WASHINGTON (AP) — The nation's first black Marines received a rare national tribute Tuesday as the House voted to award the Montford Point Marines with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor given by Congress.
History books and Hollywood have chronicled the Army's Buffalo Soldiers and the Army Air Corps' Tuskegee Airmen, but the men who integrated the Marines during World War II often have been forgotten. That is starting to change, beginning with the House's 422-0 vote.
The black Marines received their basic training adjacent to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where conditions were harsh and the treatment from their fellow Marines could be even harsher. The black Marines were not allowed to enter Camp Lejeune unless accompanied by a white officer. In the few times they participated in training exercises, they could not eat until the white Marines had finished. They were routinely passed over for promotions.
"People forget they were fighting two wars — both foreign and domestic," Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., said.
More than 300 lawmakers were co-sponsors of the legislation, providing Republicans and Democrats with a rare moment of bipartisanship. Lawmakers from both parties spoke in favor of the resolution, which was sponsored by Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla.
In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the Marine Corps to accept blacks. The Marine Corps was the last military branch to do so.
Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., noted that the Montford Point Marines were presumed unsuited for combat and not allowed to fight alongside their white counterparts until the Korean War. Still, they underwent intense fire in their supporting roles in the Pacific during World War II, serving at Okinawa and Iwo Jima.
"They served with great valor and distinction and loved their country more than their country loved them at the time," Miller said.
Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., said he hoped that the awarding of the Congressional Gold Medal would "soothe the pain of yesterday with the glory of today."
About 19,000 men trained at Montford Point between 1942 and 1949. Most have since died. Eugene Groves, a staff sergeant who fought in Korea, was one of four Montford Point veterans on hand for the vote Tuesday. The lawmakers gave the four a standing ovation shortly before the vote.
Commandant Gen. James Amos has made it a priority to honor the group and ensure that their history is taught to all Marines.
Groves, who trained at Montford Point in 1946, said he appreciated the recognition. He served in the Korean War and said he felt for a time like the Marine Corps did not want to acknowledge his unit's service.
"They did not want us involved in the history," Groves said. "It's been a hard fight."