Sunrise of Playa Vista throws a birthday bash for a World War II vet who radiates positivity
By Stephanie Case
Zulah Dawson Ray was born on Aug. 28, 1917. On Aug. 26, 2017, a hair shy of one century later, Sunrise of Playa Vista is bustling with energy. The senior assisted living center’s first floor has turned into a birthday extravaganza for its almost centenarian. Throngs of people crowd around tables, laughing and swapping stories, as music plays from a jukebox. But a surprising amount of guests linger near a table by the entrance. It’s covered with vintage army memorabilia: wartime letters sent across the Atlantic, plaques and medals, photos in uniform, a Purple Heart — mementos of a life lived bravely.
Some of Ray’s fellow Sunrise residents trickle in, learning about their neighbor through his keepsakes.
“That he was in the military: that’s the most amazing thing,” says Barbara Thor, a senior at Sunrise. “He’s gone through some hard times.”
Ray was a 24-year-old country boy from the Ozarks when he joined the U.S. Army. Two days after he entered active service, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Some recruits jumped ship, but he stayed.
Ray eventually joined a tank team and was sent to fight in Europe, where he was quickly thrown into danger. While traveling through the Mediterranean Sea, a nearby American ship was bombed by an airplane. The water around him was filled with barracks bags and men: some drowned, others alive, frantically grasping onto any floatation device in reach.
“This was our first taste of what war was really like,” Ray remembered, as part of an oral history of his life, dictated in 1987. “We could still hear the scream of the bombs as they left the planes overhead and the shuddering boom when they hit the water and exploded. We wondered if our ship would be hit next.”
Ray’s ship survived unscathed, but his luck later ran out on a Tunisian battlefield, where he was injured and captured by enemy forces. At a German field hospital, his shoes were stolen. He eventually left with only two of his prior possessions: a nail clipper and his high school ring.
From his hospitalization, Ray was sent to an Italian camp as a prisoner of war. For seven months, he and others were trapped there with little source of comfort.
Ray said: “I have been asked many times if I was ever hungry during my P.O.W. internment. I have to answer, ‘Just once, from the beginning to the end.’”
In September 1943, Ray and other prisoners caught wind of the Italian surrender. Soon after, under cover of darkness, Ray escaped the camp with a group of 14 others, hiding in bushes and narrowly dodging the German soldiers who were out to recapture them. He made his way back to the American lines, where he continued to serve for two more years.
Ruby Kaylor, Ray’s niece, was very young during his time overseas. It wasn’t until decades later, as an adult, that
she learned the full extent of her uncle’s harrowing history.
“I was impressed with all that he went through,” Kaylor says. “To me, he never seemed like he had any scars, emotionally or mentally. He always seemed to be in good spirits, always thankful for what he had and very positive.”
At his party, the positivity is unmistakable. Sitting behind a red-white-and-blue cake, birthday sash across his chest, Ray has a tiny yet powerful smile, reminiscent of the toothy grin from his old Army headshot.
“You can wake him up at 3 a.m. to check on him, and he’ll still have a giant smile on his face,” says Barbara Tabb, coordinator of
the Reminiscence Neighborhood at Sunrise, where Ray now resides.
After spending more than four decades of his postwar life in California — much of it in Westchester, working for Chevron — Ray and his late wife Marie transferred to Sunrise. For as long as his health allowed, Ray stayed involved at the facility: taking frequent daytrips with Sunrise residents and long walks by Ballona Creek with Kaylor, going to church every Sunday and having coffee with friends at the West Los Angeles VA on Mondays.
Sunrise became his new center of gravity, and the community embraced him. So, when Kaylor approached Sunrise with the idea of throwing a birthday party, their team hit the ground running.
“Sunrise was absolutely amazing,” Kaylor says. “They just went above and beyond.”
As her guest list grew — with more than 100 family members, veterans, fellow church patrons and friends joining to celebrate Ray’s remarkable century of life — the assisted living community rushed to make room for everyone.
“I think [Ray] felt it was a special day,” says Kaylor, looking back. “And for 100 years, I thought it was wonderful that we could recognize him.”