John Gray was born in his grandparents' home in Chickasaw, Alabama on November 27, 1924, and was living in Mobile when the war began. His father had left the family and gone north to work in the steel mills in Youngstown, Ohio. His mother worked as a cook and housekeeper. Gray lied about his age to get a job as a carpenter's helper in the Alabama Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company in Mobile. He began attending college but was drafted into the Marines in May of 1943. He was assigned to a new segregated section of Camp LeJeune called Montford Point, where all African-American Marines were trained.
Gray was assigned to the 51st Defense Battalion, which was then one of the only black units being trained for combat in the Marines. Their commanding officer, Lt. Colonel Floyd Stephenson, a veteran of Pearl Harbor, won his men's loyalty by declaring, "there is nothing" that black troops cannot be taught. They became expert at firing 155mm coastal artillery guns and 90mm anti-aircraft guns, and were shipped out from San Diego on February 11, l944. They replaced the 7th Defense Battalion on the islands of Nanomea and Nukufetau near American Samoa, and were later sent to Eniwetok, but in nineteen months overseas, the 51st was never put into combat. They took to calling themselves "the lost battalion."
Gray sailed back to the States on an AK 121 troop ship in November of 1945. He recalls celebrating two birthdays on board the ship -- one before and one after they crossed the International Date Line. He arrived back home in early 1946, finished college on the GI Bill, married, raised a family and became a teacher. He taught for 22 years at Dunbar, Mobile's all black high school, and in the 1970s became a teacher and principal in the city's newly integrated school system. In 1998, after 50 years as a revered educator and civic leader, John Gray retired.