They were giants who, with integrity and honor, committed to a country that had not yet committed to them, said Rep. Allen West (R-Fla). The first African-American Marines, the men of Montford Point, suffered discrimination and degradation and gave their lives in return.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) presented the Congressional Gold Medal to the Montford Point Marines on Wednesday, June 27 in Emancipation Hall. The engraving on the medal lauded the veterans “for outstanding perseverance and courage that inspired social change in the Marine Corps.”
While nearly 13,000 black marines served overseas during World War II, this was the first time they received national recognition for their service. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) sponsored the bill to honor the Marines (H.R. 2447), which was issued by President Barack Obama last November.
“They were trained to fight injustice oversees, meanwhile, they suffered discrimination every day,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said.
Between 1942 and 1949 nearly 20,000 marines trained at the segregated camp at Montford Point, adjacent to camp Lejeune in the swamplands of North Carolina. President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order in 1941, allowing African-Americans to join the Marine Corps. Around 13,000 men from Montford fought in the Pacific theater during World War II, in battles including Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) noted that such service took “an extra dose of patriotism.”
In order to have clearance onto the nearby camp Lejeune, the Montford Point men had to be accompanied by a white Marine, Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) said, noting some of the challenges these men faced. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) stated that in addition to the over-crowded living quarters on the home front — with a single stove supplying nearly forty-men — on the battlefield the black Marines were restricted to serve in supporting roles under white superiors.
“They were degraded to a level that you can’t even begin to imagine. They weren’t allowed to eat until everyone else ate,” said Phyllis Thomas, whose father, now 91, gave up going to medical school in order to join the Marines.
Today, 10 percent of the Marine Corps is African-American, Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps General James Amos, told the National Naval Association last August. Gen. Amos hopes to see a continued improvement in the diversity of the Marine Corps to better reflect the 12 percent black population in the United States.
“Considering what they had to face just to have the privilege of serving their country, they are better men than I,” said Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Plenzler.