By Jon McGinty
Rockford’s Veterans Memorial Hall hosted six members of the Montford Point Marines during a ceremony and panel discussion Saturday, Feb. 2. The Marines were part of a ground-breaking effort by then-President Franklin Roosevelt to include African-American men in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II.
Some of the men enlisted, but most were drafted into segregated units and were trained at a separate facility in Montford Point at Camp Lejune, North Carolina. From 1942 until 1949, when the Marine Corps was finally desegregated, more than 20,000 black marines received basic training at Montford Point.
“These men provide missing pieces to the puzzle, which is our history,” said Lloyd Johnson, president of the Rockford branch of the NAACP, during his welcoming remarks. “They faced an enemy overseas, only to return to an enemy at home — racism in their own country.”
PFC Hubert Banks grew up in Chicago before being drafted into the Marines.
“My first real experience with racial discrimination was in Washington, D.C., on the way to North Carolina,” he recalls. “While I trained at Montford Point, I refused to go on liberty for six months, in order to avoid the segregation.”
While allowed to serve in the Marine Corps, African-Americans were only assigned to segregated units and led by white officers. They were often held out of combat by brass who considered them unfit for such duty. Although none of Saturday’s visitors officially saw combat during World War II, several faced similar dangers during their overseas tours.
“I thought I was in combat from the day I got to the South Pacific,” says Plt. Sgt. Stanley Porter. “Japanese soldiers surrendered to my unit, but they say we were never in combat!”
Corp. John Vanoy served in a supply unit in the same theater, and was part of the troops sent to occupy Japan after the surrender.
“We landed in Sasebo, but were sent to Nagasaki 10 days later,” says Vanoy. “I had never seen anything like that destruction before. It was one of the worst things I ever saw. They hadn’t buried the dead yet … some were still floating in the ocean.”
After his service in the Marine Corps, Staff Sgt. James Reynolds enlisted in the Army and went to war in Korea. He received numerous medals during that conflict, including three bronze stars. During one battle when the Chinese troops threatened to overrun his unit, Reynolds was ordered to fire his 155 mm gun at point-blank range.
“You military men know, a 155 can fire a shell over 20 miles,” says Reynolds. “When you’re given an order to fire at point-blank range, you know you are in trouble.”
This past June, surviving members of the Montford Point Marines were each presented with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor the government bestows. Of the 420 Montford Point veterans still alive, about 370 made it to Washington for the ceremonies.
“I saw more black officers in Washington when I received the Medal than I did through the entire war,” says Reynolds. “I didn’t think I’d ever see that.”
“It was an astonishing joy to receive the Medal,” says Porter. “I don’t have words in my vocabulary to explain to you how deep my feelings are.”
From the Feb. 6-12, 2013, issue