First African-American Marines
|The remaining original Montford Point Marines|
This frictional short story is based on the true account of unsung heroes. It wasn’t until 2012 that a group of African-Americans were finally honored for the service they performed in World War II. Many of them dead, they will never know the honor given. They received the Congressional Gold Medal at a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol. Alas the medal is the United States highest “civilian award” given by Congress. And so the story of George Cummings, US Marine begins.
First Black Marines
Hello, my name is Sergeant Major George Cummings (ret) Marine Corp. If you are reading this story then I am dead. Too bad because I wanted to meet my old buddies at the award ceremony. It took long enough for the government, heck the Marine Corp, to acknowledge our existence. While the African-American Army Buffalo Soldiers and the Air Force Tuskegee Airmen have had some measure of renown, the first black Marines have grown old mostly in obscurity.
Me, George Cummings, I stayed in the Marines for 30 years, achieving the rank of sergeant major and serving in three wars: World War II, Korea and Viet Nam. I tried civilian life in North Carolina for a short time after World War II ended. As a returning minority veteran, I’d hope things changed for the better. I’d fought for freedom overseas, but found myself once again facing the same discrimination and prejudice I’d left behind. When asked why I reenlisted I said, “The white policeman would stop you and say, ‘Hey boy, where you going?’ And when you come to answer him he’d say, ‘You’ve got your hat on. Take your hat off when you talk to a white man. I don’t have to take my hat off in the Marine Corp. I salute and white or black, they salute back. I'm a Marine!”
At the onset of WWII, many African Americans had mixed feelings about supporting the war effort when the United States did not offer them the freedom America was fighting for overseas. A March 1942 editorial in the New Negro World summed up these frustrations:
“If my nation cannot outlaw lynching, if the uniform of the military will not bring me the respect of the people that I serve, if the freedom of America will not protect me as a human being when I cry in the wilderness of ingratitude; then I declare before both God and man…TO HELL WITH PEARL HARBOR.”
A short time after the US joined the war, James Thompson, a cafeteria worker in Kansas, coined the phrase “Double Victory” in a letter to the African-American newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier.
“The V for victory sign is being displayed prominently in so-called democratic countries which are fighting for victory over aggression, slavery and tyranny. If this V sign means that to those now engaged in this great conflict, and then let we colored Americans adopt the double VV for a double victory. The first V for victory over our enemies from without, the second V for victory over our enemies from within. For surely those who perpetrate these ugly prejudices here are seeking to destroy our democratic form of government just as surely as the Axis forces.”
Yep I remembered reading how Black people felt about the war, fighting and segregation. I was a 20 year old food service worker in 1942. I wanted to believe in America as my country, but I saw the inequality. I didn't even live in the South, nor did my family. I knew a few guys on the job who grew-up in the South, but that was the end of my experience. I had to depend on news media for information. However, I knew that the policies of segregation were explicitly intended for African-Americans in the South, discrimination was not limited to southern blacks. African-Americans living in northern cities, along with Latinos, Native Americans, Filipinos, Chinese- Americans, Jewish-Americans, Japanese- Americans and other minorities, experienced the racial prejudice of the era as well.
Making history as one of the first
The year was 1942 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt allowed African-Americans to join the Marine Corps. They were not sent to the traditional boot camps. The segregated African-American group of Marines completed basic training at Montford Point on Camp Lejeune, N.C. In even in this time of war prejudice was much more important.
Two months after Montford Point opened, Cummings joined the Marines, determined both to help win the war and make America live up to its democratic promise. The phrase James Thompson introduced — the Double V — was embraced as a powerful symbol by millions of other Americans during the course of the war.
George Cummings didn’t know what to expect when he went south to train in North Carolina. He wrote home about the separation of everything. “Two separate, but not equal - white and the blacks. The blacks cannot eat in the restaurants. We could not drink in the white fountain. There are separate fountains. Separate sections of the bus that we could not ride in for the trip to camp. The trains, if they were big enough, they had separate coach. Separate everything. Basic training is brutal, our barracks were in ramshackle huts, and the black Marines are often kicked and slapped during drills. I’m here to stay. I’m here to be a Marine.” From 1942 and 1949 more than 20,000 African-American Marines received basic training at the segregated Montford Point Camp instead of the traditional boot camps of Parris Island, S.C. and San Diego, CA. The U.S. Marine Corps was integrated in 1949.
Cummings made it through basic and was deployed to clean up the ash after the bomb was dropped over Nagasaki. The atomic bomb cloud over Nagasaki, Japan was defined in The Times of London of 13 August 1945 as a "huge mushroom of smoke and dust." 9 September 1945, The New York Times printed an eyewitness description of the Nagasaki bombing, written by William L. Laurence, the official newspaper correspondent of the Manhattan Project. He accompanied one of the three aircraft that made the bombing drop. Laurence wrote that the bomb produced a "pillar of purple fire", out of the top of which came "a giant mushroom that increased the height of the pillar to a total of 45,000 feet."
Cummings described what he saw, “In the blink of an eye, three square miles of the city were obliterated. I heard people say more than half of the 250,000 occupants were killed outright. I saw some people gruesomely injured. There’s nothing here but a scorched and lifeless landscape – and ash. We’ve been assigned to clean up all this ash. Even with masks it’s hard to breathe sometimes. One of the guys said the ash was really people who were burned up when the bomb fell, like instant cremation. We have to notify the LT if we find bones or fragments of a skull. The place smells like death. Reminds me of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Bible. I read in the military news that after measuring levels of residual radiation throughout the city, specialists from the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey determined that much of Nagasaki would remain barren of plant and animal life for 75 years. Wonder if that radiation harms us?” When he recounted the experience he had tears in his eyes.
They came with walkers and canes. Some voiced the thought of George Cummings who must have been looking down from heaven - "I never thought this day would ever come." William "Jack" McDowell of Long Beach accepted the medal on behalf of all Montford Point veterans. Marine general officers walked down the ranks of Montford Point Marines, presenting replicas of the medal — the nation's highest civilian honor — to each veteran. Reported by USA Today, "I've been looking for this for 69 years," said Andrew Miles, 86, pointing to the medal hanging around his neck. "I feel good now. I can go away peacefully." To all those who went before, RIP.
Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, Senate minority leader, noted that many of the Montfort Marines seized the opportunity to defend their country in combat.
Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, Senate majority leader, told the audience that while the African-American Marines fought for the rights of others overseas, the injustice of discrimination still prevailed on their home fronts.
House Speaker Rep. John Boehner of Ohio said African-Americans gained respect as full-fledged Marines.
First African American Marines decorated by the famed Second Marine Division somewhere in the Pacific (left to right) Staff Sgt Timerlate Kirven...and Cpl. Samuel J. Love, Sr... They received Purple Hearts for wounds received in the Battle of Saipan.