A quarantine story: a short family history of my grandpa

Xion, her sister Zuri, their dad JR and their great grandfather celebrate the blooming of the Japanese orchids they raise in East Oakland.

by Xion Abiodun

The stories of veterans do not get told often despite all the things they did for this country. I am an advocate for human life, so I am against wars of aggression. It is still important to recognize these veterans because the country would be different without them. 

My great grandpa, Cleveland Valrey, served in the army for 30+ years. He was actually one of the first Black men to be a parachutist for the U.S. Air Force. He has served in World War II, Vietnam War, Korean War and the war in the Dominican Republic. 

During the COVID quarantine I had the chance to sit down with my great grandpa and talk about his life and his upbringing. He spent a majority of his life in the military and has seen the military go from segregated to integrated. 

Xion: Why did you volunteer to be a parachutist? 

My grandpa, Cleveland Valrey: I always loved to have a new adventure. When I was in the hospital (after being shot down in a helicopter mission) there was another patient that was in the same ward as me that dared me to become one. I also loved flying toy airplanes when I was back in grade school. I like jumping out of airplanes and flying them too. 

The adrenaline in my body was always pumping. I never really got used to it but I would never dwell on what could go wrong. I was mainly focused on getting from the air to the ground without killing myself. 

Xion: How many jumps did you take?

Grandpa: I took 127 jumps, and one combat jump. Regular jumps you do for pay and a combat jump you land on top of your enemy. 

My great grandfather was 20 years old when this photo was taken, in June of 1951 in Osaka, Japan, at the 279th Hospital after he was wounded in ground combat, shot in the right leg in Korea. 

Xion: What was going through your head the first time you jumped?

Grandpa: The adrenaline in my body was always pumping. I never really got used to it but I would never dwell on what could go wrong. I was mainly focused on getting from the air to the ground without killing myself. 

Xion: When did the military become integrated?

Grandpa: President Truman signed the order in 1947 to integrate the services. The services were not fully integrated until 1950. It took a long time because there was a lot of resistance in the army’s hierarchy. 

Xion: Did the military pay you extra for parachuting?

Grandpa: The military did pay me extra. That is another reason I started parachuting. They paid a hazardous duty fee. 

Xion: Were you surprised to hear that the production company wanted to make a movie about your experience in the army? 

Grandpa: No, I was not surprised, because it is a market for my experience. Any time there is a market for something, somebody will find a way to exploit it. 

Taken in December 1950, this is a photo of the 2nd Ranger Company (Airborne), the first, last and only all-Black ranger company in the history of the United States. They had travelled from Fort Benning, Georgia, to Pittsburg, California’s Camp Stoneman, to Fort Mason in San Francisco, then to Korea to fight in the Korean War. Cleveland Valrey, my great grandfather, is on the lower right side of the photo.

Xion: Did you personally know any of the other men that were telling their story in “Brother Ranger”? 

Grandpa: I know the men in the movie of course; we were all in the same company. We all went through the training in Georgia together; we took the train ride from Georgia to California together. We also went into combat together. 

Over this quarantine I have been learning a lot about my grandfather and his experiences in the army. It is a blessing that he is still alive to tell me these stories today. 

Xion Abiodun is a student at Madison Park Academy and can be reached at Xion.abiodun@gmail.com. She is also a dancer and a member of the Black New World Journalists Society.