70 years gone, Montford Point Marines get their due

Reply Wed 27 Jun, 2012 09:27 am
Jun. 27, 2012
70 years gone, Montford Point Marines get their due
By Franco Ordonez | McClatchy Newspapers

Soon after finishing boot camp at Montford Point in 1949, John Phoenix joined other new Marines on a visit to nearby Jacksonville, N.C. Dressed in their newly pressed khaki uniforms, they proudly strolled off the train. They’d taken only a few steps when they were confronted by a large sign.

The roughly 10- by 8-foot, black and white billboard with big block letters clarified any misconceptions the new Marines might have. The color of their uniforms didn’t supersede the color of their skin.

“No blacks on this side of town,” it read.

The reception wasn’t much warmer at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., where the 19-year-old high school track star and other black recruits were placed in a segregated camp. They were trained harder and worked longer hours than their white counterparts. Phoenix never once met a black officer.

“We went through hell and brimstone at Montford Point,” he said. “It was no playpen there.”

Phoenix, who’s now 83, served 22 years in the Marines, including combat in Korea and Vietnam, before retiring and settling in Burlington, N.C. He never really got over those feelings of not being fully a part of the Corps. Until now.

Seventy years after African-Americans broke the military’s final color barrier, Phoenix and other surviving members of the Montford Point Marines will gather Wednesday on Capitol Hill to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

More than 400 Montford Marines, including more than 30 from North Carolina, are expected to attend the ceremony, where they’ll each receive a replica of the medal. They’ll be good company: George Washington, Mother Teresa, the Wright brothers and Thomas Edison also earned the honor.

From 1942 to 1949, nearly 20,000 African-Americans went to Montford Point, a blacks-only boot camp at Camp Lejeune. Most soon were shipped off to war, with the majority heading to the Pacific theater during World War II. They served as members of the 51st and 52nd defense battalions in support roles for white troops. Others, like Phoenix, also served in Korea and Vietnam.

These trailblazers finally will receive the recognition they deserve, said Sen. Kay Hagan, the Greensboro, N.C., Democrat who led a bipartisan effort to grant the Montford Point Marines the honor.

“When this took place, these Marines were not allowed on the base at Camp Lejeune without a white escort, and yet they served side by side in our military,” she said.

Sen. Richard Burr, a Winston Salem, N.C., Republican, said the Montford Point Marines led the way for future generations of African-Americans who’d risen to the highest levels of our military’s leadership.

“Their bravery, service and sacrifice should serve as an example of patriotism and loyalty despite the significant challenges they faced,” said Burr, who introduced a resolution to establish “Montford Point Marines Day” and was a co-sponsor of Hagan’s bill.

The Marines were the last branch of the military to allow blacks to join when President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order in 1941. It was met with strong opposition.

“If it were a question of having a Marine Corps of 5,000 whites or 250,000 Negroes, I would rather have the whites,” the then-Marine Corps commandant, Maj. Gen. Thomas Holcomb, said at the time.

Most of the Montford Point Marines have since died. Only about 500 of them are known to be alive, including 39 from North Carolina. But they’re dying rapidly. Three North Carolina members have died since Congress announced the award last November. Their family members will make the trip on their behalf.

John Thompson, 86, volunteered to join the Marines in 1943 after graduating from George Washington Carver High School in Kannapolis, N.C., near Charlotte. A fan of history, he’d read stories about the Marines being “an elite group of fighting men.”

“I thought I could do that,” he said. “And they had beautiful uniforms.”

While black recruits were barred from training with whites at Camp Lejeune, Thompson said the hardest part was the discrimination from civilians for whom he’d later go to war and protect.

“If I wanted to see a movie, I couldn’t go to the movie theater. If I wanted to eat at a certain restaurant, I couldn’t eat there. If I rode on the bus, I had to go all the way to the back,” he said. “Even if I had my uniform on.”

When Clero Florence was drafted in 1943, the officer at the Fort Bragg processing center asked him what arm of the service the Burlington teenager wanted to join. Florence, who had an older brother in the Army, said the Army. The officer looked at Florence’s paperwork. He stamped “Marines.”

“I figured he didn’t hear what I said, so I said it again,” Florence recalled. “He just waved me on and said, ‘Next.’ That’s how I got into the Marine Corps.”

