John B. Thomas and John “Jack” Ashby were corporals when they separated from the Marine Corps.
But on Thursday, both felt like four-star generals.
That’s because of the well-deserved pomp and circumstance accorded them during a unique ceremony at the Marine Corps Reserve Center near Akron-Canton Airport.
Thomas, 92, of Akron, and Ashby, 97, of Copley, received the Congressional Gold Medal — the highest civilian honor this nation can bestow.
The men were two of almost 20,000 Montford Point Marines, the first African-Americans to join the U.S. Marine Corps, during World War II. President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 on June 25, 1941, establishing the fair employment practice that extended to the armed forces, and the following year he issued a presidential directive opening the doors for African-Americans to join the Marines.
They joined knowing they weren’t wanted, but to earn this nation’s respect.
Thursday they got it, complete with color guard and Naval Side Boys’ ceremonial salute.
Army Spc. Kenneth Thomas — on leave from Afghanistan and wearing his green camouflage — was flushed with pride, there to honor his grandfather John B. Thomas, former pastor of Hill’s Temple in Akron.
Navy reservist Gary Wyatt, BM1, an African-American, delivered the invocation: “These are two awesome men who stood their ground years ago when racism was at an all-time high. … Thank you, Lord, for strengthening them. … Because of men like them we have no segregation today. We are one nation.
“Thank you, Lord, for letting them see this day, this coming together.”
Thomas and Ashby didn’t know about the large Congressional Gold Medal ceremony in June in the nation’s capital, which drew some 400 of the estimated 420 surviving Montford Point Marines, until after it was over.
But thanks to U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton, D-Copley Township, the ceremony came to them.
The Montford Pointers served from 1942 to 1949; stationed at a small, swampy peninsula near Camp Lejeune, N.C., inhabited by snakes, bears and swarms of mosquitoes. Instead of barracks, they lived in cardboard huts.
Of the 19,168 in their ranks, more than 13,000 served overseas during the war. Their numbers included former New York Mayor David Dinkins and former U.S. Sen. Edward Brooke.
Their service paved the way for President Harry S. Truman to formally integrate the military in 1948.
Sutton, in presenting the replica bronze medals, said, “They were declared unfit for duty not for anything they had done, but for who they were.’’
“This has been a great day for me,” declared Ashby, who is retired from the U.S. Post Office. “I live at Copley Place [retirement community] and several of the residents are here, along with my granddaughter Jacqueline Mason-Elie, her husband Carlos and their 7-year-old daughter Christianna.”
It was Bob Bodeker — one of 20 Copley Place neighbors who attended — whose clarion voice rang out over all others during the national anthem. “He’s my friend,” said Bodeker. “We pray together. … He’s a wonderful person and such a humble man that I never knew about his military service.”
John Thomas brought his weathered Marine diary with daily installments: “Splitting headache today. Feeling very bad … Stood guard today … Back still hurts.”
“Living in this country, while not perfect, is still the best in the world,” Thomas said.
Copley Place resident Barbara Valot said she had no idea of the extent of Ashby’s sacrifice and contribution.
Among the military leaders bestowing accolades on Thomas and Ashby was Marine Maj. Allen Lapinsky, commanding officer representing Gen. James F. Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps. In a statement, Amos said the Montford Pointers’ rich legacy and contributions “went largely unrecognized” for seven decades.
Navy Cmdr. Eric R. Johnson, Marine 1st Sgt. Horacio C. Vela and others witnessed the pageantry. Akron Mayor Don L. Plusquellic also sent proclamations.
Also on hand were Thomas’ wife of 72 years, Rachel; son and daughter, Robert Davis and Ruby Thomas; daughter-in-law Sheila Thomas; grandson James Bedford Sheppard; granddaughter Tiara Guice; friend Pat DeBose; and Copley Place residents Faith Wilson and Leona Farris.
All were eager to usher Thomas and Ashby into the history books for their strength of character and courage to endure the bad for the greater good.
Jewell Cardwell can be reached at 330-996-3567 or email@example.com.