Maybe you saw their photo on our homepage recently. Arms akimbo, the two men look at the camera straight on, wearing matching aviator sunglasses and khaki uniforms and with twin grins on their faces. A tent peeks out from behind them. Who are they?
These two newcomers to our website were captured on film a little over 70 years ago, and their photograph announces our newest online exhibit: Equality of Treatment and Opportunity: Executive Order 9981. While the buddies’ exact identities are a mystery, more is known about the photographer of the image: Master Sergeant Ellis Ross.
A West Virginia native who was drafted into the Army in 1940, Ross documented his time in the Quartermaster Corps during World War II through a vast array of snapshots. His VHP collection contains 278 of these photographs, and along with the Ross’s handwritten captions, they offer a fascinating glimpse into his experience serving in and traveling through Europe in 1944 and 1945.
As our cover photograph indicates, Ross focused his lens on his service buddies, documenting their time on and off-duty. His photos depict sailing trips, time spent at the beach, and countryside scenes in Italy, France, Austria and Germany. Sight-seeing was clearly a primary form of recreation, and Ross’s photos are peppered with iconic European landmarks, such as the Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps in Rome, the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame in Paris, and Westminster Abbey in London. While a handful of photos portray wartime devastation, most show the “greatest hits” of Europe much as they appear today.
Ross’s photos also illustrate his interactions with European civilians. Ross appears to have made friends wherever he went: there are photographs of him eating, drinking, and socializing with local families in Italy, France, and Germany. One of my favorite photos of the collection depicts Ross posing with a small, curly-haired girl at a sidewalk café while two bemused adults look on.
In many ways, Ross’s photos appear similar to modern vacation snapshots taken in the age of Instagram. In one photo, he drinks coffee on the terrace. In another shot, taken by a friend from behind, he gazes out the window of his hotel to the streets of Paris below. Perhaps Ross’s photos were composed to convey the role of a suave, cosmopolitan traveler, just as photographs in today’s social media feeds are curated to project a particular persona.
Arguably, Ross would have particularly relished the chance to occupy this role because it was likely unavailable to him in his civilian life. In many parts of the country, including Ross’s native West Virginia, segregation made recreational travel uncomfortable and arduous for African Americans, and very often dangerous. No wonder, then, that Ross made the most of his opportunity to explore foreign cities without fear.
One photo that jumped out at me shows Ellis on a wide sidewalk in Rome, with St. Peter’s Basilica silhouetted in the background. In viewing this photo, I was reminded of a contrasting anecdote related by veteran Silas Gross, in which a friend was threatened with lynching for refusing to cede the sidewalk to a white woman in the southern United States. While traveling through Europe offered exposure to architectural wonders such as Notre Dame and St. Paul’s Cathedral, it also provided Ross and other African American servicemen with a very different experience of walking down the street than they might have encountered at home.
For additional stories of veterans who served before and after desegregation of the military, check out Equality of Treatment and Opportunity: Executive Order 9981. Within the exhibit, Johnny Butts and Harry William Brooks offer particularly rich collections of photographs. If you’re a veteran, please consider donating original photographs that document your service experiences to the Veterans History Project.