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(Tribune News Service) — Many people ignore Flag Day, but that never was the case for J.S. and Alyne Gray — and not just because it was their anniversary.

Before they married in Jonesville and later settled in Greenwell Springs after World War II, the Grays were connected to two special flags. One was one of the most famous ever unfurled — and the other, they tried to make better known.

While J.S. Gray was serving in the Pacific, Alyne Swayze worked as a civilian at the Army's Camp Livingston in central Louisiana. She regularly went to Alexandria to attend functions at the USO, which provided servicemen a place to socialize.

"You'd meet some who were so wonderful, well-educated, and then some poor souls … but you had to treat them all alike, which I did," she told The Advocate in 2004.

That spirit helped her meet a participant in one of the war's most memorably photographed moments.

On May 30, 1945, two of the servicemen who had planted the flag on Iwo Jima's Mt. Suribachi came to Alexandria for a war bond rally. Marine Pfc. Rene Gagnon and Navy Pharmacist's Mate 2nd Class John Bradley were among the six who put the flag into place as Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal captured the image. Three of the servicemen in the photograph were killed on the island.

The photo had given the home front a shot of patriotism. The rally featured Gagnon, Bradley, another Iwo Jima soldier not involved in the flag-raising and local dignitaries, all urging citizens to buy war bonds to support the effort. Each of the soldiers was assigned a date for the occasion. Swayze was Gagnon's date.

Gagnon and Bradley re-created planting the same flag that had flown at Suribachi — now scarred with bullet holes and frayed from high wind — while the national anthem was played.

After the date was over, she found a signed note from Gagnon in her purse. It read, "To a beautiful girl I'd like to know better." Neither, however, contacted the other again.

Across the world, her husband-to-be knew nothing about all this. He was just trying to survive.

Hours after attacking Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces struck the Philippines, where Gray was stationed. After four months of desperate fighting on the Bataan Peninsula, most American and Filipino forces surrendered on April 9, 1942.

Gray was one of the malnourished and dehydrated prisoners forced to endure the Bataan Death March, a days-long trek in the tropical heat as they were brutalized by their captors. The march ended at the notorious Cabanatuan prison camp. Eventually, Gray was sent to another prison camp.

There, a Japanese officer brought an American flag and told the prisoners to destroy it. The prisoners crafted a plan. Prisoner Paul Spain cut out the 48 stars and distributed them to a few healthy comrades. They burned the rest of the flag to satisfy the Japanese, but kept the stars hidden inside their clothes.

"If we got caught with those stars, they'd kill us," Gray said in 2003. "Every time we would go to the rice fields or another job, cutting cane and stuff like that, all the stars went with the men. ... We just wanted those stars to last to the end of the war."

Whether the men would last was uncertain. After about two years, the prisoners were sent to Japan aboard a ship that had been used to transport cattle, Gray told The Advocate in 1992. Prisoners were jammed into the sweltering hold, ankle deep in animal feces. Left there for two months, some men went mad and others died, and their bodies were not removed until the men disembarked in Japan. Cold weather in Japan contributed to more deaths from pneumonia.

Finally, when Japan surrendered, U.S. B-29 bombers air dropped much-needed food to the camp. The parachutes were red, white and blue.

Spain collected the stars and set about creating a flag from the parachute fabric with an available sewing machine. When the sewing machine's only needle broke, Gray fashioned two needles from wire to hand-sew the last stars into place. Prisoners ran it up the prison camp flagpole. Gray, about 100 pounds lighter than when the war began, said he and others saluted.

Gray would soon return to Jonesville, where he and Alyne married on June 14, 1946. Before his death in 2003, he spoke about his experiences to church and civic groups. As time passed, the memories made him too emotional, so Alyne would speak as he wiped away tears, sharing the story often before she died in 2012.

"When you see our flag flying over the post office, over the school yards and maybe in your home, look at it real good," she would say in conclusion, "because as long as Old Glory flies, we're living in the land of the free and the home of the brave."

(c)2022 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

Visit The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. at

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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