Smithsonian to display former Marine's birds of war
GALVESTON — As a pharmacist with the 11th Marines, Sammy Ray took part in some of the fiercest battles of World War II. He was at Okinawa, and still trembles at memories of the peril he faced at Peleliu — for America, the bloodiest battle of the South Pacific.
Attacking Japanese positions may have been the apex of his military years, but the future Texas A&M University professor's academic achievements were equally compelling. For much of his time in the South Pacific, Ray's weapon of choice was a slingshot or a stock-mounted pistol that fired dove shot. His targets were rainbow lorikeets, cardinal lories and Solomon Island cockatoos.
Ray, later interim president of Texas A&M-Galveston, dean of the Moody College of Marine Technology and creator of the popular summer Sea Camp program for kids, was one of hundreds of soldier-scientists who prowled war zones in search of plants, minerals, shells, insects and animals on behalf of the Smithsonian Institution.
Beginning this month, the Washington, D.C., museum will mount a small yearlong exhibition featuring specimens — including some of Ray's nearly 200 birds — collected from the war's Pacific theater.
"By the end of the war," Smithsonian historian Pamela Henson said, "the Smithsonian had become a powerhouse in South Pacific natural history."
Ray, 93, son of a Syrian immigrant peddler, grew up in a series of small Mississippi towns. His introduction to the world of science came from an acquaintance, Merritt Gordon Vaiden, an amateur ornithologist.
At the behest of his parents, Ray decided to drop out of high school to take a post office job. "In Rosedale, a town of 2,000, I never once dreamed of going to college," Ray said. "What was there for me to do except to run a service station or work in a dry goods store? ... Gordon pointed a finger at me and said, 'Sammy, if you don't finish high school, you'll make the greatest mistake of your life.'?"
Vaiden offered to teach Ray taxidermy and pay him $38 a month. Ray accepted, a move that led to his graduation from high school — 12th in a class of 13 — and enrollment at Sunflower Junior College to study biology.
Through Vaiden's connections and his own improving academic performance, Ray continued his studies at Louisiana State University. After a stint in a mosquito control program, he joined the Navy as a pharmacist's mate. His ties to the world of bird research brought him to the attention of the Smithsonian. "Collecting birds — that was my mission. To hell with the Japanese," Ray said.
The young pharmacist's mate, attached to the 1st Marine Division's artillery unit, soon tasted the bitterness of war.
In summer 1944, the 1st Division and the Army 81st Infantry attacked the Japanese stronghold of Peleliu, a coral island honeycombed with fortified bunkers and caves and home to an enemy force of 11,000. The battle lasted more than two months and the Marine division suffered more than 6,000 casualties.
"Looking back on it now," Ray said, "I don't know how the hell I got out of there alive."
Ray's scientific duties, performed at rest camps away from battle, often ruffled the feathers of military brass. On New Caledonia, where he lacked permission to fire his birding gun behind the lines, he felled specimens with a slingshot.
"One of the big problems was that if there was a shot fired behind the lines, no one knew if there was a sniper," Ray said. Through suave diplomacy, Ray succeeded in smoothing the way for his collecting.
On a collecting trip in a mangrove swamp on Pavuvu, Ray was separated from fellow Marines. Without knowledge of an all-important password, he had no way of safely returning to camp.
"I was afraid to come out. Without hearing the password, sentries don't ask any questions," Ray said. "I spent the night in the swamp, slept on logs. Big lizards, iguanas, land crabs crawled all over me. I was surrounded by a pack of wild dogs."
At dawn, Ray returned to receive a chewing-out from his colonel. "Afterward," Ray said, "he and I developed a very good relationship. ... As senior pharmacist, I had control of the sick bay's alcohol and I took care of the colonel. He took care of me. I got to shoot behind the lines."
The Smithsonian's use of Ray and other enlisted personnel as collectors was an outgrowth of the institution's earlier assistance in the war effort, Henson said. "We were sending information to the military because they didn't know much about the South Pacific," she said. "We provided maps, photographs, information about food, insects and disease. We wrote their first survival manual."
At war's end, Ray returned to the states to pursue a medical degree. Instead, he joined an oil company team investigating the cause of an oyster die-off, a job that redirected his career.
After obtaining master and doctorate degrees at Rice University, he worked as a federal research biologist, then, in 1957, joined Texas A&M.
"Birds," Ray said, "have turned my life around in two ways."
The first was the alternative they provided to a career as a postal clerk; the second, the role they played in "capturing the love of my life."
Ray met his future wife, Charlotte, when, as a junior college newspaper editor, she interviewed him for an article on bird collecting.
During the interview, Ray invited the woman to handle a harmless, 5-foot-long chicken snake. Though shaken, his future wife succeeded in manipulating the reptile back into his bag.
"I thought to myself: 'If she can handle a snake, maybe I have a chance with her,'?" Ray said.
The couple has been married 69 years.