WASHINGTON — When James Wilson enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps 65 years ago, he didn’t know he was making history by becoming one of the first African-Americans to join.
“I wanted to do something for my country,” said Wilson, who’s now 82. “I thought going into service would be the thing to do.”
The Wilmington, N.C., native is one of the African-American Marines who trained at Montford Point, a North Carolina boot camp for African-Americans only.
In a stirring ceremony Wednesday, leaders of Congress bestowed the Congressional Gold Medal on about 400 of the nation’s first African-American Marines. They were among the nearly 20,000 Marines who trained at Montford Point from 1942 to 1949, most of whom fought in World War II, others in Korea and Vietnam. The medal is the nation’s highest civilian honor.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, presented the medal to Montford Point representative William McDowell, who accepted it on behalf of them all. Each Montford Marine will receive a bronze replica medal Thursday. Also in attendance were Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California, as well as congressional representatives from North Carolina and Florida.
The Montford Point Marines “not only helped defeat tyranny overseas, but they thoroughly discredited a poisonous philosophy deeply held and long defended by elites here at home,” said Boehner, who teared up toward the end of his speech. “For a generation, this philosophy justified bigotry, racism and segregation.”
Montford Point is now notorious for putting its Marines through overly rigorous and unequal training.
“It was walking and crawling like snakes,” Wilson said. “But I made up my mind that I was going to make it if it was the last thing I did.”
It’s that sort of “perseverance and courage,” as the insignia on the medal says, that was commended by Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C.
“In the face of intolerance and discrimination, the Montford Point Marines served our country with honor and distinction, and for that they are true heroes,” Hagan said. “These men . . . laid the path for those who came after them.”
The Congressional Gold Medal comes 70 years after the opening of Montford Point.
“It’s past due but I feel good,” said Sylvester Burrows, 91, of Washington, D.C. “It should have come earlier.”
Francis Hooper Jr., also of Wilmington, enlisted in the Marines when he was 19, going on to fight in Korea and Vietnam. Originally from Brooklyn, Hooper knew he wanted to join the Marines after he watched the USS North Carolina set sail from the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II.
He, like Wilson, didn’t realize he was among the first African-Americans to join the Marines at the time he enlisted.
“I didn’t know anything about Montford Point until after I was sworn in,” he said. “It was rough. It was just really hard on us. I feel grateful for this medal. Tears are in my eyes today.”
Wallace Green Jr., 82, enlisted when he was 17, and also fought in Korea and Vietnam.
“It’s never too late,” said Green, of Virginia Beach, Va. “I will wear this medal around my neck for the rest of my life.”