YELLOW SPRINGS — The Tuskegee Airmen and Navajo Code Talkers of World War II are household names for what they did and who they were.
The Montford Point Marines finally will be elevated to that status Wednesday when the surviving men who broke the Corps’ color barrier during the war are awarded the same honor — the Congressional Gold Medal.
The medal is one of the nation’s highest honors.
“We labored in obscurity for a whole bunch of years,” said Jonas Bender, who’s among the few, the proud who can call themselves the nation’s first black Marines.
The longtime Yellow Springs resident will make the all-expenses-paid trip to the U.S. Capitol next week with his wife of 55 years, Ethel, to receive a medal.
President Obama in November signed the bill awarding the medal to the Montford Point Marines.
“Our time is not long,” Bender confessed.
At 87, Bender — who served as grand marshal of this year’s Clark County Memorial Day Parade — is one of 400 Marines still living of the 20,000 who trained at the segregated boot camp of Montford Point in North Carolina between 1942 and 1949.
“It’s tremendous to be recognized, 70 years later, for a job we did where we weren’t wanted,” he said. “It’s really redemptive.”
Even though President Franklin Roosevelt had opened the military to blacks in 1941, he had to explicitly direct the Marines in 1942 to take black recruits.
It was thought that black Marines would ruin the elite status of the Corps, Bender said. “Generals didn’t want us.”
While not allowed to be infantrymen, the Montford Point Marines eventually proved their mettle, particularly when they were thrown into hand-to-hand combat on the island of Saipan.
Drafted in 1943, Bender was an 18-year-old from Tougaloo, Miss., who didn’t initially grasp the significance of the Marines training at Montford Point.
“I had college on my mind,” he joked, “not saving the nation.”
But they were more than ready to serve.
“Despite everything,” he said, “we wanted to be a part of this country, and military service was a part of it.”
New Marines will be required to read a book about the Montford Point Marines, Bender said.
Bender, who served as a radar operator in the Pacific, hasn’t talked much about his time in the service, nor did he expect to be honored this way.
“I did my job and got out safely,” he said. “If honors are going to come, they’re going to come.”
He now looks forward to seeing people he hasn’t seen in close to seven decades. “I cannot wait,” he said.
Contact this reporter at (937) 328-0352 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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