Harold Bray: Hometown Hero

It was December 7th, 1941.

Pearl Harbor had just been bombed, triggering the United States entering World War II. Patriotism was high and young men and women clamored to join the war effort. Young Harold Bray was no different, but at only age 14, he would have to wait three long years before he could join up with his buddies. Finally, at age 17, he convinced his father to sign off on his joining the Navy.

Bray originally hails from Ramsay, a small ore mining town in northern Michigan. In a 2020 episode of Hometown Hero, Bray recalls growing up in a poor, close-knit family. He recalls going to boot camp at Great Lakes and the culture shock of suddenly being away from family for the first time. “There was nobody holding your hand,” he says, “You better do what you’re told and do it right the first time.” He says this was a mentality he adapted to easily, perhaps owing to his father’s influence, a military man himself who served in World War I. “But you ate better,” he laughs, referring to boot camp’s three square meals a day, compared with the meager rations his family was able to provide. “Never ate so good.”

Harold was then shipped out to Mare Island in Vallejo, California, where he joined the crew aboard the USS Indianapolis, Roosevelt’s ship of state. The embattled ship had been undergoing repairs after the battle of Okinawa in spring 1945 and wasn’t scheduled for any immediate missions. But, when the USS Pensacola was unable to deliver its payload, the USS Indianapolis was tapped to complete the mission.

Harold Bray Navy headshot

“I was out on liberty,” says Bray, “and we got called back: ‘everyone with Indianapolis, get back to the ship right away.’

We didn’t know what for.” Bray then describes setting out on his first ever mission and the ship stopping at Hunter’s Point, “And that’s when we picked up the bomb, I guess.” “The bomb” was, as WWII history buffs might know, components for Little Boy; the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. It was the first nuclear weapon to be used in warfare and its detonation, along with that of its sibling Fat Man, effectively ended WWII. “We didn’t know until we were in hospital in the Philippines that we were even carrying a bomb. The skipper didn’t even know what we had. And of course, we didn’t really know until we dropped it.”

The crew on the USS Indianapolis successfully dropped off its precious payload at Tinian Island.

A request was made for an escort as they were expected to be traveling through enemy-laden waters. That request was denied. On the night of July 30th, 1945, the USS Indianapolis was struck by two torpedoes fired by a Japanese submarine. The ensuing 12 minutes was a frenzy of activity as crewmen abandoned ship and the mighty USS Indianapolis eventually sank. Bray, who would normally sleep below deck, had been given permission to sleep topside that night to escape the heat. This undoubtedly saved his life as the torpedoes struck just outside of his assigned bunk. It also allowed him to aid the wounded and successfully find a life raft. He recalls helping pick up 80 more crewmen who clung to the raft and crash net in the Philippine waters.

Though the crewmen didn’t know it, an SOS was never sent, so Bray and his fellow servicemen settled in for what would be a harrowing almost five-day wait for rescue. Bray had sustained burns on the left side of his body, which were aggravated by salt water and oil spilled by the ship. “We were covered in oil – in your eyes, in your mouth…I still taste it to this day,” says Bray. They were stuck in the water with no food or water, many of them injured; and then the sharks came. Bray recalls seeing his fellow crewmates falling victim to sharks lured by the scent of fresh injuries. Others went mad from exposure.

All the while, planes flew overhead, but they were too high to see the stranded sailors.

The USS Indianapolis had never been reported missing, so no one was looking. Finally, a plane spotted the survivors by chance and radioed for help. It would be another day and a half before that help came. Bray was pulled to safety along with the other survivors and they were shipped to a hospital in the Philippines. Bray had lost 35 pounds in nearly five days.

Of the nearly 1200 men on board the USS Indianapolis, 900 survived the sinking, but only 316 survived the wait for rescue. It is considered the worst disaster at sea in US Naval history. Bray counts himself incredibly lucky to have survived. Bray was honorably discharged in 1946, after which he moved to Benicia, where he met his wife, Stephanie, and served as a police officer for 25 years – a career he had wanted since boyhood. 

Harold Bray monument rendering

Above: Harold Bray Monument rendering

Below: Monument base rendering

Harold Bray monument base rendering

Bray is the last living survivor of the USS Indianapolis and an effort is underway to honor him as Benicia’s hometown hero, both for his service to our country and to our community. The Benicia Community Foundation, in partnership with the Veteran’s Memorial Hall, the City of Benicia, and Solano County, is spearheading a project to unveil a life-size bronze statue of Harold Bray on July 7th, 2023, at 6pm at the Commandant’s Quarters, in front of the Clocktower. The impressive statue’s design, engineering, and creative oversight have been thanks to the donated time of Architect Brian Marshall, Engineer Rod Sherry, and General Contractor John Laverty. The statue will have various easter eggs, such as the wristwatch which is stopped at the exact time Harold Bray would have hit the water.

You, too, can help bring this project to fruition by donating through the Benicia Community Foundation’s website.

Those who donate will get various honorable mentions, the opportunity to have their name enshrined in the monument’s design, and unique challenge coins, designed specifically for this occasion. The use of challenge coins in this endeavor is fitting as, in the military, they are given as an honor of service and are often used to raise spirits and foster a sense of camaraderie – key elements that undoubtedly helped Bray and his fellow servicemen survive such an arduous ordeal. The Harold Bray Challenge Coin can be awarded for community service, and for a limited time through contributions.

The Annual USS Indianapolis Reunion Dinner and Dance and a special tribute to Harold Bray will take place on July 8th at the Clocktower (ticket sales end June 1st). Harold Bray was also recently honored at San Francisco’s Memorial Day celebration on May 28th. Bray was awarded a Purple Heart and the WWII Victory Medal. In 2020, the final sailing crew of the USS Indianapolis was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.