The nation’s first black Marines, who trained in a segregated camp at Montford Point, N.C., were presented with the Congressional Gold Medal
The ravages of age â€” the failing eyesight, the shuffling gaits, the graying hair â€” couldn’t hide the valor and pride, not to mention the surprise, of the nation’s first black Marines, at long last receiving their just due from Congress.
On Wednesday afternoon, House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid presented the Montford Point Marines with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor the government bestows.
It’s a fitting tribute to the more than 19,000 men who received basic training at segregated Montford Point, N.C., from 1942-49 â€” many of whom went on, particularly during World War II, to be held out of combat by brass who considered blacks unfit for combat duty. Only about 420 Montford Point Marines are still living; the group’s association said about 370 made it to Washington for the ceremony in a hall connected to the U.S. Capitol.
“I think it’s one great thing for we black Marines,” said Benjamin Flournoy, 86, of Detroit, who trained at Montford Point before being sent to the Pacific in World War II in a noncombat role. “To my mind, it came a little late. â€¦ For so long, the blacks were denied.”
In 2006, Congress awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the Tuskegee Airmen â€” black pilots who fought in World War II. To Flournoy’s thinking, that cleared the way for the Montford Point men to receive this award.
“I hate to use the word overdue â€¦ but it’s time,” said Yoder Faulkner, 81, of Detroit, who trained at Montford Point before serving in Korea. “A lot of men died not knowing â€¦ as though it just didn’t matter, you know?”
As the ceremony got under way, the pride â€” and the respect for the Montford Point Marines â€” was evident. Smiles brightened wrinkled faces; backs straightened, and chests went out.
“I never expected that America would, quote, â€˜evolve’ this way,” said Riley Ford, 81, who also trained at Montford Point before going to Korea. “I never expected America would evolve to this point in my lifetime.”
Last year, Congress unanimously passed a resolution awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to the Montford Point Marines. The medal’s first recipient, in 1776, from the Continental Congress, was George Washington. Other awardees include Ulysses Grant, Thomas Edison, Robert Frost, Joe Louis, the Tuskegee Airmen and dozens more.
“I’m going to cherish it. I’m going to put it in a case and hang it on the wall in a prominent place for everyone to see,” said Calvin Moore, 89, who trained at Montford Point and remembers well both the harsh treatment the Marines gave him in basic training and the bigotry he and others were forced to put up with in only wanting to defend their country.
A parade is scheduled to be held in the Marines’ honor on Thursday at Marine Barracks Washington, D.C.
It was in 1942 â€” the nation already at war with Germany and Japan â€” that President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave the order authorizing blacks to enter the Marine Corps. But they were held out of white training grounds and, in many cases, were held out of battle once going through basic training.
“It would seem everybody was satisfied if we stayed invisible,” Ford said. “I never really heard a gunshot fired in anger the seven months I was there.”
Carroll Braxton, 87, was 18 years old when he joined the Marines and was sent to Montford Point for training.
“They let us know they didn’t want us,” Braxton said. “They tried everything they could to encourage us to not finish boot camp.”
Braxton went on to serve 28 years in the Marines, including, 2Â½ years in the Pacific during World War II.
Robert Hassler, 87, said all the attention heaped on him in recent months has gotten embarrassing at times. Just last Saturday, he went into a restaurant which had put a newspaper photo of him up and, as Hassler described it, people made a fuss when they found out it was him.
“I never thought I was doing anything for anyone. Understand?” he said. “I was just looking for adventure when I joined the Marine Corps.”
He remembered how hard it was, basic training. Remembered how he was disciplined for forgetting his hat and not knowing how to take care of it â€” he’d never owned a hat before. He remembered tough drill sergeants, hard conditions, mistreatment.
But as a young man from Milwaukee, he took it, “and that treatment was to make you a better Marine,” he said.
The Marines taught Hassler to be stoic, hard, he said, but that’s gotten difficult when he reflects back and sees all the praise being given him now. Speaking to a reporter Tuesday night, he took out a handkerchief and wiped at his eyes.
“It never occurred to me that this would be happening,” he said. “It just overwhelms me.”
“Once I got discharged I thought that was it. â€¦ I can’t describe how much this really means to me,” said Hassler, who went to the Pacific in World War II after leaving Montfort. “I don’t know if I could find words for it, to tell you the truth. This is such an honor, there are no words for it.”