(June 24, 2012) A group Black men who in 1941, integrated the U.S. Marine Corps, the Montford Marines, are slated this week to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor Congress bestows on civilians, U.S. Department of Defens officials said.
More than 400 of the nearly 20,000 marines—seven of them from Baltimore—who endured that first boot camp for African Americans, are expected to attend the ceremony June 27 at the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, authorities said. They will receive a bronze replica of the gold medal that will be housed at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Va., They are being honored for surviving that first Black marines boot camp, which was erected in a tent city on Montford Point, N.C. near the then-segregated Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune.

“They answered our nation’s call at a time when our society was deeply divided along racial lines,” said Marine Commandant James Amos in a statement. “As such, many of their contributions went unrecognized, and many times they were not given the respect and recognition they deserved as Marines, as Americans and as patriots.”

The Montford Point Marines will join the ranks of previous Congressional Gold Medal recipients, including George Washington, Winston Churchill, Jackie Robinson, Bob Hope, Neil Armstrong, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa. The Tuskegee Airmen, the black pilots, bombadiers and support personnel who integrated the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1941 were awarded the medal by President George W. Bush in March 2007.

“We didn’t think we had done anything significant,” Montford Point Marines member William Foreman told the AFRO. “It was a real challenge but…when you’re 18 you think you can conquer the world.”

Foreman, 87, who now lives in Catonsville, like most of the first Black marines of World War II, was assigned to the Pacific theater in the war. He said he spent 26 months in Hawaii preparing supplies to be sent to Marines close to the battle zone, but saw no combat. He came out of the war with the same rank he had when entered it—buck private–and afterward spent 37 years clerk with the U.S. Postal Service.

Still, he said, he is “getting excited” about the upcoming ceremony. He compared the Montford Point Marines to the Tuskegee Airmen in the contribution they made to breaking down racial barriers in the military.
Lee Douglas, 86, of Baltimore agreed. He told the AFRO that after the “very, very difficult” rigors of boot camp, he rose to the rank of sergeant and was among the Americans who fought in Guadalcanal, Saipan and Peleliu during WWII.

Ronald A. Taylor

AFRO Editor