C. Wright, Jr.

On August 17, Maj. Gray was awarded his 28th, 29th and 30th oak leaf clusters to the Air Medal.  Scant days later, on August 20, 359th FG veterans learned through the grapevine that their former squadron commander had now scored 11 aerial victories and also 11 locomotives in his continuing combat service.

That Fateful Day

Alas, on the 4th of September, 1944, Maj Gray was returning to A-6 and on his approach to land when his aircraft suddenly went out of control for unknown reasons and crashed 300 yards short of the runway, killing him.  He was 30 years old. 

The loss was presumed to be due to some mechanical problem, and not to enemy action.  “Always anxious to get into a scrap with the Jerries, “Rocky” had tangled with enemy aircraft on numerous occasions and his record was an impressive one,” was a tribute recorded in the group’s warbook.

Maj Gray was survived by his parents, a brother, Lowell H. Gray, his wife Mary Ruth (Taylor) Gray, son Rockford V. Gray, Jr. who was two-years old at the time of his father’s loss and daughter Jane Ann who was six months old.  Initially buried in an American military cemetery near Sainte-Mère-Église, his body was returned to the United States in 1948 for burial at Arlington national Cemetery, at Section 12, Site 5270.

Maj Gray was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with oak leaf cluster, the Purple Heart and the Air Medal with a whopping 32 oak leaf clusters.

Of note, when Maj. Gray’s former unit learned of his death, they decided to include his children in a war bond drive for the children of 359th FG pilots killed in the war.  The unit combined some excess funds from the original December, 1944 drive with a new collection on January 31, 1945, for Maj. Gray’s two children. 

On this Memorial Day, we remember and salute the service and sacrifice of our air warrior, Major Rockford Vance “Rocky” Gray, and that of our other fallen in uniform who died in the line of duty.  May our land and people be worthy of the ultimate sacrifice such warriors have made for our country.