Bray, Merle W. (803rd)

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Biography:  Merle Willard Bray was born on April 1, 1915, in La Grande, Oregon. He was the son of George Bray and Birdie May Cox. Merle attended Stadium High School through the 10th grade and then went to work as a millwright but he also joined the the Washington State National Guard. He was only 15 years old at the time and was assigned to the Service Battery of the 148th Field Artillery stationed at Fort Lewis, WA.

He was serving with Company A of the 103rd Anti-tank Battalion when he was promoted to Sergeant on May 17, 1941.  It was only two months later that he was promoted to First Sergeant, now serving with HQ Company. 

Service Time: The 103d Anti-tank Battalion was activated on September 30, 1940, from Washington National Guard troops but on February 10, 1941, the unit was federalized and later redesignated the 803rd Tank Destroyer Battalion on December 12th.

The unit departed from the New York port on June 24, 1943, and arrived in England on July 6th. They spent 11 months in additional training and the final preparations and staging at Portsmouth, in southern England, before boarding transports and landing at Omaha Beach, Normandy, France, on June 13, 1944. The unit was equipped with M10 tank destroyers and helped capture St. Lô in July. They then raced across northern France in August and passed through Belgium and Holland before reaching the Siegfried Line in September. They supported operations north of Aachen in October and then transferred to the Hürtgen Forest.

Shifting to the Ardennes just before the German offensive in December, they were committed against the Siegfried Line for the second time in early 1945. The 803rd converted to M36 tank destroyers in February and participated in the capture of Trier. On March 2nd, Merle was wounded near the Kyll River, which is a tributary of the Moselle, heading to the Ruhr Pocket.

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He was able to return to duty and on March 23rd, he was serving as platoon leader during heavy combat near Trebur, Germany. Allied infantry was pinned down by enemy forces and 1st Sergeant Bray ordered his two tank destroyers to within forty yards of the enemy positions before opening fire, killing sixty and wounding thirty of the enemy. These actions allowed the infantry to resume their advance and accomplish their mission. Merle was awarded the Bronze Star for what his citation identifies as distinctive heroism and conscientious devotion to duty.

Bronze Star Citation

Bronze Star Article

The 803rd crossed the Rhine River on the 23rd, at Oppenheim, and joined in the elimination of the Ruhr Pocket in April. The unit pivoted and marched southeast through Austria and into Czechoslovakia. They received credit for campaigns in Normandy, Northern France, the Rhineland, the Ardennes and Central Europe. In addition to the Bronze Star, he also received the Purple Heart.

Merle continued to serve during the occupation and received a field promotion to Second Lieutenant on November 17th. He left active service but continued to serve in the National Guard. Beginning in 1949, he served as Commanding Officer of Battery B of the 240th Coast Artillery in Poulsbo, Washington. The unit would be converted to Co. B of the MTB Armor and then a final change to Battery B, 1st Howitzer Battalion, 248th Artillery.

On July 29, 1950, Merle married the former Dorothy Eleanore Harpel who was in Carbondale, WA, and was the daughter of William Banard Harpel and Eufemia Amelia Hendrickson. The new couple would make their residence in Poulsbo, WA, and have three boys, Thomas and Timothy born in 1951, and Bradley in 1953. It was in 1952, that Merle’s National Guard unit would win the Eisenhower trophy for Outstanding Army Unit. 

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The photo at left, shows Captain Bray receiving the Eisenhower trophy on June 20, 1953, at Fort Lewis, WA. Also seen in the photo is Maj. Gen. Lilburn Stevens at far left, Cpt. Quentin Barnes in back and Governor Arthur B. Langie presenting the award. Stevens had also served in the tank destroyers, commanding the 648th, 643rd and 610th, at different periods of WWII. 

In addition to his National Guard service, Merle worked as an ordnance Specialist/Expert for the U.S. Navy at Bangor, WA and for U.S. Naval Magazine, Subic Bay, Republic of the Philippines. In his spare time, Merle enjoyed fishing, bowling, hunting, golf and spending time with his family. As his sons grew up, he also enjoyed coaching youth sports . He was also a member of the VFW and the Elks. On October 18, 1959, while serving in the Reserves, Merle was promoted to Major.

Merle passed away on November 1, 1979, and was buried in the Mountain View Cemetery in Silverdale, WA. I want to thank Merle’s son, Thomas, for providing the information and photos used in this tribute. I also want to thank Find A Grave contributor, P.M. Schofield, for the use of the grave marker photo.

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