By Rachel Singer
Sometimes by a stroke of luck your stars line up and you meet someone who leaves an indelible mark on your life. On Armed Forces Day 2009, I was fortunate enough to be introduced to such a man and I was grateful to sit down and listen to his story.
The story begins with a black granite wall that stands in Washington D.C. and is etched with 58,260 names. They are the names of service men and women killed in defense of our country during the Vietnam War.
USMC Retired Gunnery Sergeant Hobart Ellis has visited that memorial. As he paid a silent tribute to those fallen soldiers, his own image reflected back on the polished wall of stone. The granite mirror allowed him a moment to mentally capture the faces that went with the names of those that he proudly served with so long ago.
Hobart Norman Ellis is a quiet and humble man who shared with me his family's African American roots and their legacy of distinguished military service. As our country prepares to celebrate the 4th of July, I would like you to celebrate the life of one of Santa Clarita's great Americans.
Hobart Ellis is a collector of memories. The oldest tangible piece of his family history is a photograph depicting his great-great-great grandparents in the mid 1800's. They were given their own plot of land and lived out their days on the Virginia plantation where they had once been kept as slaves.
The first of the Ellis family drafted into United States military service was Hobart's grandfather, Hovah Ellis. His draft number came up in 1918 and he served in the Army during World War I.
After an honorable discharge he returned to West Virginia and worked the coal mines. Sadly, that same coal mine took his life in 1940.
"He was driving a hopper car, ferrying people in the mine when he misjudged a low timber and broke his neck," recalled Hobart.
Private 1st Class, Lonnie Birch (Ellis) was taken Prisoner of War (POW) during World War I. The Ellis family endured the trauma and uncertainty while Hobart's great uncle was held in a POW camp in Germany. It was three months until American soldiers were able to rescue Private 1st Class Birch and his unit.
In 1944, another generation of Ellis men was called to serve their country. Hobart's father, Edward Norman Ellis had been working for the U.S. Government in the Conservation Corp building roads, bridges and clearing forests. This training served him well when he was drafted into the Army during World War II.
He was honorably discharged in 1946. During the long train ride home to his wife and sons in West Virginia, the train made a stop in Portsmouth, Ohio. Edward Ellis walked around, stretched his legs and decided that this small town was where he wanted to raise his family. Within a day of returning to West Virginia, the Ellis' packed up and went west to Portsmouth.
Hobart Ellis was three years old when he accompanied his parents Edward and Lillian to Ohio in search of their American dream.
By his eighteenth birthday, realizing his number was coming up on the draft sequence, Hobart went to the recruiting office to enlist. He stated, "By enlisting, I was able to choose the branch of the service I wanted to serve in."
In 1961, only a small percentage of recruits in the Marine Corps were African American. The saying at the time, Hobart recalled was that "Blacks could not shoot straight, and Marines were known as Riflemen and sharpshooters." This could pose a problem....but, "I was hardheaded my father said, so I chose to enlist in the Marine Corps."
It was a long way from Portsmouth, Ohio to boot camp in San Diego, but Hobart graduated, proved himself, and became the first member of his family to become a United States Marine.
It was a courageous choice. In the 1960's, civil rights were in the forefront of America's conscience. Hobart showed me the Ellis family draft cards that he has collected and preserved. The earliest cards delineate "Race" as Negro. Cards from subsequent wars show the progression and changing tide of American thought when "Negro" was changed to "Colored" then to "Black" and finally to "African American."
Hobart's brother Michael eventually followed him into the Marines, whereas their brother Franklin became a Navy man. Michael was shot and wounded three different times in Vietnam.
I wanted to know if Hobart had experienced any discrimination within the military. He was thoughtful and then answered, "No, there was never any flagrant discrimination, but moving up through the ranks was limited to "men of color."
Black soldiers did create a brotherhood of sorts while on the front lines. Hobart explained it to me, "We were all issued an extra pair of black combat boot laces. The black soldiers would weave them together to make a bracelet. We tied the laces around our wrists to signify "black power". It was a small gesture that brought a lot of camaraderie.
Within three years of his enlistment, Hobart was offered the chance to attend NCO (Non-Commissioned Officer) Leadership school. This opportunity was instrumental in his decision to become a career marine. He excelled and was sent to the front lines of Vietnam.
Khe Sanh was one of many locations within the war zone that Hobart was stationed. For one year beginning in 1964, he lived through combat missions and dreadful scenes that he chooses not to detail or dwell on. Sgt. Ellis ran patrols, led platoons, laid perimeters and assisted in the training of the South Vietnamese.
I grimaced when Hobart explained to me the term "jungle rot."
"The uniforms the soldiers were issued were unforgiving in the heat of Vietnam, especially when you considered we carried back packs, weapons and ammunition," he said. "We would sweat so much that it would run down into our boots and pool up. When it evaporated the salt would eat away at the skin."
It is not a vision that any American wants to imagine; yet another stark reminder of what our bravest endure.
Sgt. Hobart Ellis was sent for a second tour of duty in Vietnam in 1969. During the latter part of his enlistment, he came in contact with the highest-ranking enlisted African American in the Marine Corp. Hobart spoke with genuine pride when he remembered that moment.
"No black has ever attained a higher rank than Lt. (3 Star) General Frank Peterson. He was an F-14 Fighter pilot who flew over 250 combat missions," he said. "When I would see General Peterson, I would begin shaking all over."
Hobart smiled and continued; "My father never believed there would be a day when blacks would hold positions of power. He would be dancing a jig today!"
Yes, I believe Edward Ellis most certainly would.
Upon his return from Vietnam, Hobart fulfilled various positions within the Marine Corps. He trained reservists in New Orleans and finished his military career as a supply officer in 29 Palms, California. On the largest Marine Corp base in the United States, Sgt. Ellis was responsible for procuring "everything you needed in order to send a military unit into combat." He was their "heavy metal man."
Medical problems led to his retirement from the Marine Corp in 1974.
Hobart Ellis, a man devoted to serving his country continued in that capacity, when in 1975 he began a 27 year career working at the Veterans Administration Hospital. One of his duties as the hospital Supply Chief was to arrange transportation and escorts home for the wounded veterans when they left the VA's care.
In 2007, thirty-three years after being honorably discharged, Hobart was awarded the Bronze Star for "meritorious achievement." In a seemingly anti-climactic move, the medal was mailed to his home.
Today, this gracious man lives with his wife of 31 years, Paula. They have two grown children; Dennis who works for Saturn of Santa Clarita and Juanita who is in hospital supply. Their roots are deep within Santa Clarita and they have lived in their charming Castaic home for 22 years. Each room is a testament to their devotion of family, church and hobbies!
Paula has a craft room where she scrapbooks and creates fabulous quilts. Her husband was pleased to show off her work. I wish I had her talent.
Hobart's post retirement passion is tracing, documenting and preserving his ancestry. It has been a labor of love to recreate his lineage for future generations.
Beautifully displayed are the military medals awarded to Hobart's grandfather and father. He explained to me how these priceless treasures came to be in his possession.
"I have their medals because they never stuck around long enough to receive them. When they were discharged they had enough of combat and just wanted to make their way home."
By Hobart's investing countless hours in research and letter writing, their medals have been presented to him.
Hobart Ellis said to me, "You never forget the men that you served with."
I will never forget Hobart Ellis.