War memorabilia offers history lesson

Joseph Gray displays a German life vest that’s part of his collection of World War I and World War II items. Bob Beckstead/Watertown Daily Times

MASSENA — Step inside a building near Joseph Gray’s East Hatfield Street home and it’s a journey back in time.

The 24-by-50-foot building could best be described as a museum of artifacts from World Wars I and II.

Sitting on the right side near the entrance are a helmet, belt and gas mask.

“That’s where it all started,” Mr. Gray said.

The start was when he was about 10 years old and growing up in Helena and found what he said others would consider “junk,” but were in reality the helmet, belt and gas mask. And then the collection began to grow and now fills the East Hatfield Street building.

It’s a bit of everything American and German, and a few Japanese from the world wars. Mr. Gray estimates that about a quarter of the room is dedicated to north country veterans, featuring items like the uniforms they wore as well as souvenirs they brought or sent home.

Among them are his late father’s collection. John J. Gray Sr. died on Nov. 22, 2010. A corner of the building contains items he had amassed while in the U.S. Army during World War II. Mr. Gray’s father had been drafted and served three years during World War II as a corporal in the 838th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Automatic Weapons Battalion. He was the last surviving member of his gun crew in Battery C.

A combat veteran, he participated in the Battle of the Bulge with the Third Army under command of Gen. George S. Patton. His unit proceeded through Germany, crossed the Rhine River and eventually liberated Dachau concentration camp with the Seventh Army under Gen. Alexander Patch. He was honorably discharged in 1946 and was awarded the U.S. Army Good Conduct Medal, American Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with two battle stars, WWII Victory Medal, and the German Occupation Medal.

Mr. Gray’s father served an additional 15 years in the Reserves, where he was the first enlisted man in the Massena Reserve Unit and eventually achieved the rank of first sergeant.

There’s a lot of information like that, many with familiar north country names like Walter Basmajian, Gene LePage, Ken Kirkey, Harry Clopman, Mitch Rubin, Albert Venier, George Wright, George Hamner, George Skomsky, Bill Kennedy and more.

Mr. Gray not only has memorabilia from those individuals who served in the wars, but in many cases has researched their biographies to accompany the collection. He said collectors like to know the history of the piece they acquired, but what’s more important is the history of the person who served and the person who collected.

“I tried to include some history if I knew it,” he said.

In some cases, he has paperwork like identification cards and discharge papers from individuals.

Each person has a history, he said. George Wright, for instance, was one of Merrill’s Marauders, a group of volunteers that became famous for its deep-penetration missions behind Japanese lines, often engaging Japanese forces superior in number.

“It was a pretty elite group actually. George was a member,” Mr. Gray said.

He later learned that about 50 individuals from St. Lawrence and Jefferson counties had also been part of that group.

One quadrant of the collection is dedicated to items from World War II that were either shipped home or brought home by the service member. Their commanding officers would give them permission to bring something home as a souvenir.

“Carlton Shaver shipped a bunch of stuff to his wife,” he said.

German rifles even came back to the United States, but were so long that they had to be cut in half to fit in a duffle bag.

Mr. Gray’s collection has some of those, as well as pistols, daggers, knives, swords and more.

He also has the medals that the service members were awarded, like the Bronze Star, Silver Star and Purple Heart.

Some of the items were given to Mr. Gray.

“Some families don’t know what to do with it,” he said.

Other items were purchased at auctions, garage sales or on the internet. Local Massena historian John D. Michaud III even found a helmet that was thrown out during spring cleanup and now has a place in Mr. Gray’s collection.

There’s a German life raft with the original instructions tucked inside and life vest, dog tags, patches, postcards, helmets, Nazi items, a German artillery box that was shipped to Castorland, canteen and silverware, and even a can of C-rations.

Full uniforms fill the building. Some look like they were fresh off the rack.

“The early war stuff is so well-made. Germans were very particular in manufacturing,” Mr. Gray said.

Although most of the collection is German, there are a few items from the Pacific. Among them is a Japanese tibia, the main bone of the leg, forming what is more commonly known as the shin.

“That’s one of the strangest things I ever bought,” he said.

Every piece in Mr. Gray’s collection has a story that will be passed on through the generations.

“We’re just caretakers of history,” he said.

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Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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