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North Huntingdon World War II veteran was fascinated with flying

| Friday, May 19, 2017, 11:00 p.m.

Updated 12 hours ago

Robert Gray thought he was at death's door, but he lived to fly again.

Health problems had the World War II bomber veteran convinced he was taking his last breaths four years ago when he moved in with his son, North Huntingdon Commissioner Rich Gray.

His oldest daughter, Connie Gongaware, said her father “flunked out of hospice” and recovered enough to resume traveling with his children and grandchildren, including a flight two years ago to Myrtle Beach.

“He was just fascinated with flying. He loved it. ... He said, ‘I thought I'd never get to fly again,'” said Rich Gray. “The pilot came out and spoke with him, and thanked him for his service.”

Robert Banks Gray of North Huntingdon, a veteran of World War II's Pacific Theater and longtime employee of General Motors, died Tuesday, May 16, 2017, at Hempfield Manor from complications of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He was 93. Mr. Banks was born in Export on May 7, 1924, to the late Harry L. Gray and Anna Creery Gray, the second son among eight children.

He wanted to fly from an early age but was too young to enlist when he finished high school. So he skipped his graduation ceremony and took a clerical job in Harrisburg until he was old enough, said Gongaware.

In June 1943, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps and trained as a pilot and gunner for the A-20 Havoc bombers of the 417th Bomb Group. They island-hopped across the Pacific Theater, with stints in Papua New Guinea and Okinawa, Japan.

After his service ended in 1946, he retained a love for flying, kept his private pilot's license and rented time flying airplanes in and out of local airports, Gongaware said. He eventually took a job at General Motors' Fisher Body Division in Dravosburg, overseeing their stocks of steel and retiring in 1981 as press room supervisor.

He met Dolores Elias at a dance in Jeannette in 1946 and married her a year later. They would have three children and be together until her death in 1976. Rather than wait until his retirement, they started traveling together around the time of their 25th wedding anniversary, taking trips to the Caribbean.

After her death, he would visit Gongaware in Europe, where her military husband was stationed, and once surprised her on a visit to Scotland by talking to the locals in a convincing Scottish brogue.

“A couple of times, I think the people thought he was a native,” said Gongaware.

Circulation issues led doctors to amputate most of one leg about 30 years ago, but Mr. Gray insisted upon staying active. Without a wheelchair or walker, he flew unaccompanied to reunions of the 417th at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado and at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. Throughout 20 years on the North Huntingdon Board of Commissioners, Rich Gray said his father often attended meetings and acted as an informal adviser and sounding board.

“He was always a good ear. I could go ranting to him whenever I wanted,” Rich Gray said.

Mr. Gray was predeceased by his first wife, Dolores Elias Gray, in 1976. He is survived by his children, Connie Gongaware and husband, Ken, of Fairfax Station, Va.; Patricia Kemble and husband, Lou, of Baltimore, Md.; and Richard Gray and wife, Maura; four grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

A memorial service will be held 10 a.m. Saturday at James W. Shirley Funeral Home, 176 Clay Pike, North Huntingdon, with interment to follow at Penn Lincoln Memorial Park.

Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724 836 6660, msantoni@tribweb.com or via Twitter @msantoni.

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