Pioneering Black Marines Get Their Badge of Courage

10:14 AM, Oct 2, 2012   |    comments
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By John Tuohy (The Indianapolis Star)

Congress voted Tuesday to grant the first black fighters of the last military branch to accept them the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation's highest civilian honor.

The 422-0 vote honors about 20,000 Montford Point Marines, who trained in a separate facility called Montford Point that operated at Camp Lejeune, N.C., from 1942 to 1949 when all military branches were segregated.

"This has been a real long time coming," said Johnny C. Washington, 82. "It seems like everything we did for a long time was hidden. It's been real frustrating when you see others get recognition and not us."

While the African-American Army Buffalo Soldiers and the Air Force Tuskegee Airmen have had some measure of renown, the first black Marines have grown old mostly in obscurity.

The Army and Navy had been recruiting blacks since the Civil War. But even when they did join, the Montford Point Marines never achieved officer status and were assigned mostly to ammunition and supply duty.

Some fought at Iwo Jima and went to Japan to clean up the ash after the atomic bomb was dropped over Nagasaki.

Averitte Corley, 84, and Washington said basic training was brutal, their barracks were in ramshackle huts, and the Marines often were kicked and slapped during drills.

"They tried to make us better Marines," Washington said.

Some didn't make it through, Corley said.

"We were the first blacks, and they wanted to make sure you measured up," said Corley, whose platoon included former New York City Mayor David Dinkins.

Segregation reigned in the South of the 1940s, and life on base wasn't much better.

"We'd go to Camp Lejeune for dental appointments, and 20 of us would have to wait in the back of a covered truck while one Marine at a time went in for his appointment," Washington said. "When he was done, another guy would go in. It was hot waiting in the truck. It would take hours."

Corley, who now lives in Indianapolis, said that in talking to white Marines years later, he realized that all Marine drills were torturous.

"Boot camp is boot camp," he said.

Corley's duties in the Marines included guarding Japanese prisoners of war in Saipan and guarding naval installations in Norfolk, Va.

Washington said he joined at 17 when he lived in Mississippi because "I'd seen some pictures, and I liked the uniforms."

He stayed in the Marines for 30 years, achieving the rank of sergeant major and serving in three wars: World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Washington was an infantry squad leader in Korea and a first sergeant in a 13-month tour of Vietnam, leading combat patrols in both wars. He now lives in Indianapolis.

Next year, the Marine Corps plans to teach all Marines about Montford Point. Commandant Gen. James Amos -- the first Marine aviator named to the Corps' top job -- has made diversifying the staunchly traditional branch a top priority.

Corley said a little refresher course would be good for all Marines.

"A lot of these young guys don't know the history of the Marine Corps," Corley said. "They think blacks have always been there, and that wasn't the case. There was a lot of discrimination. But I think a majority of the guys who commanded us want to see some progress."

The military today

Minorities make up more than a third of active-duty forces, with blacks constituting more than 17%. Black representation in the enlisted forces -- about 13% -- is parallel to the number of blacks represented in the recruiting-age civilian population overall, according to Defense Department statistics from 2008, the most recent available.

However, at the officer level, minorities have lower representation. A report by the Military Leadership Diversity Commission, chartered by Congress, reported in March that:

• Non-Hispanic whites make up 66% of the U.S. population but 77% of active-duty officers.
• Blacks account for 12% of the U.S. population but 8% of active-duty officers.
• Hispanics make up 15% of the U.S. population and 5% of the officer corps.
• Among the Marines, less than 5% of officers among the higher ranks are black.

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