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12 Dec 2010

Friend remembers 1st black from Ala. to die in WWII

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December 12, 2010 Category: Diaspora Posted by:

By Thomas Spencer

The Birmingham News/AP


ABOVE PHOTO: In a Dec. 3, 2010 photo, Dr. Dodson Curry, shown in his Birmingham, Ala. home, holds a photo his friend Julius Ellsberry who was killed at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Curry is doing his part to remember Ellsberry, a school classmate who was killed at Pearl Harbor, the first Jefferson County resident and first black Alabamian to die in World War II.

(AP Photo/The Birmingham News Photo, Hal Yeager)


BIRMINGHAM, Ala. A retired Birmingham doctor is doing his part to remember Julius Ellsberry, a school classmate who was killed at Pearl Harbor, the first Jefferson County resident and first black Alabamian to die in World War II.


Ellsberry was aboard the U.S.S. Oklahoma when it went down during the Japanese attack 69 years ago Tuesday.


Earlier this year, Dr. Dodson M. Curry, a retired Birmingham physician, came across an Internet site,, that collects geographic and documentary information on historical markers. Curry decided to post information for the marker at Birmingham’s Ellsberry Park, along with a biography and photos. Among the items Curry posted was a letter Ellsberry wrote to him from Hawaii, where he was stationed. His letter, dated May 31, 1941, is touching.


“Due to the present war conditions and the state of National Emergency which now exist in our country, the Pacific Fleet is held in a place known as Hawaiian Territory,” he wrote. “In this place I find little or no enjoyment. There is such a thing as ‘Hawaiian hospitality’ but it is very, very expensive. You might call it the rich man’s paradise of the Pacific.”


The purpose of Ellsberry’s May letter to Curry was to get information on ordering a class ring. He writes that he hadn’t been able to afford one when he graduated.


“Now, that I’m away from everything that should remind me of the good old days,” Ellsberry wrote, “I would like very much to have that ring.”


Curry recalled that Ellsberry, whose father worked at Stockham Valve, had several siblings and wasn’t in a financial position to continue his education after graduation from Industrial High School, later named Parker High School. So Ellsberry enlisted.



On Dec. 7, Ellsberry, a Mess Attendant 1st Class, was killed with 413 other crewmen aboard the battleship that sank in the Japanese attack. He was awarded a posthumous Purple Heart. The Dec. 17, 1941, Birmingham News reported that Ellsberry was the “first Birmingham loss of World War II,” according to Birmingham Public Library Archivist Jim Baggett.


Ellsberry’s story was widely circulated in the black press at the time. According to “Bonds of Affection: Americans Define their Patriotism,” by John E. Bondar, Ellsberry’s memory was invoked in a war bond drive in Birmingham’s black community. The drive raised $300,000 toward the purchase of a B24 bomber, which was named “The Spirit of Ellsberry.”


A small park off Finley Boulevard is named for Ellsberry and a monument to Ellsberry’s memory was placed in Kelly Ingram Park.


Curry is glad to see Ellsberry remembered. “I just knew and I was firmly convinced that he deserved more recognition than he got,” Curry said. “He paid the ultimate price for the defense of his country.”


Curry went on to get a medical degree. He didn’t serve in World War II but was called to service in Korea, where he served at a battalion aide station.


Despite his service providing medical care on the front lines, he never suffered so much as a scratch. Curry has posted his own Korean wartime memoirs at the Library of Congress site Experiencing War: Stories from the Veterans History Project.


Curry said he’s always wondered what Ellsberry would have gone on to do.


“This has been a longstanding thing with me,” Curry said. “We were classmates and seatmates at Kingston and the Thomas School. He was such a nice, fine and a brilliant guy. I think about him quite often.”


The retired doctor also joked that he owed Ellsberry for aiding his academic career. “I would sit next to him and put my eyes on his paper, so I owe him a debt of gratitude.”

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