The long-overlooked Montford Point Marines are finally getting the nation’s attention today as they travel to the nation’s capital to receive the Congressional Gold Medal — the highest civilian honor — from President Barack Obama.
Some 400 of the estimated 420 surviving members of the first African-Americans to join the U.S. Marine Corps are expected to attend.
The Rev. John Baker Brown, an Akron native who was among the original members of the Montford Point Marines, will be in that joyous caravan. It includes former New York Mayor David Dinkins, who will accept the award on behalf of his fellow Marine veterans.
On Thursday the Marine Corps will host the Montford Pointers with a reception and parade at the Marine Barracks in Washington where the bronze replica medals will be presented.
The Montford Point Marines were the first African-Americans to join the U.S. Marine Corps after President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order #8802 on June 25, 1941, establishing the fair employment practice that extended to the Armed Forces. The following year he issued a presidential directive opening the door for African-Americans to be recruited into the Marine Corps.
The Montford Point Marines were those brave pioneers who helped desegregate the military long before President Harry S. Truman formally did so in 1948.
Training still segregated
It was an ugly time in this nation’s history, with the African-?Americans still segregated in training, barred from traditional Marine Corps boot camps like Parris Island, S.C., or San Diego.
Rather, they received their training at Camp Montford Point — a small, swampy peninsula near Camp Lejeune, N.C., said to be inhabited mostly by snakes and bears and swarms of mosquitoes. Instead of in barracks, these Marines lived in what they called cardboard huts.
Even so, they went on to serve with valor and honor, risking their lives in World War II battle zones like Mount Suribachi during the battle of Iwo Jima.
In October, the Senate and the House voted unanimously — one of the few things they have common ground on these days — to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the Montford Point Marines, and with good reason.
These Marines endured and overcame a lot, yet somehow they managed to put the mistreatment aside to serve their country and pave the way for others coming after them.
John Baker Brown, who joined on Oct. 18, 1943, was among that early group of way-makers. He, like the others, made peace early on with their unfortunate circumstances.
Faith in a higher power was his shield.
Unlike the Tuskegee Airmen, the Buffalo Soldiers and the Triple Nickels, the Marines’ story — except for their own Montford Point Marines Association — seemed an almost forgotten chapter in American military history until now.
Nearly 20,000 African-Americans received their training at Camp Montford Point from 1942-49.
After basic training, Brown — who now lives in Atlanta — was assigned to the all-black 52nd Defense Battalion. In August 1944 he headed to the South Pacific with the 29th Depot Company, where he served in the Russell Islands and Guam.
“His 29th Depot Company primarily provided support, including handling supplies and guarding Japanese prisoners of war,” Brown’s son John Baker Brown Jr., also of Atlanta, wrote. “After the war, he was discharged May 22, 1946, and then was called up in 1950 for the Korean Conflict but did not ship out.”
The younger Brown cited other trailblazing accomplishments of his soon-to-be-89-year-old father:
“After the Marine Corps, he worked in the steel mills of northeastern Ohio before securing employment with the U.S. Postal Service. He hired in as a clerk and rose through the ranks to become the first African American supervisor and later the first African American to serve 17 years as a U.S. postal inspector in the Akron Post Office.
“During that time he was also ordained as an elder in the African American Episcopal Church and served as pastor for a number of congregations — Allen Chapel AME in Ravenna, Bethel AME in Massillon, Asbury Chapel AME in Waynesburg, Community AME in Cleveland among others.
“Active for decades in the civic life of Akron, especially in the African American community, he served as a leader and role model throughout his adult life — from scoutmaster with the Boy Scouts of America Troop 350, sponsored by Akron’s St. Paul AME Church (his home church), to volunteer board member with a number of area organizations, including the East Akron Community House.”
Brown and his late wife, the former Wanda Elaine Mason of Cadiz — a licensed practical nurse — raised four sons as well as a number of nieces and nephews.
I first learned of Brown a few weeks ago when he was trying to make contact with Akron native Lucimarian Tolliver Roberts — mother of Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts — with whom he grew up on the city’s east side.
Brown, his son said, is still active with his family and his church.
“Clearly, he has lived his life in service to God, country, community and family — in the best tradition of the Original Montford Point Marines and the men and women since who have proudly served as members of the United States Marine Corps.”
The senior Brown provided me with a list of other area Montford Point Marines, who like him and all Marines, lived out the Semper Fidelis (Always Faithful) motto.
Many, like William Epps, Otis Robinson, James V. Stewart, Andy Harris, Carlton Fullmore, Charles Lundy and Grady McCullars are deceased.
Other names on his list included Robert Austin, James Black, T.J. Harris, K. Harris, Clarence Matthews and William Mobley. Neither he nor I were able to determine who still survives.
Akron’s Grady Welch was reached on Tuesday and had not been informed of today’s ceremony. He was nonetheless overcome with gratitude for his fellow Montford Pointers to be ushered into a special place in this country’s history.
All surviving Marines were supposed to have received an invitation to the ceremony, but not all registered with the Montford Point Marines Association, the source of many of those names.
“It was a rough time,” the 89-year-old former rubber worker and professional boxer acknowledged. “But I wouldn’t trade it for anything in this world. It’s hard to explain except to say you would have to be a man to understand.”
He echoed the sentiments of his fellow Montford Point Marines that being bitter was never in the game plan. Being better was.
Retired Akron Public Schools administrator Ann Lane Gates will be on hand for the ceremony honoring both of her brothers, who served together — Pughsley Lane of New Rochelle, N.Y., and the late Raymond Gates.
If there are any other local Montford Point Marines not mentioned here, please let me know as I would be honored to give them a proper salute, as well.
Jewell Cardwell can be reached at 330-996-3567 or email@example.com.