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Musician, soldier, and a man of many memories

South Boston News
Raymond Shelton / May 22, 2014
Only a few months shy of 100, Raymond Shelton of South Boston cuts a spry figure playing the piano for residents of local nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

When he was in his 20s, Shelton was a jazz musician living in New Rochelle, N.J., where he had developed a following in the New York area. At age 27, however, he “received an invitation,” as he puts it, from President Roosevelt: go fight with other young Americans serving in Europe during World War II.

So his musical career was put on hold.

Today, still living at the home he shared with Mabel Ragland Shelton, his wife of 64 years before her death in 2005, Shelton enjoys getting out to entertain for his fellow senior citizens. Remarkably fit for a 99-year-old, he also retains sharp memories of World War II. Upon answering his country’s call, he set aside his comfortable life as a musician and delivery truck driver and became a soldier, serving most of his stint overseas in Italy.

“I have no regrets about my time in Italy,” Shelton says today, “especially since it allowed me to see that country at the expense of the United States President.”

His first post was in Naples, Italy, part of the rear echelon for the Italian Campaign — the name given to the bitter battles to liberate Italy from German control. Assigned to the 92nd Infantry, the all-black unit of “Buffalo Soldiers,” he was usually close to the front, where the fighting was heaviest. Still, he says he felt lucky not to be right on the front lines.

He did experience combat, however, most notably in the Po Valley in Northern Italy. “One night I was talking to a fellow soldier about how quiet it was. I said, ‘It is way too quiet tonight.’ My gut was telling me something was wrong,” he recalls. At about 9 in the evening, the sky lit up as the Germans shelled the surrounding area, to the point where he and his fellow Buffalo Soldiers had to quickly pull back their camp to avoid being overrun.

Years later, watching a movie about the Italian campaign titled “A Walk in the Sun,” Shelton heard the actors utter lines that he says are eerily similar to the conversation he had with his friend that night. Shelton has no idea how the dialogue could have become part of the film, but loves to retell the story.

Because of his talents as a musician, towards the end of his boot camp training Shelton was assigned to the medical corps as a chaplain assistant. In that role, he would play music at field services conducted by the chaplains with whom he traveled.

When he wasn’t traveling, he was assigned to the graves registration area where he was responsible for collecting the personal belongings and identifications of dead soldiers to be sent home to their families. Shelton remembers that work as “very bloody and gruesome.”

He spends little time talking about those experiences, however, preferring to recount the good memories — not the horrors of war.

He loves to regale visitors with tales from his many travels around Italy. He spent one Easter Day in Rome, although “it was too cold” to leave his jeep and walk around; he rode a gondola in Venice, and climbed the Leaning Tower of Pisa. He even traveled to Milan to see the gas station where in April 1945, deposed Italian premier Benito Mussolini and his girlfriend, Clara Petacci, were hung upside down from a lamppost.

Shelton’s time in Italy, however, was not all fun and travels. On occasion, he drove troop and supply trucks through the mountains at night in black out-conditions, a treacherous assignment. For a time, he also guarded a German POW camp.

He remembers it being a cold and rainy place, but the German POWs were kept warm inside a building where they played cards. One day, Shelton struck up a conversation with one of the prisoners, who it turned out had relatives in New York, not far from where Shelton grew up. (A Danville native, he moved to New Jersey with his family at age 5.) The common thread established, he and the imprisoned soldier often conversed through barbed wire.

On one occasion the POW told him, “’I’m not mad at you. I don’t want to be here either. They [Hitler and his regime] made us fight.”

Through that experience, Shelton says, he realized that most soldiers, regardless of the side they were on, had much in common.

While Shelton holds his fighting brethren in high regard, he excludes one group: newly commissioned officers. He calls them “90-day wonders,” a reference to the length of their training before they were given command of a unit.

His first experience with one of these officers was during boot camp in Huachuca, Arizona. He and other trainees were hiking through the woods behind one such 90-day wonder when the fledgling officer got lost and began to panic — until a sergeant reminded him to use his compass.

Later, while serving in Italy, another newly commissioned officer, either through naivete or false heroics, nearly got Shelton killed: “He wanted to go for a ride,” Shelton remembers.

With Shelton behind the wheel, the two set off from camp driving up into the mountains. Soon they approached a sign emblazoned with a skull and cross bones. Shelton told the officer it meant that German snipers were in the area. Ignoring the danger, the officer told him to drive on. Soon they came upon a sign written in German that signaled the area was within mortar range. Shelton translated for the officer and implored him to head back to camp. It was with great reluctance that the officer finally agreed to turn around and drive off, out of mortar range.

With the European conflict coming to an end, Shelton was retrained for duty in the Pacific. Before he shipped out, however, President Truman ordered the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the war in Japan came to a quick end. With World War II over, Shelton was sent home.

Of the 12,846 Buffalo Soldiers who saw action during the Italian Campaign, 2,848 were killed, captured or wounded — but they achieved their objective, which was to break through the Gothic Line, German Field Marshal Albert Kesselring’s barrier along the slopes of the Apennine Mountains in Northern Italy.

For his service, Shelton received four medals: a good conduct medal, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Service Medal, American Service Medal, and World War II Victory Medal.

Although he served in the era of the segregated Army, Shelton says he never personally experienced discrimination by white officers or soldiers — although he does question the treatment he received during boot camp from an African-American major who singled him out to walk alongside a jeep for nearly eight miles. To this day, Shelton has no explanation for why he was taken on “the walk” — but says it never happened again after he shared his experience with a white officer from Alabama, who followed up with a “discussion” with the major.

He was honorably discharged as a tech corporal in 1946, and returned to his wife Mabel, waiting for him back in New Rochelle.

The jazz group he had once played with disbanded after Shelton headed off to war. With the passage of time, his tastes shifted from jazz to church music, which he still plays today.

In the ensuing years, Shelton worked for a metal foundry, before switching careers to become a manager at a grocery store chain in New York and later in Hampton.

He and Mabel had one son, who died at the age of 40 from cancer.

Upon Shelton’s retirement, he and his wife returned to the place of her birth, South Boston. Mabel Shelton worked for many years as a dress maker. At the time of her death in 2005, the two had been married for over 60 years.

Through all his experiences, good and bad, Shelton always had his music. It is a gift that he believes made his time in the service less onerous than that experienced by many African-American soldiers.

And today, at his ripe old age, it is gift that he shares on his frequent visits to play the piano for nursing home residents.

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As a former German foreign exchange student at HCSH I quite frequently flip through your onlinepaper. I stuck with this story about Mr Shelton and his experiences in Europe during WW II. I am very glad that many years after that gruesome time people who fought at the front lines can reflect so righteously about their former enemies as Mr Shelton does. From all the stories my grandparents told me about WW II I remember one thing the most: they did not want to fight and hurt anybody. They were forced to do so fearing for their lives and that of their families. Thank you Mr Shelton for sharing these honest memories despite the misery and terror you had to experience over here in Europe. Grateful greetings from Germany, Patrick Matern

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