In late June on both Capitol Hill and at the Marine Corps Barracks at 8th and I in Washington, D.C., nearly 400 Marine veterans received delayed recognition for their military service and were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. These Marines, collectively known as Montford Point Marines for the segregated North Carolina facility where they received basic training, were the first African Americans allowed to serve in the Marine Corps.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order on June 25, 1941 establishing the fair employment practice that sought to erase discrimination in the U.S. military. In 1942, he then established a presidential directive giving African Americans the opportunity to be recruited into the Marine Corps. These Marines weren’t sent to existing Corps boot camps, but to Montford Point, a facility at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
The number of African Americans who trained at the facility between 1942 and 1949 is estimated to be 20,000. The camp’s graduates went on to fight in many theatres of World War II, including Okinawa and Iwo Jima.
The Congressional Gold Medal, along with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, is the highest civilian award in the United States. The inscription on the medal states “Montford Point Marines 1942-1949” on one side, and reads “For outstanding perseverance and courage that inspired social change in the Marine Corps” on the other.
Not everyone who was eligible for the medal was able to attend the June ceremonies, so on Aug. 9 a delegation from H&S Bn., Headquarters Marine Corps on Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall traveled to Upper Marlboro, Md., to present the medal to James Lane, an 87-year-old veteran Marine corporal who was recuperating from a broken hip in a convalescent home when the June recognition ceremony took place.
H&S Bn. HQMC, Henderson Hall Commanding Officer Col. Ira M. Cheatham, Command Sgt. Maj. Joseph M. Davenport and a Marine Corps color guard traveled to Upper Marlboro to hold an award ceremony at the home of Denise Shelton, Lane’s daughter. The ceremony occurred on the back deck of the home with some 40 to 50 Family members, friends and admirers gathered to witness the event. Several Montford Point Marines who attended the June ceremony also turned out in support of Lane, proudly wearing bronze replicas of the medal.
Cheatham presented the medal to Lane, who accepted it graciously. Although Lane needed the aid of a walker, the Marine stood noticeably straighter upon receiving his award.
Mingling with guests at a reception following the ceremony, Shelton beamed proudly at her father and asked guests, “Did you see him? He stood up especially tall.”
The Marine Corps color guard performed ably within the small confines of the back deck which was also packed with well-wishers.
The color guard is used to improvising and making do in cramped places, said Master Sgt. William Dixon, H&S Bn. Motor T noncommissioned officer. “It’s part of being a Marine. We take a situation and make something of it.”
“It’s an honor to meet these guys. I like talking to them,” said Sgt. Rodney Sanders, a member of the color guard. “I’ve heard all the stories, and I just wanted to learn more about them. I love these guys. They paved the way for a lot of our leadership, especially for myself. I owe them a lot.”
“These ceremonies are emotional to me,” said Pat Hackbarth, a retired Marine gunnery sergeant and president of the Montford Point Marine Association, D.C. Chapter 6, who helped arrange the Aug. 9 ceremony. “They [Montford Point Marines] have endured things we can’t imagine. They were trailblazers for the Civil Rights Movement.”
The D.C. chapter has 100 members, including 38 Montford Point Marines. Membership in the association is open to veterans and active members of all branches of the U. S. Armed Forces.
After the ceremony, Marines from Henderson Hall mingled with Lane’s extended clan for a Family reunion that included food, beverages and a cake in the shape of the Marine Corps emblem. A large banner hanging at the front of the house welcomed home the Marine, also known as “G-Pa,” or grandpa.
As the bus made its way back to JBM-HH, the command sergeant major queried Marines on board about the event — asking how old Lane was, his rank and the number of children he had — to see if they were paying attention. “This is living history,” Davenport reminded them, then joked, “There’ll be a quiz tomorrow.”
Three more Montford Point Marines are scheduled to be recognized for their service in a ceremony at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall’s Marine Club at 3 p.m. Aug. 18.