Sixty-eight years after John Lee Cooper ended his World War II service as a Montford Point Marine, the 91-year-old received the Congressional Gold Medal.
Sitting in a chair under a red, white and blue knit blanket and next to an illuminated Christmas tree, the Dayton man surrounded by family and friends received the medal in a ceremony at the Hospice of Dayton.
“It means everything to me,” he said, indicating he didn’t expect the medal. “I thought maybe they had forgotten about me.”
Cooper was one of about 20,000 African-American recruits who were trained to become Marines at Montford Point, N.C., adjacent to Camp Lejeune, N.C. between 1942 to 1949. Like the Tuskegee Airmen, they served in segregated units separate from their white counterparts. After boot camp, Cooper was sent to the Pacific theater during the war.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a directive in 1942 opening the door for African-Americans to serve in the Marines, but segregation in the U.S. military remained in place until President Harry S. Truman signed an executive order lifting the practice in 1948.
In June 2012 at a Washington, D.C., ceremony, about 400 surviving Montford Point Marines were presented with a bronze replica of the Congressional Gold Medal acknowledging their contributions during World War II. The Montford Point Marines Association doesn’t know how many of the World War II-era Marines are still living.
When a veteran is found, the group may participate in a ceremony to commemorate his wartime service.
W. Roger Smith, a nephew and Dayton native now living in the Chicago suburb of Bolingbrook, maneuvered through federal bureaucracy for a year and a half to get his uncle the honor. Cooper heard a presidential proclamation and congressional and mayoral letters recited at the ceremony in his honor.
“I almost teared up because I knew he wanted it,” Smith, 64, said afterwards. “Whenever I mentioned it, he would brighten up.”
Charles H. Stallard, president of the Louisville, Ky., chapter of the Montford Point Marines, said the recruits lived by the motto on a sign over their barracks: “Failure is not an option.”
Stallard said the Montford Point Marines are important to black history, and stand as a symbol of men willing to give their lives for a country that discriminated against them in the 1940s.
“If people don’t know about the history, it’s just going to fade away,” said Stallard, a former Marine who is a Vietnam veteran.
Marine Corps Reserve Lt. Col. David Slack, who presented the medal to Cooper, said the Montford Point Marines were “men who had to fight for the right to fight.” The former Marines played an important role in the nation’s Civil Rights movement, and today the military branch is an inclusive force of “one green Marine Corps,” Slack said.