Uncommon Valor: An African Americanâ€™s Service on Iwo Jima
by Steven Mosley
The sacrifices, accomplishments and adversities faced by young black men in World War II are often overlooked in American history books. Besides the contribution of the Tuskegee Airmen, few realize the importance of black troops in winning the war. Blacks fought valiantly beside white soldiers to serve a country that often treated them with disdain. This is the story of one black man who boldly fought for his country in the horrific battle for Iwo Jima. Iwo Jima is remembered as one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. During the thirty-six days of intense fighting one in three men were either killed or wounded. Sergeant Frederick Douglass Gray was among the â€œcoloredâ€ soldiers who fought against the Japanese on Iwo Jima.
Fred Gray was born and raised in rural St. Leonard, Calvert County, Maryland. The land was green with tobacco crops and the landscape was pastoral. He was born in 1925 and grew up in a segregated community, attending school in a one-room schoolhouse up until the eighth grade. There was no high school for black children in Calvert County at that time. Upon completion of the eighth grade, Fred began to work for his father, a contractor who built barns, houses, churches and black schools.
When Fred was sixteen, his older brother, Norman A. Gray, was drafted into the all black 92nd Army Infantry Division, at the age of 21. Originally the age range of the draft was 21 to 35. In 1942, President Roosevelt extended the draft to include men within the ages of 18 to 38. The military needed more men to adequately fight both the Nazis and the Japanese. In 1943, at the age of eighteen Fred Gray was drafted in to the United States military at a time when his country needed him the most. He left his home in Calvert County, seated on the back of a segregated bus, destined for Fort Meade, Maryland.
From Ft. Meade, Gray traveled to Tallahassee, Florida for basic training. After basic training, most blacks were assigned to service and supply details. Gray was assigned to the 476th Amphibious Truck Company, an Army Support Unit, which would later become attached to the 4th Marine Division. Mr. Gray recalled, â€œWe had 177 enlisted men and 6 officers, all of them white.â€
Gray was trained to operate a new type of transport ship made by General Motors called DUKWs. This was an acronym for D-production code for 1942, U-amphibious utility truck, K-front wheel drive, W-two rear wheel-driving axles. The purpose of the DUKWs was to transport 2 Â½ tons of troops and supplies from the larger carrier ships (LSV2s) to the shore. DUKWs rode on tires that could be inflated and deflated at will. In addition the DUKWs were built to float on water, thus giving these vehicles the ability to travel on both land and sea. On land these vehicles could travel at speeds of 50 miles per hour, while reaching speeds of only 6 miles per hour on sea.
During basic training, eighteen-year-old Gray and the other young recruits frequently bragged about their eagerness to fight in the war. â€œWe didnâ€™t know what fear was,â€ Gray remembered. Gray and the other young men in his company often proclaimed, â€œI want to see some battles! I want to see a war!â€ Mr. Gray recalled that the older, more mature men in his Company quickly admonished him, â€œâ€˜You damned fool, you better stop saying that!â€™ It wasnâ€™t too long before we saw war.â€
Although he was a member of the United States military, segregation and Jim Crow laws prevented Fred Gray and the rest of his Company from entering the USO and many other facilities on base, as well as several commercial establishments in the area. Commanding officers attempted to keep interaction between the races to a minimum. Mr. Gray remembered, â€œWe blacks went through hell in the military those days. We were made to go through the back door. It was hard for us too. And it was demoralizing, very demoralizing.â€ Mr. Gray recalled an incident in which he and fellow members of his Company went to a store to get some beers. They paid for and received the beers without difficulty, but when they asked the white store owner for a bottle opener he replied, â€œWhy donâ€™t yâ€™all jusâ€™ open it witâ€™ your teeth, thatâ€™s what the last nigger did.â€ Mr. Gray and his friends just left. There wasnâ€™t much they could do in an area of the country where state laws enforced racism. Black soldiers were fighting two distinct wars- a war on foreign soil to protect the United States against German and Japanese forces, and a war here on their own soil against racism and discrimination.
There was conflict among the troops in Florida as well. Fights broke out between the black and white soldiers. The tension grew to the point that a race riot was threatening to break out on the base. Blacks did not like the way that the white soldiers were treating them. The commanding officers did not tolerate this turmoil for long and they promptly relocated Grayâ€™s unit to Spokane, Washington. Soon after they arrived in Washington, the 476th shipped out to Hawaii.