Waverly “Charlie” W. Wray
Company D, 2d Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82d Airborne Division
September 27, 1919 – September 21, 1944
Born September 27, 1919, in Batesville, Missouri, 1st Lt. Waverly Wright Wray seemed destined for a quiet life as a minister or woodsman. But when America entered World War II, Wray became a three-time volunteer: volunteering for service, for the infantry, and for the elite Airborne Corps. Wray, who introduced himself as “Charlie,” earned the nickname “Deacon” as a paratrooper for his devout Christianity. His ferocity in combat awed his fellow Soldiers and his quiet capability inspired them to follow his lead into some of the worst combat in World War II. When the fighting was at its worst Wray was at his best and his actions saved the men of his company and battalion on at least one occasion. In a formation full of outstanding Soldiers, Wray secured an enduring legacy within the history of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment and the 82d Airborne Division.
After completing parachute training at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1942, Wray was assigned to the Company E, 2d Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR). Wray’s first impression left his fellow paratroopers confused: his softer face, commitment to religion, and lack of vices (Wray refrained from drinking, smoking, or profanity) seemed counter to their “picture of a real paratroop hero.” Seeing him in action, even in training, removed all doubts of his suitability as a paratrooper leader. On a punishing, 24-hour forced march covering 54 miles Wray relieved two struggling machine gunners of their 31-pound “light” machine guns and carried both for a significant stretch of the route. Since every trooper who fell out was later removed from the regiment, Wray’s actions spared those gunners disgrace. His marksmanship was excellent: Wray was able to claim without irony that he had never missed a shot he hadn’t intended to. By the time the 505th reached Africa in May 1943 to prepare for an assault on Sicily the following July, Wray had become a symbol for the regiment of the quiet professional.
Wray made his first combat jump into Sicily in the inky black of night with the rest of the 505th. His platoon jumped at around 400 feet above ground, far below the intended height, but was fortunate enough to avoid jump-related injuries. After assembly, Wray’s paratroopers set up planned roadblock to prevent Italian and German forces from moving to the beach at Gela. The next morning the platoon joined Company E at a coastal artillery fortification. Company E made 1st Infantry Division’s amphibious assault less costly by keeping the Germans from reinforcing beach defenses. After fighting ended in Sicily, Wray transferred to Company D and jumped with them to reinforce the faltering Fifth Army beachhead at Salerno, Italy. Wray later helped seize the bridges across the Volturno River, allowing the British 23d Armoured Brigade to breach the German defensive positions of the Volturno Line.
Wray jumped into Normandy, France, as Company D’s executive officer in the predawn hours of June 6, 1944. Once on the ground, Company D moved to block the northern route from Cherbourg to the road junction at Ste. Mére-Églis. Like all paratrooper units on D-Day, the 2d and 3d Battalions of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment were isolated until the amphibious forces could break through. They had to hold their ground against German attacks from all directions. At dawn on June 7, nearly six German battalions reinforced by self-propelled artillery counterattacked into the town of Ste. Mére-Églis. Had the attack succeeded, the German forces would have been able to destroy the 2d Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment. Company D defended the north side of the town against three infantry battalions and one self-propelled anti-tank battalion. Outnumbered by over twenty to one, Company D was forced to retreat slowly with no real reserve to reinforce the defenses. In the action, Wray’s company commander was injured. While the captain continued to direct the defense, Wray found himself the de facto front-line leader. He moved to the front lines to assess the situation and identified an enemy machine gun position that had inflicted several casualties. Wray crawled through the maelstrom of fire from both sides, threw a grenade into the position to disable the gun, then killed the rest of the Germans in the position with his rifle. Wray fought from there until he saw a German officer running toward another machine gun. After shooting the officer, Wray then crawled to the second position and eliminated it the same way he had the first. Wounded, low on ammunition, and having relieved some of the pressure on Company D, Wray crawled back to his own lines. He then moved to the rear to resupply himself and his company.
