Marines receive medal for historic service
BY JOHN W. COLEMAN
SPECIAL TO THE UMCONNECTION
Often celebrated for being the first to enter a potential combat area, the U.S. Marine Corps became the last military branch to racially integrate 70 years ago, an ignoble irony for a proud but stubborn organization.
Under integration orders by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the first African Americans to take up the gauntlet of Marine Corps enlistment did so in 1942. They were segregated for boot camp at Montford Point, N.C., in a brutal wilderness of snakes, bears, myriad mosquitoes, flimsy barracks and muddy roads, just a mile from their white peers training in comparative comfort at Camp Lejeune.
William Foreman Sr., a lifelong member and longtime lay leader of Mount Olivet UMC in Catonsville, remembers the harsh conditions, arduous training and racist mistreatment he and his brothers in arms suffered. But for many who survived, the worst injustice was not being allowed to fight America's enemies because of presumed, although disproved, racial inferiority. Instead they were largely relegated to working in kitchens, supply depots and other non-combat posts.
"We were trained extra hard to be the best, and we were eager to do our part in the war," said Foreman, 87, who recalls black drill instructors being even tougher on recruits than white ones. He joined in 1943, just out of high school, and served for 26 months, mostly at Marine depots in Hawaii preparing and shipping supplies to soldiers fighting in the Pacific theater. Some early black Marines experienced Japanese attacks on their Pacific bases, but not many. President Harry Truman ordered full integration in 1950.
"We were disappointed by not getting to fight, but I don't feel animosity toward anyone today," Foreman said. "We were proud to be of service as Marines, and we should get the same recognition as other members of the armed forces."
Indeed, they were finally honored for their service and sacrifice on June 27 when Foreman and hundreds of other Montford Point Marines went to Capitol Hill to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, the federal government's highest civilian honor. About 400 surviving members – out of nearly 20,000 who trained there from 1942 to 1949 – received bronze replicas of the medal on June 28 at the Marine Corps Barracks headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Foreman, a father of three, is president emeritus of the Baltimore-area Chapter 17 of the national Montford Point Marines Association and a charter member of the first black American Legion post in Baltimore. He was featured in a Baltimore Sun article June 10 along with Charles Wells, a former lay leader of Mount Zion UMC in Baltimore, and Howard Williams, whose wife attends Epworth Chapel UMC in Baltimore.
Foreman said there are nine original Montford Point Marines among Chapter 17's 32 members, who meet on first Saturdays. Three are United Methodist, including William Lane of Sharp Street Memorial UMC in Baltimore.
The national recognition of these hidden heroes is long overdue, many feel, while the struggles of other black military pioneers, such as the Tuskegee Airmen and the Buffalo Soldiers, have been celebrated for decades.
"It's taken so long because some in the Marine Corps wanted to write us out of its history," said Wells, 86, "but we lived long enough to see this day happen." He credits Marine Corps commandant Gen. James Amos with helping to bring this darker side of history to light and to justice.
"Every Marine, from private to general, will know about these men who faced racism and segregation to serve their country," said Amos after Congress approved the award in 2011. "Your story will not be forgotten."
Wells, who joined Mt. Zion and married his wife Margaret 65 years ago, was given tribute for being a part of black history by his beloved church on June 17, Fathers Day. He plans to bring other Montford Point Marines there to worship and meet church members on Sunday, July 22.
"I feel real proud about this honor," he said. "We're a part of living history, and that's important."