A group of African-American Marines who broke the Marine Corps’ color barrier during World War II received the Congressional Gold Medal at a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol June 27.
The medal is the nation’s highest civilian award given by Congress. The “Montford Point Marines” received the award for serving with valor during the war, even as they were subjected to discrimination.
In 1942, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt allowed African-Americans to join the Marine Corps, they were not sent to the traditional boot camps. Instead, this group of Marines was segregated and completed basic training at Montford Point on Camp Lejeune, N.C.
“African-Americans were not allowed to serve in any wars until World War II in 1942,” said William McDowell, a former Montford Point Marine who accepted the medal on behalf of his fellow Marines and family members in Emancipation Hall at the Capitol. “Unfortunately it took a world war to make it happen, but it happened. I don’t think any of us ever imagined that something like this would ever happen in our lifetime.”
McDowell said it was a “privilege and an honor to stand before [the audience] and receive the Congressional Gold Medal for [them] and 18,700 other brothers who served this nation and the corps, with courage and commitment. This award belongs to them because collectively, [we] did what we thought was impossible … [and] made history.”
Several congressional leaders also addressed the audience. California Rep. Nancy Pelosi, House minority leader, spoke of the Montford Point Marines’ toughness and determination.
“In the time of these Marines – in an age of inequality – breaking the color barrier in the Marine Corps took nothing less than perseverance, patriotism and courage of extraordinary proportions,” she said.
Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, Senate minority leader, noted that many of the Montfort Marines seized the opportunity to defend their country in combat.
“Restricted to training for support roles, African-American Marines had to wait for their chance to prove themselves on the battlefield. But the chance finally came in the Pacific Theater, where many saw combat in some of the bloodiest battles of World War II, including Iwo Jima, Saipan and Okinawa, and carried out their duties with great courage and heroism,” he said.
Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, Senate majority leader, told the audience that while the African-American Marines fought for the rights of others overseas, the injustice of discrimination still prevailed on their home fronts.
“They were trained to fight injustice overseas; meanwhile, they suffered discrimination every day,” he said. “They were trained to fight tyranny abroad, while their friends and family suffered oppression here at home … Although they were assigned support roles in the Pacific Theater, many had the chance to prove themselves in battle as well … Some cleaned up the ash after the bomb was dropped over Nagasaki.”
House Speaker Rep. John Boehner of Ohio said African-Americans gained respect as full-fledged Marines.
“Letting [African-Americans] serve in the Marine Corps was called an experiment … which didn’t last very long,” Boehner said. “Toward the end of the war, the Marine Corps commandant said the experiment was over, [and] that the men who trained at Montford Point were ‘Marines, period.’”