Florence, 88, said the only time he didn’t feel discrimination was on the battlefield. He spent 18 months in Guam during World War II, where he helped transport ammunition to white troops and repair damaged tanks and planes. All he wanted to do was survive.

“The whole time I figured I wasn’t going to come back anyway,” he said. “You had bombs falling all around you. You didn’t know what was going to happen.”

The military made them stronger, more disciplined men, Florence and Thompson said. They survived the rigors of boot camp, war and segregation because of the military training and looking to one another for support.

“We had nobody else to relate to,” Phoenix said. “That was the big problem. We had no black officers. We had no black sergeant majors, no black sergeants, that we could relate to. And that made things difficult.”

The Marines are paying for every surviving member and a guest to come to Washington for the congressional ceremony at the U.S. Capitol. Buses have been reserved from almost every tour company around the city. Dozens of wheelchairs have been ordered, and most every handicap-accessible hotel room in the city is booked.

Gen. James Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps, said it was time that the Montford Point Marines were properly written into the 236-year history of the Corps. He’s ordered new recruits and senior officers to learn about their first African-American members.

“Every Marine, from private to general, will know the history of those men who crossed the threshold to fight not only the enemy they were soon to know overseas, but the enemy of racism and segregation in their own country,” Amos said last summer at a gathering of Montford Point Marines.

For years, Phoenix had been frustrated that the Marines had failed to confront the racism of their past.

Like the Army’s Buffalo Soldiers or the Army Air Corps’ Tuskegee Airmen, he said, it took far too long to recognize and honor the sacrifices of African-Americans who paved the way for future generations. But now that the Montford Point Marines are being recognized, he said he finally felt as if he could put his own frustrations and insecurities about not being accepted behind him as well.

“So when this come about we were finally able to get some relief,” he said. “The truth will set you free.”

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Reply Wed 27 Jun, 2012 09:30 am
Receive Congressional Gold Medal
Washington, DC
Wednesday, June 27, 2012

House and Senate leaders will award the Congressional Gold Medal to honor the service of the Montford Point Marines in a ceremony Wednesday on Capitol Hill.

The Montford Point Marines were the first African-Americans to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps. They received basic training at Montford Point Camp, New River, N.C. between 1942 and 1949.

According to the Montford Point Marine Association, there are over 400 surviving members.

House Speaker John Boehner, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority and Minority Leaders Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell will make remarks, among others.

Montford Point Marines Receive Congressional Gold Medal: Live at 3pm (ET) at C-SPAN

The Gold Medal represents Congress’s highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions.
Reply Wed 27 Jun, 2012 09:38 am
May. 28, 2012
On Memorial Day veterans remember soldiers who didn't come home
Elinor J. Brecher | The Miami Herald

MIAMI -- ]

Memorial Day was established in 1868 to honor Civil War soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Originally called Decoration Day, for the tradition of decorating graves of the fallen with flowers, it became a national holiday in 1971, observed annually on the last Monday in May.

As 90-year-old Daniel Raines ponders the 900-per-day death rate of his fellow World War II veterans, some close friends, he laments the holiday’s drift from its intended focus to one of bargain shopping and revelry.

“A lot of people think of Memorial Day as a celebration, but there is sadness, too,’’ said Raines, a resident of the Miami Veteran’s Administration Medical Center’s Community Living Center. “You mourn; you don’t celebrate.’’

Raines, formerly of Plantation — by way of a food-service career on Long Island — enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1941, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

He served stateside with the Signal Corps and received a medical discharge in 1943 after a serious on-base accident, but feels part of his generation’s profound sacrifice: an estimated 417,000 Americans in combat.

On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Honor Flight Network — a nonprofit that flies veterans free of charge to see the national war memorials — Raines found himself gazing at the Iwo Jima statue.

“The hair on the back of my head stood up and I cried,’’ he said. “It made a very big impression on me because so many didn’t come home. . . . I felt I was part of that.’’

On Memorial Day, Richard Luis Melendez won’t be celebrating either. He’ll have a quiet picnic with his family, avoid loud fireworks — he saw too many real explosions in Afghanistan — and think about Cpl. Travis Woods.

Woods, of Redding, Calif., assigned to the 1st Marine Special Operations Battalion, Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, was killed in action on Sept. 9, 2007, in Afghanistan. So far, about 6,500 American troops have died in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Melendez, of Miramar, didn’t know Woods well, but as the U.S. Army combat engineer who outfitted him for battle in deadly Helmand Province, he was among the last to see Woods alive.

