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Harold Bray Bronze Statue

Updated: Jul 31, 2023

Longtime Benician Harold Bray, a humble man, claims he is no hero.

Benicians — and well, many Americans — beg to differ.

They think he’s as good as gold. Well, maybe closer to bronze.

With the passing of Cleatus Lebow in October at the age of 98, Bray is the lone living survivor from the legendary USS Indianapolis. On Friday night in front of the city’s clock tower, Bray was celebrated and honored for his service with the unveiling of a statue made by Matt Glenn.

The life-sized bronze statue stands nearly 7 feet tall, affixed to a pedestal. It will eventually be moved to a location on First Street in the city, where it will be surrounded by several bronze sponsorship legacy plaques, personalized engraved bricks, concrete benches, and a storyboard displaying the history of Bray and the USS Indianapolis.

The Benicia Community Foundation, Inc. worked with the City of Benicia, Benicia Veterans Memorial Hall, and Solano County to design the tribute to Bray.

Bray, who just turned 96, chose not to speak at the event — but others were all too eager to serenade him with stories of his kindness and bravery. Bray politely listened, occasionally smiling and nodding while sitting in a huge white chair one might send for royalty.

“Harold will often say he’s not a hero, that the real heroes are the ones that didn’t make it back home from the Indianapolis disaster or other battles in World War II,” said retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Sam Cox. “But I believe the two aren’t mutually exclusive, specifically when it comes to that ship. None of the people aboard that ship had any choice in the matter concerning the cargo it was delivering, but they did have a choice concerning the abdominal skills that it took to survive. Harold had all those skills beyond what any of us can imagine.”

Harold’s daughter-in-law, Debbi Bray, was hardly surprised by the turnout.

“Harold kept saying, ‘Why would anyone want to do this all for me?’ I told him (with a laugh), ‘I don’t know, but apparently a lot of people like you,'” Debbi said.

Considering the life Harold has lived, it’s not hard to wonder why.

July 30, 1945

After starting in Mare Island, the USS Indianapolis delivered the Hiroshima atomic bomb in July 1945. On July 30, Japanese submarine I-58, captained by Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto, fired two torpedoes that struck the Indianapolis on its starboard side, one in the bow and one amidship. Approximately 300 of the 1,195 sailors died during the explosion. The rest jumped ship, only to land in the Philippine Sea — full of not just salt water, but massive amounts of oil and sharks.

Only 316 sailors would survive three and half days in the sea. One was Bray — was all of 18 years old.

Harold decided to sleep topside the night of the sinking. The decision may have saved his life.

“At first I couldn’t believe it was going down — how could something so beautiful sink? I got to the fantail and I saw three guys leaning up against the bulkhead,” Bray said in 2020. “I started thinking, I better get off this thing. I grabbed the lifeline and ran down the side of the ship to get away from the screws. That’s when I jumped a good 40 feet. I hit the water and a lot of oil right away. It was so thick, there was no getting around it.”

In 12 minutes, the Indianapolis had sunk.

It would not be found for another 72 years.

“With the moon being really bright that night, you could still see people jumping off the ship,” Bray told the Times-Herald in 2014. “It was like ants coming off a stick.”

When Bray jumped into the water, he only had his dungarees on. Bray said he was not cold when he hit the water. He was hot, because of the oil.

“It stayed with us for the remaining days. It just floated along with us,” Bray said in 2014. “It was coming out and a lot of people were just evaporating in it. I don’t know what made me so lucky.”

Bray credits the group in the water for helping save his life.

“I’d say there were 85 of us. But the days took their toll. An officer in our group, I can’t remember his name, really kept us together,” Bray said during the 2014 interview. “By the end, there were just 18 of us left in the group and that’s because we didn’t drink the oil or salt water.”

Although Bray couldn’t remember the officer’s name in 2020, he did remember in 2014 — giving thanks to Dr. Lewis Haynes and sailor Thomas “Pappy” Goff when speaking with the Times-Herald.

“He kept me alive,” Bray said in 2014, fighting back a tear at the memory. “I have to give him a lot of credit. Everyone was drinking the salt water immediately because everyone was so thirsty. He told me, ‘Don’t drink it. Don’t do it.’ I listened to him and that helped save me.”

Bray also had to deal with another enemy — dozens of sharks.

