Because his country called him to serve, John Chaney left a farm in Clarksburg for North Carolina in 1943 ready to prove himself as a Marine.
But Chaney faced a major hurdle — the color of his skin. Up until 1942, the U.S. Marine Corps had been all white. It was the last branch of the military to accept blacks. Chaney was among nearly 20,000 sent to segregated basic training camp at Montford Point, a facility at Camp Lejeune, between 1942 and 1949, where black Marines often suffered racism at the hands of white Marines, racism that continued when they went overseas to fight in all-black units
Patch caught up with Chaney, 92, at his home in Boyds, ahead of a ceremony honoring World War II veterans Wednesday in Silver Spring. Former Nightline anchor Ted Koppel will be the event’s host. Speakers include Congressman Chris Van Hollen and Maryland Lt. Governor Anthony Brown.
During the war, Chaney, transported ammunition as part of an all-black unit. He witnessed the hoisting of the flag at Iwo Jima, but never fought in combat. Unlike the Tuskegee Airmen, the Montford Point Marines, as they are sometimes called, didn’t have a prominent place in history. But there have been recent efforts to try to give the Montford Point Marines their due. In June, the surviving Montford Point Marines received the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Here is an excerpt from our interview with Chaney.
PATCH: Considering what was going on at the time of the war — the blatant racism, inequality and segregation, the fact that the Marine Corps was the last branch of the military to officially allow blacks into its ranks — how did you feel about having to serve your country?
I didn't feel bad about serving my country. But it was the way we were treated by the white Marines. That was the part that got to me. They were telling people that we had long tails — that's what they would go into these lunchrooms. If you got a long tail they'd classify you as a monkey. After we got in town, I noticed it when we first walked into this lunchroom, the women would be looking behind us. I guess they were looking to see if we had long tails.
The boot training was the hardest part of the Marine Corps because they taught you to be mean. Everything that you did, they'd be hollering at you. If one man messed up, the whole platoon would get punished. It was rough. I always thought they were putting something in our food to make us mean. I never was mean before. After I got in there, the way that we were treated, I turned out to be that way.
PATCH: How did you and your fellow soldiers bond, develop a sense of camaraderie?
We were separate. When we were on the train, we would get to those towns and we weren't allowed to eat with the white soldiers. Our captains and lieutenants had to go out and bring food back to the train to give to us.
You did feel bad then. You're serving your country, the whites are down here, but yet we can't go in there and eat together. But when it came to fighting, you had to fight together. That's real sad. You would get angry, but there was nothing you could do about it.
PATCH: What do you see as your legacy, the legacy of the first black Marines?
I really was proud to serve my country. We had so many ships in the water on the way to Iwo Jima, but the war was over two days before we got there. We sat right there on the boat and could see them raise that flag.
PATCH: We hear about the Tuskegee Airmen, and prior to them, the Buffalo Soldiers. But we don’t hear a whole lot about the Montford Point Marines. During the Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony, did you feel like you all were getting your due?
Yes, but it took so long to do it. When we got our medals, we saw four-star generals, two-star generals, majors, colonels — all African-Americans. It was a four-star general who put the medal on me. I was congratulating him, but he said, “No, we're congratulating you all because you all made the way for us.”