At Last, the First Black Marines Get the Honor they Deserve

Joseph SmithFor decades Joseph Smith, 87, didn’t want to think or talk about his time in the Marine Corps.

Pictured: Long time coming: It took nearly 70 years, but Joseph Smith said he finally feels like a U.S. Marine. (By Adam Gerik, for USA TODAY)

“Whenever military service came up I couldn’t
truthfully say, ‘Yeah, I’m a proud Marine,'” Smith said. “I tried to say
it and it wouldn’t quite come out.”

Smith was one of thousands of African Americans who joined the Marine Corps during World War II
and then learned they would be shipped off to a separate boot camp for
blacks and serve in segregated support units commanded by white
officers.

Along
the way they suffered indignities — limited to support assignments
while on duty, and confronted with racism when they were home on leave.
After their service, they were not encouraged to stay in the military.
Most faded from history.

“No one knew we existed,” he said.

That’s
changed. One balmy evening this summer, Smith and other black World War
II-era Marines sat alongside the Marine Corps commandant and watched an
evening parade in their honor at the historic Marine Barracks in
Washington.

Some of them were using canes.
Others were in wheelchairs. Ranks of crisply dressed Marines passed in
front of the reviewing stands, where Smith sat during the parade.

Smith
struggled later to explain the emotions he felt. “It was liberating,”
said Smith, who received a doctorate after the war and went on to a
career as a professor and administrator at the University of
Illinois-Urbana-Champaign. “At last I feel like a damned Marine.”

The
Marine Corps is determined to rescue the story of the Montford Point
Marines — so named because of the segregated boot camp they attended —
even though it has meant confronting uncomfortable truths about the
history of the Corps and some of the earliest black Marines.

“How
could we have taken that part of our history and slid it off to the
side and not embraced it?” Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos said in a recent speech.

Amos
has ordered the Marine Corps to teach recruits the history of the
Montford Point Marines, with the rest of the Corps’ legacy. He also
intends to incorporate their story into the curriculum of advanced
courses for senior officers.

“We’re going to anchor the rich history of Montford Point in the 236-year history of the United States Marine Corps,” Amos told a gathering of Montford Point Marines this summer.

This week, the House of Representatives unanimously approved a Congressional Gold Medal honoring the Montford Point Marines. A similar bill is pending in the Senate.

The outpouring of appreciation after so many years has surprised some of the aging veterans.

Recently,
Smith joined more than 100 other Montford Point Marines as the guests
of Amos in Washington, D.C. The veterans, now mostly in their 80s, met
black officers, attended a parade in their honor and visited the
commandant in his circa 1806 home. Young Marines assisted them when needed.

The
Marine Corps treated them to a breakfast on white table cloths and
served them chipped beef with eggs — a staple of chow halls for
decades.

“We got treated royally,” said Theodore Peters, 88. “I’ve never experienced anything like that.”

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Source: Jim Michaels, USA TODAY

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