Montford Marines, the ﬁ rst black Marines, to get highest civilian honor (part one)
ABOVE PHOTO: The Montford Marines.
(Photo: Courtesy U.S. Marine Corps)
By Michael Futch
THE FAYETTEVILLE OBSERVER, N.C.
Few people know their story. Unlike the Army's Triple Nickels and the Army Air Corps' Tuskegee Airmen, the history of the groundbreakers who went through Montford Point has been largely overlooked.
Fayetteville's James Robert Simpson was among the rough-ly 20,000 Marines who lived it, training on a small, swampy peninsula jutting into the New River on the North Carolina coast. The World War II veteran, the eldest son of a farming couple from rural Cumberland County, was a "Point man" - one of the first blacks to serve in the Marine Corps."I'm proud of that," Simp-son said. "To be a part of history, for sure. "At 88 and in poor health, he plans to fly to Washington this week to attend two ceremonies paying tribute to the fighting men known as the Montford Point Marines.
These veterans will receive the nation's highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal.About 400 of the estimated 420 living Montford Point veterans are expected to attend. In addition to Simpson, five men from Fayetteville are expected to make the trip: Robert Burns Sr., Cosmas Eaglin Sr., Linwood Haith, David Mont-gomery and Joseph Stinchcomb, said Capt. Kendra Motz, a spokeswoman for the Marine Corps.
"It's most of them, which is awesome," Motz said.Simpson said he will go to Washington, where he and his fellow Marines will receive a bronze replica of the medal, with mixed feelings.
His wife, Lillie, died May 24 at age 83. The couple had been married 66 years. She was a strong and caring woman, a retired nurse who had worked for more than three decades at Womack Army Medical Center on Fort Bragg.
Hampered by diabetes and on dialysis, she had re-mained strong in faith."My family, after God, is my life," he said. "If her health had sustained, I was going to have her there with me."Lillie Simpson had urged her husband to go. She knew the importance of the long-overdue national recognition.She, too, had played a role in the changing face of this country.
In the 1960s, the nursing school at what is now Fayetteville Technical Community College denied her ad-mission because of her race. She wrote to Gov. Terry Sanford to protest the discrimination that she and a few other African-American women faced.Sanford overturned the school's decision. And Lillie Simpson became one of the first black graduates of the school's nursing program.
From 1942 through 1949, the Marines at Montford Point endured and prevailed over harsh racist treatment, both in the military and the outside civil-ian worlds."They paved the way for all the other African-Americans coming into the Marine Corps. They made the sacrifice," said Louise Greggs, who with her husband operates the Mont-ford Point Marine Museum at Camp Johnson in Jacksonville. "They thought nothing of it. They had no way of knowing they were making history.
They just wanted to be Marines."The Montford Point Ma-rines reflect a painful chapter in the 236-year history of a military institution that remains pre-dominantly white. In April 1941, Maj. Gen. Thomas Hol-comb, the commandant of the Marine Corps, declared: "If it were a question of having a Marine Corps of 5,000 whites or 250,000 Negroes, I would rather have the whites.
"But this original generation of black Leathernecks proved in combat that they were just as tough and equally adept as any other hard-nosed combatant.Simpson recalls that basic training at Montford Point Camp could be cruel. He reported for duty in June 1944."You can't forget it," he said, the only time this old Ma-rine raised his voice when talking about his memories. "It was rough.
That was the roughest I had ever seen as far as life was concerned. The training was rough."Yet he looks back with pride at his place in the integra-tion of the Marines, the last military branch to accept blacks.As he put it so simply, "It means the world to me.
"Part two next week....
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