A young American seaman squints at the shore, trying to make sense of the horrible order he has just been given.
He watches an elderly Japanese man sitting on the nearby rocks. Somehow the magnitude of the day has not reached the old man. It’s September 1945; dozens of American warships are in Tokyo Bay for the signing of documents that officially end World War II. But the old guy on the rocks is fishing.
So the young seaman stands on the deck of one of those ships, the USS Ancon. He holds a sub-machine gun and squints at the old man.
And he listens to an ensign and his horrible order.
“Shoot that man.”
William Vernon “Ray” Ross, seaman first class, a kid from Los Angeles and one of the few African-Americans allowed to be so close to history, doesn’t know what to do.
His heart tells him to ignore the order. But his head tells him defying a white officer will ruin his life.
For a second time.
Ross, now 90 and living in Santa Ana, says what he did next might’ve been different if he hadn’t been where he had been, hadn’t seen what he had seen; hadn’t sustained the injuries he had sustained and felt the inhumanity he had felt.
Thirteen months earlier Ross survived the infamous disaster at Port Chicago, east of San Francisco, where 320 people – most of them black – lost their lives. It was the worst U.S. military disaster on the mainland during World War II.
In all, the twin explosions that ripped through the Northern California night on July 17, 1944, killed and maimed more than 700 officers, enlisted personnel and civilians. They also exposed the overt racism of the U.S. Navy. Mishandled American bombs killed Americans that night, but the blame and punishment, like burning shrapnel from the explosions, fell squarely on the victims.
Ross didn’t tell anyone his story for almost 70 years. He worked as a janitor, a postman and as an oil line inspector for Chevron for 26 years. He was married twice (both wives are deceased) and had six children. His youngest son, Marquis, is a pharmacist in the Navy and is stationed at Twentynine Palms.
“He could have been dead,” said Marquis, 22, said. “I wouldn’t be here.”
His family didn’t know about the segregated conditions, the life-threatening assignment, the night he escaped with blood staining his skivvies. They didn’t know about the Japanese fisherman either.
“It was so heartbreaking,” Ross’ daughter Rachel said recently. “So sad.”
Until the day of the…