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Monument to Benicia stalwart Harold Bray, a World War II veteran, unveiled

Monument unveiled in Benicia to World War II veteran Harold Bray
Monument unveiled in Benicia to World War II veteran Harold Bray 03:34

BENICIA -- On Saturday morning, the city of Benicia dedicated a new monument to a living resident, a man who served in World War II and has become the sole survivor of one of the worst tragedies in naval history.

Hundreds of people turned out to christen the new monument at Military East and First Street, featuring a statue of one of Benicia's favorite residents, Harold Bray.

At age 17, Bray shipped out aboard the USS Indianapolis, which carried the atomic bomb which would later be dropped on Hiroshima. On its return, the Indianapolis was sunk by enemy torpedos. Nine hundred sailors, including Bray, spent five days in the water trying to fight off a swarm of sharks. It was a terrifying ordeal, later made famous by a gripping scene in the movie Jaws.

"It was a bad experience. Nothing good about it," said Bray, reflecting on the memory 79 years later. "Every time you looked around, somebody was gone."

Harold was one of the 316 seamen who were saved and he's now the last living survivor of that harrowing experience. The bronze statue portrays him as that young sailor, with a slight smile on his face, full of confidence mixed with a bit of swagger.

"This monument serves as a beacon of inspiration, reminding us of the courage and resilience that defines the human spirit," monument committee member, David Horn told the crowd.

Bray became a Benicia police officer, fondly remembered for a 19-year career helping local kids. When the pandemic broke out in 2020 and city leaders began searching for something that would bring the community together, the choice of Harold Bray became obvious.

"And this seemed to be a commonality between the citizens," said monument committee co-chair David Batchelor. "Talking to literally hundreds of people, they kept coming up with the same name over and over and over again."

Like a lot of World War II veterans, Harold rarely talked about his war experience. After 26 years, he finally told some of his fellow police officers that he had been aboard the Indianapolis. His first cousin, Eileen Chavez, said his modesty hasn't changed much over the years.

"Other people tell everything they've ever done but he's still the same way. He said, 'why are all these people here today?'"  Chavez laughed.

"Oh, it doesn't matter, doesn't bother me ... People know what I've been through and they like to hear the story," Bray said. "I don't know. It helps me to forget -- to talk about it, you know?"

Talking about it has helped Harold cope with the memory but he'll never really forget it. Now, with the monument, the hope is that others won't forget either.

"So, this is here, permanent, for years and years to come," said monument co-chair Nancy Herrera. "But it is a way for us to say, 'thank you.' That's what that exemplifies."

It is a thank-you and not just to Harold Bray but to all the other young men aboard that ship who answered a nation's call but never got to come home.

The sinking of the Indianapolis is said to be the greatest loss of life from a single ship lost at sea in the history of the U.S. Navy.

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