My father should have been there. On Wednesday and Thursday at ceremonies filled with pomp and circumstance, the U.S. Marine Corps paid tribute to its first black Marines, awarding them the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor for a civilian.
My father was one of those pioneers, men called Montford Point Marines after the crude, segregated camp where they trained. But my father died in 1989, before the tributes and medals and so I watched proudly, my heart filled with one great wish: That these two days could have happened long ago.
My father would have been standing as ramrod straight as his 86 years would have allowed. Instead, I was there, representing our family, wearing a pin with a headshot of him as a young Marine in uniform. I had come to be his witness and to volunteer to help escort the 400 honorees able to attend. There are 420 surviving Montford Point Marines, most of them in their 80s.
On Yesterday, under a scorching sun on the lawn of the Marine Barracks, each of the Montford Pointers received a bronze replica of the gold medal that will be placed at the National Museum of the Marine Corps near Quantico Base, where I spent the early years of my childhood.
My father would have enjoyed being treated royally. The aging pioneers rode buses escorted by U.S. Capital police cars. They were greeted by young Marines in dress blues. The United States Marine Corps Band, which my father loved so much, played the Marines' Hymn as I mouthed the words I had grown up with.
At the first ceremony on Wednesday, William McDowell, a representative of the Montford Point Marines, accepted the gold medal on behalf of all the honorees. The medal will be displayed at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, Va. near the Marine Corps base at Quantico, where I spent the early years of my childhood.
“I don't think we imagined anything like this would happen in our lifetimes," McDowell said to thunderous applause as he stood to accept the medal. "It just saddens me so many are not here."
That reference cut me deepest and the tears finally fell.
McDowell started to say "This gold medal…" and his voice cracked. He paused. He spoke of the honor to be chosen to represent all of the Marines and ended with the Marine battle cry "Hurrah!" as his fellow honorees barked the same call in return.
In November, President Barack Obama signed the bill awarding the medal to the Montford Point Marines "in recognition of their personal sacrifice and service to their country." The public acknowledgment was long overdue. While many people know of the "Tuskegee Airmen" and "Navajo Code Talkers," the story of the pioneer black Marines has largely been untold. I know my own father never told me he was one of the first black Marines or about the filthy, unhealthy conditions at their training camp. My father's best friend Charlie Myers said, "We were proud to be Marines, but we were not proud of the jobs we did."
So they kept silent, did not complain. Their stories of disrespect and ignored sacrifice remained deep inside them, not even whispered.
While the Tuskegee Airmen boldly streaked the skies, most of the black Marines were often assigned duties that generally meant taking care of white officers or providing support tasks such as cooking because they were thought to be too inept to fight, though they soon proved the white officers wrong.
The Marine Corps was the last branch of the service to integrate. President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Fair Employment Practices Commission in 1941, forcing the Corps to open to black recruits. But resistance from the leadership meant black men did not enter the Marine Corps until 1942.
Some 20,000 black men entered the Corps when the doors opened, training at muddy, segregated, inferior construction at Montford Point, which was adjacent to the well-built Camp Lejeune, where whites trained. Instead of staying in barracks, the black Marines stayed in what they described as cardboard huts barely heated by a single stove. Black men couldn't even visit Camp Lejeune without a white escort. Under such conditions, it isn't surprising that most of the black men fulfilled their initial service agreement and then left the Marine Corps. Only about 1,500 men made the Marine Corps a career. My father was one of those 1,500.
“It's been a long time coming," said Jim Brooks, 89, a D.C. resident and Montford vet. He sported a Montford Point Marine Association hat atop his long white hair. He was escorted to the ceremony by his 17-year-old grandson Jordan Payne.
Brooks joined the corps in 1942 and while reluctant to talk about the experience, he said, laughing, "I tell you what, I've never been back to North Carolina."
In prayer on Capitol Hill, Dr. Barry Black, chaplain of the Senate, thanked the Lord "for this opportunity to correct a past injustice. We are grateful for…Marines who served…to protect freedoms they were denied at home."
In speeches throughout the two days Congressional leaders, the Corps’ highest command and baby-faced Marines in dress blues said, “Thank you.” It was wonderful to hear, but I missed my father more with each one.
The honors this week will now create different memories for the Montford Point survivors.
“From here on out when I meet people and they ask where'd you go to boot camp and I say Montford Point, they will know what I'm talking about ,” said Edward Hicks, 82, who served "24 years, two months and 13 days." He and his wife, Joann, journeyed from Lake Elsinore, Calif.
Like me, Howie Hodges of Falls Church, Va., represented his late father. Clemmon H. Hodges became a Marine August 14 1942, right out of high school. The son even carried some of his father's documents stamped "colored" and a photo of his dad at age 24 in uniform.
"I knew dad was a Marine but I didn't know the significance," said Hodges, who said his father was also silent about his service experience.”
My own father seemed to me to be a tortured man; I didn’t help. He was patriotic and proud of his military service at a time when I was wearing a big afro, yelling “Black Power!” and wondering how any black man so mistreated by the government could possibly love the Marine Corps. But my afro is gone, my hair is grey now, too. Oh, how I wish my father had been present to bend his head just enough to have a general gingerly place a medal around his neck.