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Medal of Honor recipient killed while saving another man’s life in Vietnam War

The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Midway (CV-41) approaching Naval Facility Subic Bay, Philippines. Midway, with assigned Carrier Air Wing 5 (CVW-5), was deployed to the Western Pacific from 14 September to 11 December 1982. In the floating dry dock in the foreground is the Spruance-class destroyer USS David R. Ray (DD-971). Moored side-by-side at the pier are the Knox-class frigates USS Kirk (FF-1087) and USS Francis Hammond (FF-1067). The guided missile cruiser USS Sterett (CG-31) is visible in the background. (PHCS Steven Harris/U.S. Navy)

Born and raised in McMinnville, Tennessee, historical descriptions peg David Robert Ray as a lanky, kindhearted man with a Southern drawl. He attended the University of Tennessee at Knoxville on scholarship for three years, up until 1966 when he stepped up to enlist in the Navy during the Vietnam War.

Three years later, during the early hours of March 19, a surprise enemy battalion broke through his unit’s barbed-wire perimeter of the Liberty Bridge, a strategic supply artery across the Thu Bon River connecting An Hoa to Da Nang. Heavy enemy fire from mortar, rockets, flamethrowers, grenades and small arms came through the Marines’ position at Phu Loc Six.

Ray, then a petty officer, jumped between low-hanging parapets to aid wounded soldiers.

While treating another Marine, Ray fought off two attackers by hand, killing one and wounding the other. He then continued forward through enemy fire, sustaining fatal wounds and running out of ammunition.

Still thinking of his wounded comrade, Ray threw himself atop him when a nearby grenade exploded, saving the other man’s life. Ray, 24, died from his wounds.

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For his selflessness, in addition to the Medal of Honor, Ray received the Purple Heart Medal, Combat Action Ribbon, Navy Presidential Unit Citation, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Republic of Vietnam Meritorious Unit Citation and Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal.

His name lives on through the USS David R. Ray, part of a reserve fleet in the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard; McMinnville’s Bobby Ray Memorial Elementary School; and a highway in Warren County. He is buried in Mountain View Cemetery in McMinnville.

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© 2020 the Chattanooga Times/Free Press