Vallejo man receives Congressional Gold Medal

July 18, 2012 8:50:35 PM PDT
A Vallejo man is just back from receiving the nation's highest civilian honor. Ironically, it's for something he and thousands of other brave pioneers did in a military that didn't want them.

"I'm still a Marine," said Luther Hendricks.

Hendricks, 87, hasn't worn the uniform since 1946, but he's still part of a special brotherhood -- an elite within the elite.

He's a Montford Point Marine -- one of the first blacks allowed to join the corps wear the uniform, but it wasn't easy.

Hendricks' first attempt to join took place soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

"I went down the next day to join and I was told they didn't take coloreds in the Marine Corps," said Hendricks.

It took an order from President Franklin Roosevelt to force the Marine Corps to accept blacks. By 1942 the first troops were in training, but not at Camp Lejeune or Parris Island with white marines. The corps built a special camp at a place called Montford Point North Carolina -- hence the name. Hendricks was accepted in 1943.

"The conditions were terrible. We had barracks for maybe 42-50 people with a stove in the middle. That's the only heat you had," said Hendricks.

The training was tough, the drill instructors were tougher, but they were black. The officers were all white and in the beginning they called the young trainees "you people," but not at the end.

"Commanding officers said 'You're not 'you people' anymore, you're Marines' and we knew we had it made," said Hendricks.

If having it made meant combat duty in some of the bloodiest fighting in the Pacific -- Guam, Iwo Jima, Okinawa. And when the war was over, Hendricks mustered out and worked as an electrician among other jobs until he retired, never expecting to hear about the Montford Point Marines again.

That is until he found out that they would be receiving the Congressional Gold Medal -- the nation's highest civilian honor for blazing a trail that others would follow, made even sweeter by the medal being placed around his neck by a black lieutenant general.

"To see, where I came from as a lowly corporal, to see a general or major wearing the uniform -- it's beautiful," said Hendricks.

Between 1942 and 1949, 20,000 Marines went through Montford Point, most of them in segregated units until President Truman signed the order integrating the military.

Load Comments