World War II vet Raymond Elliott of Amherst recalled as ‘inspiring human being’

  • World War II veteran Raymond Elliott of Amherst, pictured in 2017.  Elliott died Thursday. He was 95.  

  • World War II veteran Raymond Elliott in 2017.  STAFF PHOTO/ANDY CASTILLO

Staff Writer
Published: 3/29/2019 5:42:43 PM

AMHERST — Whenever a school teacher in the Pioneer Valley sought someone to recount what it was like being a black soldier during World War II, Raymond Elliott was ready to talk about his experience.

As part of the Veterans Education Project, Elliott would discuss with students the racism he dealt with in the Jim Crow South of Mississippi during Army basic training, as well as how when serving in the South Pacific, surveying and building airstrips with the Army Air Force combat engineers, he and other African-American soldiers were consigned to non-combat jobs under the command of white officers.

But Elliott, who turned 95 in February and died Thursday following an extended illness, also left his mark beyond his military service, becoming president of the local chapter of the NAACP, serving as a civil rights commissioner in Amherst and creating Citizens for Racial Amity Now, a regional effort that aims to break down barriers between people and promote the concept of one human family.

Rob Wilson, a volunteer with the Veterans Education Project and its former executive director, said Elliott participated with the organization’s work for about 15 years.

“He made immeasurable contributions to the Veterans Education Project, and was an inspiration to everyone on the board,” Wilson said. “He was a wonderful part of the family, and we will definitely miss him.”

Elliott often made a point of talking about what was known as the “Double V Campaign,” in which black soldiers, raising both hands and making V’s with their index and middle fingers during World War II, demonstrated that in the war they needed to be victorious over both racism and fascism.

“It became clear to us when he was talking about his experience in boot camp and what it was like to be an African-American in a white man’s Army, that it reflected the story of civil rights,” Wilson said.

Lee Hines of Amherst, a pilot in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, joined Elliott several times for school presentations.

“I really admired Ray, not only because of his experiences, but because of the way he lived,” Hines said.

Much had changed for African-Americans in the military in the 25 years between when the two men served. Hines praises how Elliott’s struggle against racism allowed him to fly on numerous missions, including ones with all black crews and black commanders.

“Ideas from the Double V Campaign were acted on and some would say were a precursor to the civil rights movement,” Hines said.

Susan Leary, a former executive director of the Veterans Education Project, said Elliott was authentic and never sugarcoated what he had been through, but was uplifting in his presentations.

“He’s truly one of the most inspiring human beings I’ve ever met,” Leary said.

Following World War II, Elliott went to McGill University on the GI Bill and earned a degree in chemistry and became prominent in work on the Apollo missions, where he designed elements of the heat shields for the spacecraft, and also studied the effects of nuclear fallout on vegetation.

Ray Elliott grew up in Cambridge, where his father, William Elliott, an Army cavalry officer who fought in France during World War I, founded the first black Veterans of Foreign Wars post in that city.

The Elliotts remained in the city until arriving in Amherst in 1986, moving closer to their daughter Martha Elliott and their grandchildren.

It wasn’t long after coming that he became an active member of the local Bahá'í faith community, president of the Pioneer Valley NAACP and founded Citizens for Racial Amity Now.

In 2015, Town Meeting unanimously adopted a resolution marking the second Sunday in June as Race Amity Day. Elliott told Town Meeting that it would be a day about reflecting on how everyone treats one another and to work toward breaking down barriers and advocating for “the moral and scientific truth of the oneness of the human family: there is only one race — the human race.”

“His Race Amity Work and his belief that we are all part of one human family was very important to him,” Martha Elliott said.

In addition to his daughter, he leaves his wife, Mary Elliott, and son Raymond Elliott, Jr.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


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