War on two fronts: World War II vet recalls fighting racism while in service

  • World War II Veteran Ray Elliot speaks to Four Rivers Charter School students at his Amherst home. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo

  • World War II veteran Ray Elliot speaks to Four Rivers Charter School students at his Amherst home last week. RECORDER STAFF /Andy Castillo

  • World War II Veteran Ray Elliot. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo—

  • World War II Veteran Ray Elliot. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo—

  • A portrait of World War II Veteran Ray Elliot's father, World War I Veteran William Elliot. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo—

For the Bulletin
Thursday, June 01, 2017

AMHERST — Much effort is made to honor the sacrifices of “The Greatest Generation,” but often overlooked are the double hardships faced by black World War II veterans who struggled against racism while fighting in foreign countries alongside fellow Americans.

“My story is of fighting two battles — in the service, and at the same time, I felt we had to fight against racism. I was fighting to protect this country, and still I was not accepted as a full citizen,” said 92-year-old World War II veteran Ray Elliott, sitting in an armchair recently at his Amherst home surrounded by a small group of Four Rivers Charter School students as part of a Memorial Day lesson.

Elliott served as a topographic surveyor in the Army Air Corps, working with engineers to build landing strips. He retired in 1946 as a technical corporal. After the war, he attended McGill University for chemistry, later studying the effects of nuclear fallout on vegetation.

He also volunteered with youth in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, founded the nonprofit Citizens for Racial Amity, and designed resin for spacecraft heat shields.

In 1942, Elliott, whose grandfather was part Native American, and who grew up in a “lily white” Cambridge neighborhood, was “tricked” into volunteering as a pilot at 17, shipping out to Biloxi, Miss., for training, he said.

Soon after, Elliott was disqualified along with the vast majority of other black candidates during screenings because of what he described as racist medical requirements.

After reclassing as a land surveyor, he “was finally able to experience black culture” among friends in the 923 Engineer Aviation Regiment.

At the same time, Elliott was confronted by the ugly racist underbelly of the Jim Crow era — experiences that “showed me how deeply embedded racism was.” Once, on a weekend pass, he was waiting at a bus stop with a group of people when a white man told him to step off the curb into the gutter.

“I had my uniform on,” Elliott said of that day. “I began walking away and they started chasing me. My God, I felt like I was being chased by a lynch mob. I was fighting for freedom — for them, for this country — and they treated me like less than human. I was lucky I ran into the black community.”

Another time, at Pearl Harbor before forward deployment, “we were excited, we had our boots shined.” White Navy sailors, though, “had poisoned the natives. When we got there, they had (been told) so many stereotype stories — that we had tails, that we stunk. Wherever the flag was, racism followed.”

Despite those and other experiences, “I was never bitter against the Army,” he said. Two years after his retirement, President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981, abolishing racial discrimination in the United States military.

Island hopping

“We hop-skipped through the South Pacific” building landing strips behind Marines, “getting closer and closer to Japan,” Elliott said.

Near Okinawa, Elliott’s regiment was told “they had secured the island, but there were still Japanese diehards living in the hills. We were fired on by snipers while we were surveying.”

On Aug. 6, 1945, Elliott was there on Okinawa when the Boeing B-29 Superfortress “Enola Gay” took off carrying “Little Boy,” the atomic bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

“I trained myself to forget all of the horrors I experienced because they were many. They’re buried. And thank God it saved me from post-traumatic stress disorder,” Elliott said. “Thank the Lord, to this day, I never had to kill another human being.”

About what it was like fighting against the Japanese, Elliott noted, “We always talked about that. These were brothers; people of color who had been oppressed throughout the world. That was a point of conflict — a feeling of wishing we didn’t have to kill each other.”

A family history of service

Elliott’s experience with racism as a soldier is shared by other black veterans, including his father, William Elliott, an Army cavalry officer who fought in France during World War I.

“I never tell my story without telling the story of my father. He was a buffalo soldier. When he retired to this country, they didn’t honor him. My dad never talked about the war. He tried to protect us from hatred and fear,” he said.

For Elliott, too, “There was no honor, there was no celebration — whoever came back, there was nothing. My experience was not fighting battles, or firefights — it was a battle against anger and hate.”

As an outlet, Elliott’s father founded the first black Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Cambridge.

Following his war, Elliott went to Montreal, a “cosmopolitan” city that helped him come to grips with some of the racial struggles he’d experienced. Since then, he has “fought for justice and equality” with many social organizations.

Speaking to the Four Rivers students about learning from the past, Elliott said, “We have to listen before we talk. Everyone has a story, and we have to listen to get to know each other.”

What Memorial Day means

“Memorial Day is a day for remembering the sacrifices. It’s also to remind us how precious life is. We shouldn’t have to kill one another to relate. It reminds us how futile war is,” Elliott said.

For Elliott, Memorial Day is “a time to honor those who have passed and who have served.” It’s also for social leaders who’ve given their lives to “advancing society — who didn’t serve but rather fought for freedom in different ways, in this country — because it is related to us.”