When Lubin Hunter was born on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation in 1917, he was not recognized as a U.S. citizen.
America's Indians were not granted full U.S. citizenship until he was 7 years old, and many states continued to bar Indians from voting for decades to come.
But when President Franklin Roosevelt urged Americans to sign up for military service in the months after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Hunter was among several members of the tiny Shinnecock community who decided to go off to war.ExploreNYers who died in World War IIExploreWorld War II timelineSee alsoWar stories: LIers recall D-Day
"Everyone had gone," said Hunter, who moved back to the reservation decades ago. "My brother had gone, my cousin Harry. And we were all very close."
Hunter, 98, was one of the more than 44,000 American Indians who served during World War II.
Fully one in three able bodied American Indian men served during that war, according to the Defense Department, a higher rate than any other ethnic group.
Most joined eagerly, Hunter included. A 1942 survey showed that 40 percent more American Indians volunteered for enlistment than were called in the draft.
"I went down to Whitehall street and took the test for the aviation cadet program," he said. "It wasn't long before I was on a train headed south."
Another 40,000 American Indians nationwide left reservations to take jobs in war-related industries -- a migration that brought increased economic growth and cultural interactions to once isolated Indian communities.
Hunter left the Shinnecock reservation to attend Brooklyn College in 1936, as the threat of war in Europe was fueling defense industries in the United States.
He first found work at a New Jersey shipyard that repaired war-damaged British merchant and military ships. Later, he worked as a ship's caulker at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, first on the battleship USS Iowa in 1940 and then the battleship USS Missouri in 1941.
"When I left the reservation we had dirt roads, kerosene lamps and people got their water with a hand pump from a well," said Hunter, a graduate of Southampton High School. "When I got back in 1946, the roads had been tarred and some people had electric lights."
After training in the south and west, Hunter flew bombing missions in the Pacific, mostly as a gunner aboard B-17s. He said the destruction inflicted by the bombing runs so troubled him he wanted to put the war behind him as soon as he came home.
He said he discarded his uniform on his way back to New York, and told almost no one that he had been off to war.
"It's nothing to talk about," he said during an oral history recorded at the reservation last year. "I'd seen enough of the horror we had done and that's something I'll regret all my life."
"I said that could have been my people who were being killed," he said. "I had no great idealism about being in the service."
Hunter said their involvement in fighting tyranny in Europe and Asia encouraged returning American Indian veterans to demand civil rights long denied to them. Although the Snyder Act had finally granted citizenship to American Indians in 1924, laws in states from Maine to Mississippi to Arizona continued to bar Indians from voting.
That began to change in 1948, when Miguel Trujillo, a Pueblo Indian and Marine Corps veteran, returned home from World War II and tried to register to vote near his home on a New Mexico reservation. Turned away by county officials, he sued and won in federal court, a triumph that helped spur the Indians rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
"A lot of Indians at that time didn't know what our rights were," said Hunter, who was barred by racial restrictions from purchasing a home in Levittown after the war.
Instead, Hunter bought a home in Queens, where he worked for the Housing Authority until 1973, and later for the IRS. He threw himself into community activism, an interest he passed to his children. His daughter, Roberta Hunter, has served on the Southampton Town Board and the Suffolk Human Rights Commission, and is now a member of the Southampton school board.
Despite his troubled feelings about inflicting death during war, Hunter acknowledges a measure of pride in having contributed to the defense of his country. Last year, he visited the World War II Memorial in Washington D.C.
"I went to the Pacific, my brother went to the Pacific, he got wounded, I was lucky my plane was never knocked down," he said. "We did our job."