It took nearly seven decades, but the valiant efforts of 20,000 African American soldiers during World War II have finally been recognized. On June 27, the Montford Point Marines were awarded the 2011 Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor, at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. The next day, they were guests of honor at a parade at the Washington Marine Barracks.
Among the nearly 400 surviving members attending the events was 86-year-old Wallace C. Holland, Jr. a Princeton native and a graduate of Princeton High School. A retired corrections officer, Mr. Holland now lives in Lawrenceville. His three sons accompanied him to the ceremonies.
“It was a dream come true,” he said last week. “I have been looking forward to recognition of the Montford Point Marines’ service, so when we received word that they were going to award the medal, I thought it was very well of them.”
It was in 1942 that President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the U.S. Marines to integrate by recruiting African American men. From all over the nation, young men like Mr. Holland traveled to North Carolina, expecting to be stationed with white recruits at Camp Lejeune. Instead, they were sent to Camp Montford Point, which was kept separate.
“I found out that the camp we were at was segregated when I got there,” Mr. Holland recalled. “I didn’t know anything about it. I thought we’d be with all the other individuals, white or black, who were in the Marines, at Camp Lejeune.”
Camp Montford Point was a far cry from Camp Lejeune. “We went through the same basic training, but we struggled with the disadvantages we had,” Mr. Holland says. “We didn’t have the same kind of equipment to train with, or type of quarters. We were in small huts. We almost froze to death in the winter. We had to take cold showers. But we made the best of it. I have no ill feelings about it. It was an experience for me.”
Mr. Holland’s time in the service took him overseas, allowing him to see parts of the world he had never expected to visit. As part of an ammunition company, he was shipped out in the fall of 1944. “We were on our way from Bayonne, New Jersey, and we spent time in the Panama Canal Zone, going through the locks,” he said. “On the other side, we stopped at Bora Bora, and then they took us to a place in the Solomon Islands, where we took care of an ammunition dump. We had to salvage the ammunition, take it on barges, and dump it.”
Next was Guadalcanal, where they had to salvage and clean up battle-scarred areas. “They had ammunition all over the ground,” said Mr. Wallace, who brought back two Japanese shells. “The stench was still there.”
Mr. Wallace and other Marines then began their journey home. “They brought us back to Pearl Harbor, where it all started,” he said. “That was an experience for me. From there they brought us back on an aircraft carrier to San Francisco, then back to Camp Lejeune, and then back home.”
The Montford camp closed in 1949. Until last month, the Montford Point Marines did not receive the kind of recognition given to their counterparts, the Tuskegee Airmen, who integrated the Army Air Corps the same year. The gold medal resolution passed by Congress last October was sponsored by Congresswoman Corrine Brown, D-Florida, and unanimously approved by the House and Senate. On November 23, 2011, President Barack Obama signed the bill into law.
For Mr. Holland’s sons, the award ceremonies were especially meaningful. “I was so proud of him and of all these men,” said Larry Irving, who is Mr. Holland’s stepson. “It was so moving.”
Mr. Irving traveled from his home in Indiana to attend last month’s festivities. Mr. Holland’s sons Wallace Holland III, of Trenton, and Kevin Holland, of Washington, were also on hand.
The first ceremony, in which the gold medal was awarded to the Montford Point Marine Association, was held at the Capitol. The second ceremony was held at the Marine Barracks. Along with his fellow veterans, Mr. Holland was given a bronze medal that was a replica of the gold medal awarded to the Montford Point Marine Association. Since the first Congressional Gold Medal was given to George Washington in 1776, it has been presented 150 times to a broad range of individuals and organizations including actors, authors, explorers, athletes, and public servants.
“The Commandant put the medal around our necks,” Mr. Holland said. “They had a parade. A detachment of Marines marched across the field after they gave us the medals. It was 95 degrees, and four men passed out. But I didn’t have a problem at all. Like I said before, it was a dream come true.”