OAKLAND, CA, UNITED STATES
OAKLAND, Calif. - Think fighting one war is tough? Try fighting two — at the same time.
These men did.
The Marines of Montford Point not only fought in foreign wars but fought a war for civil rights every day.
They were no different from any other Marine. They had honor, courage and commitment. The only thing was — they were black, in the 1940s.
“They said, ‘They’re black, they can’t do that, they can’t do this,’” said Riley McCray, 87, a former Montford Point Marine corporal who lives in Oakland, Calif. “We had to prove that we’re just like anybody else if given the chance.”
It was a time of segregation and discrimination. Blacks couldn’t eat, drink or sit near whites, let alone serve their country with everyone else.
“The nation only wanted blacks to be nothing but slaves and servants,” said Lynn L. Williams, 87, a former Montford Point Marine sergeant from Berkeley, Calif. “They kept us at the bottom, as janitors or servants and this is what it was. You couldn’t get a job doing anything during those days.”
That was until President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States, issued a directive that allowed more than 22,000 blacks to enlist into the Marines.
“It was out of necessity,” Williams said. “Folks were getting killed.”
However, these Marines still underwent a separate recruit training at Montford Point, a training facility near Camp Lejuene, N.C.
“I was 18,” said Rueben Smartt, 87, a former Marine corporal from Harlan County, Kentucky. “I ain’t even know that we was at the place. We were supposed to be at Camp Lejeune and they put us there.”
The Montford Point Marines were trained by other black Marines who were put in meritorious leadership positions. That only made the training harder, McCray said.
“That was the worst thing that I have experienced in my life,” said McCray, who was from then-violent west Philadelphia. “It was worse than my neighborhood at the time.”
He said he thought his fists could get him through anything. So he consequently got into tiffs with his martial arts instructor.
“The judo instructor and I bumped heads,” laughed McCray, who later boxed for the Marines. “I was the ‘King of the Neighborhood’ cause I could fight. So the judo didn’t work there.”
The training was rough, required a lot of discipline, but was informative. There was no fighting allowed between the recruits.
“If they did fight, they would receive a very severe punishment because Marines are supposed to depend on each other,” Williams recalled.
“We would have to duck walk and hold the rifle over our heads,” he said. “If you dropped the rifle you would have to sleep with it. If you made someone else drop their rifle, you would have to sleep with their rifle, and yours.”
Despite those circumstances, these men rose above their adversity to earn the title of United States Marine.
“It physically blows your mind,” McCray said. “But we survived.”
Some stayed in for many years and some just completed their two-year term of obligated service.
Nearly seven decades later, the Montford Point Marines were presented the highest civilian award, the Congressional Gold Medal, by Gen. James. F. Amos, Commandant of the Marine Corps. More than 400 Marines were symbolically presented the medal at Emancipation Hall in the U.S. Capitol during a ceremony June 27. They later received a bronze replica that represents the original gold medal that is displayed at the Marine Corps Museum in Quantico, Va.
Unfortunately, many Montford Point Marines were unable to attend the ceremony in Washington, D.C. Most living Montford Point Marines are in their 80s, so Marine Reserve units from 22 states have set out to distribute 78 bronze replicas to the Montford Point Marines.
One of the units responsible for reaching out to the Montford Point Marines was Detachment 2, Beach and Terminal Operations Company A, 4th Landing Support Battalion, 4th Marine Logistics Group, in Concord, Calif.
They initially thought that it would be possible to have the ceremony near their headquarters, but that changed when they found out Riley McCray couldn’t travel too far from his Lafayette, Calif. home.
“We wanted to have it closer … but Mr. McCray is on an oxygen tank so we had to find a location closer to his home,” said 1st Sgt. Simon L. Sandoval, first sergeant for Detachment 2.
They located a spot fitting for the medal ceremony in the nearby federal building. However, there was trouble getting the venue reserved without funding. Williams suggested contacting a local government official.
“I’m glad that Mr. Williams brought up Congresswoman Barbara Lee,” Sandoval said. “She helped us get the location.”
Sandoval and about a dozen Marines from the local area, carried chairs and 50 state flags up three floors to prepare for the event. That was the least they could do, Sandoval said.
“I thought the ceremony was one of the greatest things in my career and something that I was proud to be a part of,” Sandoval said. “I’m happy I got to coordinate presenting this medal from the President to Mr. McCray and Mr. Williams. Can you image presenting a medal to gentleman that set the history for our Corps? You can’t ask for anything better than that.”
Williams and McCray arrived at the Ron Dellums Federal Building and were thoroughly pleased at how the Reserve unit went out of their way to accommodate them.
“They did a beautiful presentation,” Williams said. “They had a color guard, flags and they had young Marines as escorts. I liked their politeness and their demeanor. They helped us old folks get in and find our way into the auditorium.”
“I thought it was one of the best things that had ever happened to me,” Williams said. “I have never been honored like that before. To have the Marines come around here and do that really made me proud.”
When the ceremony started, the men stood tall. Regardless of their past, they knew who they were above all else.
“I’m a Devil Dog,” Williams said. “I’m a Marine and I’m proud to be one.”
Chills shot down Sandoval’s back.
“You got two men who fought overseas and for their civil rights,” he said. “That made me feel damn good.”
Traditional Marine Corps songs such as "Anchors Aweigh" and the Marines’ Hymn were played at the end of the ceremony.
For many, the music was reminiscent of their time in the military. McCray’s eyes watered thinking of how proud his spouse was to see him after he completed Marine Corps training.
“I sort of cried because my wife loved the transformation because I had made something of myself,” said McCray, as he choked on his words.
Unfortunately, his sweetheart of 33 years had passed away just one month before he was to receive the medal. So the ceremony was bittersweet for McCray.
Williams did his best to console McCray.
“Don’t worry about it, she’s smiling down on you,” Williams said.
“I felt proud for her, not me,” McCray said.
Capt. Caitlin T. Ferrarell, the Inspector-Instructor for Detachment 2, said that the ceremony evoked gratitude for those who have served before her.
“These men changed the face of the Marine Corps, and it was an incredibly humbling experience to have a part in formally acknowledging that. It was a privilege to honor them with a ceremony filled with the traditions we all share as Marines, regardless of the era in which we served,” Ferrarell said.
||OAKLAND, CA, US
This work, California Montford Point Marines awarded Congressional Gold medal, by Sgt Raymond Lott, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.