Melendez and fellow Sgt. Nelson Mendoza, his South Florida “battle buddy,’’ met Woods at Forward Operating Base Robinson, after a Chinook helicopter dropped him off.

“We got him all his gear,’’ said Melendez. “He lasted two weeks. He was 21 years old.’’

Melendez, a 36-year-old VA hospital customer-service representative and a father of three, was inspired to enlist after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He survived eight firefights and countless rocket-propelled grenade and mortar attacks, one of which left his pal Mendoza with a traumatic brain injury.

He remembers the memorial service for Cpl. Woods in Kandahar.

“They played his music really loud. His eulogy card stated he wanted ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ ’’ — the Guns N’ Roses version.

Melendez begins to tear up. “People don’t realize what an impact it has on other soldiers.’’

Col. Connie Christensen, U.S. Army retired, will spend the holiday in the nation’s capital. As president of Vietnam Veterans of America Inc.’s Broward County Chapter, she’s there often on official business.

An operating-room nurse in South Vietnamese combat zones in 1970 and ’71 — where her father, the late U.S. Navy Capt. Cyrus Christensen, was also serving — she watched young soldiers die nearly every day, and she’ll think of them as she attends the National Memorial Day Concert on Sunday evening.

But she’ll recall one in particular.

“His squad had left him in the field,’’ said Christensen, 64, who joined the Army at age 19 and served 34 years. “He wouldn’t let them pick him up because it would make too much noise,’’ which would have given away their position. “He told them to come back later.”

By the time they did, he was “pale as a ghost’’ from blood loss.

“He asked if I would keep his rosary,’’ said Christensen, now a nurse anesthetist. “And he died on the operating table,’’ one of nearly 58,200 U.S. fighters lost in the war.

Jim Ellerd, a Texas-born retired commercial pilot from North Miami, said he lost a lot of friends’ during two tours in Vietnam with the Air Force.

As Memorial Day approached, he reminisced about three lost friends: Air Force Tech. Sgt. Zane Carter, 36, and Capts. Alan Hendrickson and John Wiley, both 31.

On Aug. 3, 1967, their C-7A Caribou was shot down by friendly fire. He’d just helped them load their plane with ammunition.

“We’d share C-rations and stories,’’ said Ellerd, who was 19 when his friends died. “They were real nice folks. . . . I’ll never forget those guys; it doesn’t matter what day of the week it is. ‘’

Like many Vietnam vets, Ellerd suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and feelings of guilt that “I came back and a lot of guys didn’t.’’

He said he talks to his grandchildren about the real meaning of Memorial Day, because “they don’t teach it in the schools.’’

Once the occasion for patriotic parades, the sale of artificial poppies as a fund-raiser for veterans, or for Scout troops to place small flags on military graves, Memorial Day’s traditions have faded, acknowledges W. Joe Gault, Department Adjutant Quartermaster of the Florida Veterans of Foreign Wars.

“I remember the parades and flag waving and how it meant so much more than it appears now,’’ the Vietnam veteran said. “But I see a resurgence of patriotism since the Gulf War, and I would hope it would continue so we don’t lose sight of the people who died for us and our freedoms here and around the world.’’

Monday’s celebrations should be more than that.

“We need to look at the remembrance,’’ said Gault. “The reason we raise the flag back up at noon’’ at Veterans of Foreign War observances “is to remember those still serving. We take this holiday very seriously.”

But WWII Air Force photographer Sol Tappan, a veteran of 51 combat missions, doesn’t see anything wrong with using Memorial Day as the catalyst for partying and spending.

“It brings money back into the economy,’’ said Tappan, 89, a Brooklyn native who also lives at the Community Living Center. “It puts people back to work. If it helps the country, fine, there’s a reason for it.’’

Tappan, who served in North Africa, Italy, and Palestine — Israel, after 1948 — said he participated in clandestine operations with the Office of Strategic Services.

He still won’t talk about specifics, but says he suffered flash blindness when “a rocket blew up in my face,’’ and was given a medical discharge in 1945 for “combat fatigue.’’ He’s no longer able to walk, and can barely see.

“But I’m a stubborn bastard,’’ he said. “I’d go back in a second to defend the country.’’
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