LeRoy S. Hughes is one of the few, proud Montford Point Marines.
He’s also a Congressional Gold Medal recipient.
The 87-year-old Louisa native became one of the country’s first black Marines after President Roosevelt established a presidential directive in 1942 giving African-Americans an opportunity to be recruited into the Marine Corps.
And on June 27, Hughes, along with 428 other Montford Pointers, received the nation’s highest civilian award for outstanding perseverance and courage that inspired social change in the United States Marine Corps.
But while Hughes is honored to have his name associated with past recipients, including founding fathers, presidents, war heros and world-renowned individuals, he has mixed feelings about receiving the award.
“I accepted it with gratitude,” he said. “But it brings back some bad memories.”
Hughes was drafted in 1943 at the age of 18 and attended basic training at Montford Point Camp–a segregated facility which was located at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Approximately 20,000 African-American Marines received basic training at the facility from the time it opened in 1942 until it was deactivated by President Harry S. Truman in 1949.
“It was the first time I was exposed to the outside world,” Hughes said. “It was quite a shock.”
While the young man was accustomed to segregation in Louisa County, the military’s lack of basic services and accommodations for blacks at the military base was startling.
Hughes recalled living in cramped huts and finding simple transportation off the base was almost impossible.
“When we would go on leave, the whites boarded the buses first,” he said. “They would fill up and there wouldn’t be anymore buses left for us.”
Black Marines had to rent their own buses just to get home, he added.
Hughes’s military travels also exposed him to discrimination throughout other parts of the country.
While riding a bus through Florida, Hughes and his fellow Marines stopped at a restaurant for lunch.
They walked around to the window for blacks at the rear of the diner to place their order.
“You couldn’t even get a piece of bread in Jacksonville,” he said. “At least in Louisa they didn’t have separate windows, so you didn’t even try.”
While contending with discrimination from whites was difficult, Hughes said there was also discrimination from fellow African-American Marines.
He said that being labeled a country boy was synonymous with being ignorant.
“You didn’t want to be called that, even though we really didn’t know anything,” he said with a chuckle, adding that many of the Marines lied about coming from big cities “for their own protection.”
But Hughes made it through basic training with the country boy label and was assigned to the quartermaster’s post in Philadelphia–where he spent most of his military career.
In 1945, the young Private First Class Hughes was assigned to a post in the Pacific. He made it as far as Hawaii before he and the rest of the world received word that the Empire of Japan formally surrendered in a ceremony aboard the battleship USS Missouri.
“We were happy to know we were going home,” Hughes said.
Discharged in 1946, Hughes began searching for a job–which was difficult to come by after the war ended.
He applied with numerous law enforcement departments in New York after hearing they were giving an extra 10 points on entrance exams for veterans.
His first call came from the New York City Police Department and he took the offer out of “necessity.”
Hughes said the job was difficult even for a black officer walking a beat in Harlem.
But while making his rounds through the Manhattan neighborhood one quiet Sunday, Hughes received what he considers to be the highest honor ever bestowed upon him.
A limousine stopped at the curb where Hughes was standing and the vehicle’s passenger rolled down the window.
“Mr. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was the rector of Columbia University at the time, leaned forward and saluted me,” Hughes said. “I consider it the best thing that ever happened to me.”
For the World War II veteran, Eisenhower’s gesture outranks receiving the Congressional Gold Medal.
And although he is honored to be part of the Montford Point Marines and what they represent, he is reserved and humble about the experience.
“It’s worth celebrating I suppose,” he said. “It’s part of history now.”
On April 19, 1974, Montford Point Camp was renamed Camp Johnson, in honor of the late Sergeant Major, Gilbert H. “Hashmark” Johnson. Johnson was one of the first African- Americans to join the Corps, a Distinguished Montford Point drill instructor and a veteran of World War II and Korea. The Camp remains the only Marine Corps installation named in honor of an African-American.
For more information about the Montford Point Marines and the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony, visit www.dvidshub.net/feature/MontfordPointMarines.