“Then the sharks came,” Bray said in 2014. “I looked down and they were just swarming around us. Their tails would hit me every once in a while. There wasn’t really anywhere to go; we had to deal with them. The sharks seemed to go after the people that had big cuts to them, were naked or just in their skivvies. We lost a lot of good men in those first few days.”

Bray waited days for rescue. Finally, Bray saw his “Angel” — a PV-1 Ventura flown by Lieutenant Wilbur “Chuck” Gwinn and his copilot, Lieutenant Warren Colwell, and a PBY 2 piloted by Bill Kitchen. They spotted the men adrift while on a routine patrol flight. Bray would be rescued by the USS Bassett.

“I can’t describe to you how it felt when the ships started showing up to rescue us,” Bray said back in 2014, fighting tears. “We were discovered at night and there was some light shown so they could send down rafts. There were corks and a rope going through them.”

The rescue, which consisted of a dozen ships as well as two Catalinas, was spread out over 35 miles in the sea.

Continuing service in Benicia

After the war, Bray received an honorable discharge from the Navy in 1946 in Illinois. From there he soon moved to Benicia, where he has lived ever since. Bray would eventually join the Benicia Police Department, where he worked in patrol and narcotics until 1983, when he retired.

Having survived the disaster of a lifetime, Bray could only laugh at the notion of finding himself in the dangerous field of police work.

“When I was in the eighth grade, my teacher asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up and I told her that I wanted to be a police officer,” Bray said in 2014. “It was either that or a cross-country truck driver.”

Debbi Bray said looks can be deceiving with Harold.

“Growing up, all the kids thought he was mean,” Debbi laughed. “He had that smirk and those aviator sunglasses. But then you would meet him and you’d see how friendly he was. They’d say, ‘He’s not mean at all.’ He would sometimes catch kids doing bad things and he’d make them come to the police station at 8 in the morning and make them wash the police cars. He’d say, ‘They don’t deserve to go to jail. They’re just young and stupid right now and need a little scare.'”

Unveiling of statue and fandom

As a joke, Harold was first given a miniature version of the statue that was unveiled. But he was nearly moved to tears when he and Stephanie sat in front of the real one as cameras flashed away like a red-carpet premiere.

Others speaking Friday included Benicia Mayor Steve Young, Benicia Community Foundation Chair David Batchelor, and Master of Ceremonies David Horn. But Harold’s eyes may have lit up the most when he was approached by Glenn — who created the statue over a five-month period.

“I wanted to capture his quiet confidence and never-quit attitude,” Glenn said. “I wanted to show the sparkle in his eye as if he was saying, ‘Everything is going to be OK.'”

Glenn said he got chills when he saw Harold’s reaction to seeing the statue for the first time.

“To see him happy and everyone cheering him and the chance to be part of a historical event — that was great. I’ve done hundreds of statues in my life but hardly ever of people that are still alive. It’s so funny — before I met him I captured his eye in the crowd. I had never met him, but he definitely connected with me through the crowd. He kind of winked at me so I felt I had to introduce myself to him after. He told me I did a great job and he thanked me. It was such an honor to meet him.”

Although reunions have changed with Bray being the only survivor, he still often walks into airports where he and Stephanie are showered with a standing ovation.

“It means a lot,” Bray said in 2020, through tears. “It means I’ve had a good life. It means people remember.”

Author Sara Vladic, for one, is grateful she has learned about Bray and the survivors including Lebow for her book: “Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent Man.”

“From Harold, I learned a lot about the perspective of the very young men who went aboard Indianapolis and survived,” Vladic said in 2020. “They believed they were just too young to die, and it wasn’t a possibility. We understand that, of course, age wasn’t a discriminating factor in their survival — sailors ranging from the ages 16 to their mid-40s were lost during those five nights and four days of hell … I think the lesson we can all learn from these incredible heroes is a simple statement that every single one of them still says often — never give up.

“Also, Harold still wins the title for giving the best hugs.”

After the unveiling of the statue, hundreds of people lined up to get a picture taken with Harold and/or his statue. The smiles were wider than the grand canyon and he had more handshakes than a car salesman.

In the middle of all of this, there was a salute by a helicopter of a search and rescue team. The crowd roared and Harold smiled, only this time he didn’t need to be saved.

He was home.

Facebook Live Link to the Statue Unveiling

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