Medals Honor Those Who Faced Segregation to Serve

John Steele will receive one of the nation's highest civilian awards today -- a recognition that almost 70 years ago, he endured segregation to serve his country.

Receiving the Congressional Gold Medal is an honor that Steele, now 87 and living in Daytona Beach, never could have dreamed of as a black teenager in 1945. He was working then as a busboy at a Pensacola diner and decided to enlist in the Marine Corps.

Like many young men of the time, Steele felt the call to fight for freedom. But during World War II, black Marines were relegated to guard duty or to serving as members of support staffs.

Steele, like the 20,000 or so other black Americans who joined the Marines from 1942 to 1949, was sent to Camp Montford Point, a segregated training camp near Jacksonville, N.C. Of those men, more than 13,000 ended up in all-black units overseas during World War II, only to return home to face more segregation, limited job prospects and racial inequality.

Last June, the Marine Corps presented medals to more than 400 Montford Point Marines for their service. Steele was not able to attend the ceremony in Washington, D.C. So today, the Marine Corps will present Steele with his Congressional Gold Medal during a 9 a.m. ceremony at the Daytona Beach Golf Club.

"It feels good that after all these years, they decided to do something for us to recognize us," Steele said. "We were not appreciated while we were serving. But now I'm happy that we're being recognized and that I'm getting it."

Marine Robert Blanks of Orange City, who also was unable to attend the June event, will receive the award today, too, during an 11 a.m. ceremony at his home. He did not want to comment until after today's ceremony.

The Montford Point Marines seldom have been recognized in history books in the same way as other minority servicemen, such as the Tuskegee Airmen pilots of World War II or the Buffalo Soldiers that fought during the Indian Wars.

But last November, the federal government decided to give the men of Montford Point their due. President Barack Obama signed legislation sponsored by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, to give them the Congressional Gold Medal, which recognizes "outstanding deeds or acts of service."

"They answered our nation's call at a time when our society was deeply divided along racial lines," Brown said during the June ceremony. "As such, many of their contributions went unrecognized, and many times they were not given the respect and recognition they deserved as Marines, as Americans and as patriots."

Chuck Melson, a chief historian for the Marine Corps, said the Montford Point Marines played important roles during the war. "But I think psychologically -- you have been trained to fight and you were capable of fighting but you were not allowed to fight -- you probably resented that."

Sgt. Jenn Farr, a Marine Corps spokeswoman in Jacksonville, Fla., said the black Marines of Montford Point deserve the award for bearing through racism to serve their country.

"They definitely paved the way for other minorities, and even for women, to be integrated into the Marines," she said. "They opened the gates. It's amazing."

Montford Point trained black recruits until 1949, when the camp was deactivated. After that, black recruits were sent to integrated boot camps.

Steele shipped out to the Pacific after several weeks of boot camp at Montford Point, and he was assigned to a black unit with the 6th Marine Division that supplied ammunition to troops on Okinawa.

He was later sent to Japan and China. And most of the time he served on guard duty.

"I had never seen so many foreigners," Steele said. "When we got to China, we had a chance to go to various places. And I would write all this stuff down and send it back to my sisters in Pensacola. It was an experience."

In 1946, Steele returned to the United States. He boarded a train in Washington, D.C. -- sitting in a special rail car for blacks -- bound for Jacksonville. He then took a bus to his hometown of Pensacola.

"There weren't many jobs available for us," Steele said.

He eventually earned a degree in health and physical education from Florida A&M University and worked as an elementary school teacher and a high school football coach. Steele retired as food director at Bethune-Cookman University.

Nearly seven decades after he served, Steele said Friday that he's gratified by the medal. "It's an honor, and I'm glad they're recognizing us Marines."

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