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West Texas to Western Europe: Story of ranch hand turned tail gunner comes to Cotton Museum

Gov. Rick Perry greets veteran Thomas Ellis as Perry's father Ray Perry smiles during a ceremony commemorating World War Two veterans on the Senate floor on May 8, 2013.
Marjorie Kamys Cotera
The Texas Tribune
Gov. Rick Perry greets veteran Thomas Ellis as Perry's father Ray Perry smiles during a ceremony commemorating World War Two veterans on the Senate floor on May 8, 2013.

The World War II History Roundtable events series continues with a presentation about Ray Perry, father of former Texas Governor Rick Perry, and his service in Europe.

The Audie Murphy/American Cotton Museum in Greenville is hosting another event in its World War II History Roundtable series. Events in this series are free of charge and folks around the region are warmly invited to enjoy these presentations from out-of-region guests. Start time is 7 p.m. Thursday, April 25.

Tonight’s program, “Heavy Date Over Germany,” tells the story of Ray Perry, the late father of former Texas Governor Rick Perry. The elder Perry grew up on a West Texas ranch and had to learn the way of the world beyond Texas quickly, when his military service led him to being a B-17 tail-gunner in Europe during the final months of World War II.

Jewellee Jordan Kuenstler, Director of the Museum of the West Texas Frontier in Stamford, Texas, will present from her book on the topic. Kuenstler spoke with KETR in advance of her visit. A transcript follows, and the audio from our conversation can be heard in the player above below this story's headline.

Audio transcript: Jewellee Jordan Kuenstler on Ray Perry

"The idea of this story has been in my head since – I'm going to say since I was a child. It all started with a scrapbook that my grandmother had. And this was a scrapbook that my grandfather's mother had made for him when he graduated high school and he went into the military. Now, this was May of 1941, so this was before we were in the war.

And when I would look at that scrapbook when I was younger, it was just newspaper articles that were cut out of the local newspaper. You know, it was things like the football team and honors that my grandfather's football team had accrued. It was a good cotton crop, things like that, but I started noticing there were obituaries, because by this time we had entered the war and there were just more and more obituaries.

And we are from a very small community in rural West Texas. And by the end of that scrapbook, there were 41 military deaths of people they personally knew. Now, when I was young, this was a boring scrapbook to me. You know, it didn't have my mom in a swimsuit or something like that. But, as I got older, and as I got married, and as I had a child of my own, it brought more and more meaning to this scrapbook.

There were 41 young men from our area, personally known by our family, that died over the course of World War II. And I thought, each one of them has a story. They may not be a general, or they may not be, you know, a colonel, but each one of them played a part and lost their lives during World War II. So I always wanted to tell a story kind of for the unsung hero.

And then we got to meet Ray Perry, and Ray Perry was a family friend. He was more like extended family of my husband's family. And I found out that he was a B-17 tail gunner. When my son got into high school, he got very interested in World War II. He was also studying to be a pilot. My husband's a pilot.

And so he was 16. He had just soloed. He really wanted a career in flying. And he just loved the airplanes from World War II. Well, when he found out that Ray was a B-17 tail gunner, we went out and interviewed him. And at first I just thought it was going to be, you know, just tell a few stories. But it was remarkable, the stories that he told.

And the first thing Ray would tell us was, “Oh, I didn't do anything special.” But then you hear his stories. So we went out a second time. To interview and all of a sudden his wife brings out this Tupperware box and it is full of all the letters he wrote home to his parents during World War II.

It's also full of photographs that he took while he was in England including London, around the base, but also photographs he took from the tail of that airplane. Photographs that the pilot took from the cockpit of the B-17. That was just a treasure. And so I really got excited. This was that story.

This was the story that could tell about a West Texas boy, a country boy, a farmer's son, who goes on this great adventure, risks his life because he feels it's his duty, and it kind of tells the story of thousands of other young men that went into World War II, did their job, didn't feel like they did anything special, but when you look at it collectively, oh my goodness, look at what they did for us.

You know, they literally saved the freedoms that we enjoy today. They literally saved the world. I mean, they did. Collectively together, they literally saved the world. So, in telling his story, I feel like I'm acknowledging those thousands of young men who were just, not necessarily the grunts, but just held ordinary positions in the military, but collectively look at the amazing thing that they accomplished.