As a young Marine, Gilmon D. Brooks witnessed history when the American flag was raised on Feb. 23, 1945, on Iwo Jima during one of the bloodiest battles of World War II.
He also made history as a member of the Montford Point Marines, the all-black unit that integrated the Marines after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order in June 1941 ordering the armed forces to recruit African Americans. A Purple Heart and Bronze Star recipient and retired chief warrant officer, he served in three wars.
Mr. Brooks, 91, died June 19, at his home in Tinton Falls, N.J. He was a member of the Philadelphia Chapter of the Montford Point Marines Association and among the contingent of nearly 400 surviving Montford Point Marines who received the Congressional Gold Medal in 2012.
While attending UCLA as an ROTC student, Mr. Brooks was recruited to enlist in the Marines. As a youngster raised in a military family in Arizona, he had worked at an Army base in the kitchen and had delivered newspapers.
"I've always admired the old Marine Corps tradition, although I knew it was segregated and that it would still be segregated," Mr. Brooks said in an interview years later for the Veterans History Project for the Library of Congress.
In October 1943, he joined the growing ranks of African Americans who helped break the color barrier in the Marine Corps. He underwent basic training at the segregated Montford Point Camp in North Carolina, adjacent to Camp Lejeune, where white Marines trained.
The black recruits lived under poor conditions, with no toilets or running water. About 20,000 African Americans received basic training at Montford Point between 1942 and 1949, when the camp was closed.
Mr. Brooks completed six weeks of boot camp, which he described in his biography as "six weeks of pure hell!" He became an expert rifleman on the range and was promoted to private first class. A part-time musician in college, he was assigned first to be a bugler. Mr. Brooks later was assigned to the Eighth Marine Ammunition Company. After undergoing training in Honolulu, his unit was sent to the Pacific. He was appointed ammunition platoon sergeant.
"Even though it was a segregated unit, there was that togetherness you wouldn't expect to feel, like a family," he said.
At Iwo Jima, a tiny volcanic island in the Pacific about 700 miles southeast of Tokyo, his unit could hear shelling and bombing when it went ashore Feb. 23, 1945, to provide ammunition to a tanker outfit. They saw a kamikaze spiral into a ship.
"We began to get very apprehensive and nervous, of course," he recalled. The first wave of Marines had just stormed the island four days earlier to begin a fierce battle against an entrenched Japanese force that refused to surrender.
After several hours, a quiet fell over the island. Mr. Brooks and his unit looked up to the sky, where a small group of Marines had raised the American flag atop the 550-foot Mount Suribachi, the highest point on the volcanic island. Guns began firing and ships offshore sounded their horns, he said.
"Everyone was joyous," Mr. Brooks recalled. "It was quite a sight to see Old Glory on top of Suribachi."
A photograph taken by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal of a second flag raising that day on the mountain became a defining image of the war. The Marines mistakenly thought the war was over.
"Then all hell broke loose with mortar fire and everything," Mr. Brooks said. His lieutenant was wounded, and Mr. Brooks was struck with shrapnel. Some in his unit didn't survive the vicious fighting.
Mr. Brooks was evacuated to a hospital ship in Hawaii and later received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. The intense fighting for control of Iwo Jima continued for 31 more days. More than 6,000 Americans were killed and about 20,000 were wounded during the bloody five-week battle. About 20,000 Japanese soldiers died trying to defend the tiny island.
Black Marines returning home after the war faced the same discrimination they encountered previously. But Mr. Brooks said he tried to move on with his life, "hoping it would get better."
In 1949, Mr. Brooks enlisted in the U.S. Army. He later was promoted to chief warrant officer and saw combat duty in the Korean War. He retired from the military in 1962 but returned for an assignment in Vietnam in 1973 with the Department of the Navy.
One of his biggest regrets, Mr. Brooks said, was that he never had a chance to become a commissioned officer. Blacks were not allowed to become officers until after World War II. He never regretted his military service: "I'm glad I made that choice."
"He was just a tough old Marine," said Joe Geeter, a former president of the Montford Point Marine Association, a group that memorializes black Marines. "He was very, very proud of his service and his point in history."
Mr. Brooks was born in Madison, Wis., and was an only child. His parents died when he was 3 and relatives raised him in Arizona, where he attended the only integrated high school there in Tombstone. He was transported there on segregated buses.
He retired in 1985 from the federal government as a civilian personnel manager at Fort Monmouth. He was a Boy Scout leader and served on the Neptune Township school board and the Monmouth County Drug Board. He was a member of St. Augustine Episcopal Church in Asbury Park, where he served on the vestry and clergy search committee.
"Growing up, he was a role model," said his son, Jeffrey Brooks. "He was a good dad."
Geeter said the Philadelphia chapter honored Mr. Brooks for his Vietnam service during its June 10 meeting and presented him with a certificate. A celebration was planned for Saturday on what would have been his 92nd birthday. The cake was already ordered and the celebration was set to proceed with his family and friends.
"He's an African American hero," Geeter said. "We treat them with the respect that they didn't get in World War II."
Besides his son, Mr. Brooks is survived by his wife of 15 years, Viola R. Brooks; two grandchildren; and two stepsons. His first wife, Wealthy Brooks, a retired Army major and nurse, died in 1995.
A viewing will be held Monday, June 26, at 10 a.m., followed by a Military Honor Guard service at 10:45 and services at 11 at St. Augustine's Episcopal Church, 155 Prospect Ave., Asbury Park. Burial will be at a later date at Brig. Gen. William C. Doyle Cemetery in Wrightstown.
This article is written by Melanie Burney from Philly.com and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.