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Dr. Sharkey's Pieces


An Heroic Act By a Truly Beautiful Human Being: The Story of Ray Ankeny

(February 2002)

Acts of heroism come in many varieties; they are by definition unanticipated and essentially spontaneous. No two can ever be the same. Some occur in public circumstances which are visible or, at least, known to everyone. Others occur in the most private of circumstances while many are never known to have happened because neither the hero nor he or she who is the object of the heroic act survives the event.

During the past year we have witnessed the very public and heroic deaths of those firefighters and police who were in the process of racing up many flights of stairs to aid stricken workers of the World Trade Center as those towers collapsed upon themselves, dooming at once and together both the rescuers and those whom they sought to assist.

Conversely, we know that there were unknown heroes among the passengers of the three airliners which were hijacked and destroyed on that same day of terror. We are certain of only one such person, Todd Beamer, identified on Flight 93, but we can never know of all of those others among the passengers of the three aircraft who, like Mr. Beamer, and in the face of inevitable death, determined to fight against their tormentors even if that accelerated the tragedy, rather than awaiting passively what seemed certain to occur.

These are among recent occurrences of heroic bravery; there have been many others, in peace and in war, across the vast span of human events. There are accounts of student and alumni heroism in the annals of this College whose founding we now commemorate. One such is the story of Ray Ankeny who entered Westminster as a freshman in 1941 just before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Because of the isolated, private nature of what happened to Ray, his valiant and touching act of heroism might have been unrecognized. That any among the living learned of his sacrifice is because of the gratitude of those he died to save and because of the enduring love of one woman who had hoped for his safe return from the war.

During the early 1990s, in preparation for my book When Titans Truly Were: Westminster College and the Second World War, I solicited memoirs from anyone associated with the College -- alumni, former faculty, administrators and staff, as well as from relatives and friends of the foregoing -- in short, from any associates of Westminster who had served or knew of those who had served during the War in any foreign theater of operations or on the home front.

Among the many responses which I received was one from Nancy Bartley Gracely, Class of 1945. The story which she presented is both beautiful and poignantly tragic.

Nancy Bartley and Ray Ankeny were students in the same class at Westminster and during their short time together here they became very close. When he enlisted in the Air Force they wrote regularly to each other even after his assignment overseas. In 1944 she sent a gift for his birthday in December and a Christmas present. Both were returned to her unopened. What later was learned to have happened is related in her note to me:

Ray Ankeny of Apollo, Pennsylvania, was a classmate of Jack O’Melia, Paul Fiscus and me. He was an engineering student who played the trumpet in the College band and sang in the church choir just off campus.

In 1943, Ray left for the Air Force. He became a second lieutenant and flew bombing missions out of England in a B-24. He was a co-pilot on his last mission. The right wing was on fire and the pilot was supposed to guide the plane while the rest bailed out. There was an argument. Ray said he would guide the plane because he wasn’t married and the pilot was. Ray guided the plane and the rest bailed out. The tail came off the plane, and the tail gunner saw the plane go on but Ray never jumped.

In March 1945, he was listed as missing in action and presumed dead. After the war his remains were found and he was buried in Belgium. His personal effects, including his wallet, were returned to his mother. Mrs. Ankeny wrote to Nancy Bartley saying that a photograph of her was the only picture he had carried.

The value, the sensitivity, the unrealized potential of that young life, destroyed by the horror of war, is exquisitely portrayed in a letter to the Holcad written by Ray Ankeny in early 1944, while he was in flight training at McBride, Missouri. The excerpt of the letter that was printed serves as a tribute to his great capacity of human awareness:

Learning to fly is work, despite what people think; but is so full of thrills and a sense of accomplishment that to us it is the most desirable work in the war-world. I will never forget yesterday, the first time I flew over the clouds. All day the sky had been overcast. When I took off I climbed up hoping to find a break in the ceiling through which I could ascend. I found one, and in just a few minutes the nose of my plane broke through the last layer. Here I found another world, a world of light and beauty, one which left me speechless. As far as I could see stretched the dazzling white floor of clouds. The golden sun shone forth from a dome of pure, deep unearthly blue. Far above me shimmered a perfectly circular rainbow. There was no other human in all that vast splendor--yet the whole upper-world throbbed with the presence of life in its highest form. Experiences like that set fliers apart from other men. Reluctantly I nosed my plane down through the clouds.

Eugene G. Sharkey, professor of history and Peace Studies Program co-coordinator