Wray carried news of their situation to the 2d Battalion commander, Lt. Col. Benjamin Vandervoort, who told him to take a platoon and “counterattack the flank of the encroaching Germans.” After informing the company commander, Wray collected more grenades and left for reconnaissance with Company D’s 1st Platoon. Putting his experience in the woods to good use, Wray acted as his own lead scout to determine the general disposition of the German forces. After initial scouting, he approached one of the battalions from the rear. On hearing voices speaking in German on the other side of a hedgerow, Wray went to investigate and discovered eight German officers gathered around a radio. Wray barked a command to raise their hands, which seven of them followed; the eighth attempted to draw his pistol and Wray shot him immediately. Two Germans in a nearby trench turned at the shot and opened fire on Wray. This distraction prompted the surviving officers to resist, so Wray shot them and jumped into a ditch to reload. With the other two Germans distracted by Wray’s companion platoon, Wray climbed back up and dispatched them. True to his reputation, he had fired ten rounds to eliminate ten Germans. The enemy officers comprised the entire command staff of the 1st Battalion, 1058th Grenadier Regiment (heavy infantry). After more reconnaissance, he came back to the platoon with two prisoners and his helmet strap shot away. A German round had ricocheted off the rim of his helmet to clip off part of his right ear; a quarter of an inch lower would have been lethal.
With a clear understanding of the enemy positions, and having unknowingly decapitated the leadership of an assault battalion, Wray formulated a simple plan. He put 1st Platoon on the German left flank with a 60-mm mortar and a .30-caliber machine gun. At his command the mortar began firing onto the German positions. Wray then directed machine gun fire down the lane where German infantry awaited the signal to advance. To escape the volley, the German soldiers had to cross hedgerows and open fields. Small arms and machine gun fire from 1st Platoon, Company D drove the survivors of the 1058th to flee to the north. Their flight exposed the flank of another infantry battalion, causing it to withdraw and halting the German attack to the north. Wray’s actions had been the decisive point keeping German forces in the north from entering St. Mére-Églis. When Wray returned to Vandervoort with his report, the colonel later remembered: “There he was—minus part of his ear. Blood had dried down his neck and the right shoulder of his jump jacket, fore and aft. I said ‘They’ve been getting kind of close to you haven’t they, Waverly?’ With just a grin, Waverly replied, ‘Not as close as ah’ve been getting to them, Suh.’” Vandervoort nominated Wray for a Medal of Honor; the award was downgraded to a Distinguished Service Cross.
During Operation Market Garden, Wray’s luck ran out following his fourth combat jump. The operation, an airborne and ground offensive devised by British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery to seize a series of bridges and open a “northern corridor” into Germany, could bypass the bulk of German defenses and deliver a faster victory. On September 19, 1944, Wray and Company D, part of 2d Battalion, attacked through the town of Nijmegen, Netherlands to seize the Waal River Bridge. Company D, supported by a troop (company) of tanks and a British infantry platoon, attacked through the western part of Nijmegen to seize the railway bridge. As the formation came within 200 yards of the bridge, the German defenders initiated a barrage of anti-tank and machine gun fire. The fusillade from hidden positions destroyed two British tanks and raked the company with automatic weapons fire. Company D’s commander needed to keep as many of the defenders on the far side of the bridge as possible, so he turned to the company’s most experienced leader. Wray collected a bazooka team, a machine gun, a rifle squad, and a platoon leader to destroy a German tank he had identified as the main source of resistance to the company’s advance. As the group came under fire from machine gun positions and mortars, Wray continued forward with his machine gun team to identify the German emplacements. He identified Germans in a bridge tower and called up a rifle grenadier, then the bazooka team in an attempt to destroy it; the rounds all fell short. Rather than risk his Soldiers, Wray took the bazooka and moved closer in an attempt to move within effective range. He was struck by machine gun fire and died of his wounds before Company D could seize their side of the railway bridge.
Wray had an air of near invincibility around him, built through training and combat operations where he “would go where no man would dare tread, unless he was leading them.” Whether as a platoon leader or as an executive officer, Wray always placed himself up at the front wherever the fighting was the fiercest. His death shook Company D and the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment. According to Lt. Col. Vandervoort: “Those who knew him best think of Waverly W. Wray as the 82d Airborne Division’s undiscovered World War II equivalent of Sergeant Alvin C. York. He stands tall among those who made the great invasion succeed.” Despite seeming like an odd figure among paratroopers, Wray’s cool head and competence made him a hero even in the Army’s elite as he embodied the Army’s aspirational values.
Graduate Historic Research Intern
Kingseed, Cole C. “All-American Lieutenants: The 82nd Airborne in Normandy.” Association of the United States Army. May 15, 2014. https://www.ausa.org/articles/all-american-lieutenants-82nd-airborne-normandy.
Nordyke, Phil. All American, All the Way: The Combat History of the 82nd Airborne Division in World War II. St. Paul: Zenith Press, 2005.
Nordyke, Phil. Four Stars of Valor: The Combat History of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment in World War II. St. Paul: Zenith press, 2006.
“Waverly W. Wray.” The Hall of Valor Project, Military Times. Accessed June 6, 2022. https://valor.militarytimes.com/hero/22808.