Ambrose Anderson Jr. of Johnstown always knew he was a U.S. Marine because, as the saying goes, “Once a Marine, always a Marine.” But he never knew he was special.
It took an article in USA Today last year to awaken him to his special status. That was when he learned he was a member of the Montfort Point Marines, a select unit that consisted of the first blacks to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II.
On Wednesday, House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid presented Anderson and 369 of the roughly 400 surviving Montfort Point Marines with the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Anderson, 87, who attended the ceremony in Washington, said the recognition was long overdue. “We were non-existent for decades. We never read what black Marines did,” he said Friday. “The government finally recognized the accomplishments we did.”
Indeed, even the Marine Corps ignored the contributions of the unit. That is, until recently. The corps now teaches recruits about the history of blacks in the corps and the Marine Corps recruitment website contains references to the Montfort
Point Marines, including pictures of them from World War II.
Anderson said the ceremony was poignant for the aging veterans. Many of them are in their late 80s or even older and use wheelchairs and walkers. “It was a proud moment for me and all comrades,” Anderson said. “There was a lot of emotion, a lot of tears and a feeling that it was about time.”
Each Marine got a thick gold medal imprinted on one face with profiles of three Montfort Marines and on the other with a platoon of Montfort Marines at attention in front of “The Tower,” Anderson said. “We all remember that tower. We had to run around it all the time.”
The Marine Corps unit was formed after President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941 signed an executive order that required the armed services, including the U.S. Marine Corps, to recruit and enlist blacks. Between 1942 and 1949, more than 20,000 blacks trained at Montfort Point, a base in Jackson, N.C., that gave the unit its name.
The unit remained segregated from the corps, however, and was kept out of combat, except under special circumstances. The U.S. military did not fully integrate until the Korean War.
Anderson was drafted at 18 and when he went to Albany to sign up with some friends, a Marine Corps officer asked for volunteers, telling them the corps was now taking blacks. He went with the officer.
Anderson didn’t know at the time he was entering history. “I had no idea what I was getting into,” he said. “I never paid attention to politics.”
Montfort Point was segregated and the men there, many of them from the North like Anderson, encountered the South’s notorious Jim Crow laws for the first time. Anderson remembers being told to sit in the back of the train and not make any trouble when he headed south for his training.
Anderson, who played sports and was well-liked in Gloversville as a teen, said that while there was prejudice against blacks in the North, the South’s prejudice was much, much worse.
When Montfort Point Marines got liberty, they were not allowed to go into parts of town frequented by whites. They had to drink from “blacks only” fountains and use “blacks only” toilets. They couldn’t enter restaurants.
Their officers were all white, and some of them were bigots, Anderson said. “We were segregated and went through a whole lot of hell,” he said. “We faced all that and being a Marine made no difference.”
After boot camp, Anderson was stationed in Hawaii as a prelude to the United States’ invasion of Iwo Jima in February 1945. Anderson hit the beach on D-Day Plus One and served in an ammunition unit. He stayed until the island was secured in April.
The black Marines on the island were not supposed to participate in direct combat, but Anderson said they found themselves under attack often. He recalls one time when a Japanese shell scored a hit on an ammunition dump and it blew up, killing some of his friends. Another time, his unit was told to prepare for a Japanese suicide night attack coming off Mount Suribachi on the southern tip of the teardrop-shaped island.
“We were scared. We were first echelon along their approach. I asked for a cigarette, but I couldn’t get it to light and the guy wouldn’t give me another. Thank God for that, because I never smoked,” he said.
The Japanese never did make the attack.
After Iwo Jima, he returned to Hawaii and then was sent to Japan for occupation duty after that country surrendered. He was discharged a corporal in 1946.
Afterward, he returned to Gloversville and worked with his brother as a truck mechanic and joined the local American Legion posts. He married twice and has six children. Both wives are dead.
He said since the story broke about the Montfort Point Marines, people have looked at him in a different light. When he returned from Washington, he said, he was wearing his Legion hat. In the airport a stranger came up to him, shook his hand and said: “Thanks for all you have done,” Anderson said. It was a proud moment for him, he added.