STILL WAITING AFTER ALL THESE YEARSVicksburg Marine vet holding out for WWII medal

Published 11:30 am Friday, September 28, 2012

When about 400 of the first black U.S. Marine Corps veterans received Congressional Gold Medals in June, George Long of Vicksburg was at home in his wheelchair.

“I wasn’t going to Washington, D.C.,” said Long, who is 85. “That would have taken money out of my pocket.”

Long and those who received the nation’s highest civilian honor served together during World War II at Montford Point at Camp Lejeune, N.C., shortly after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a decree allowing blacks to enter the military.

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Many of the surviving Montford Point Marines scattered across the country were not able to travel to the Capitol for the ceremony and have yet to receive their medals. So when “Semper Fi” magazine declared “At Last!” in 72-point type for its most recent cover story about the historic group of black troops, Long and others were still waiting.

Long’s friend and fellow Marine Corps veteran Wardell Wince of Vicksburg decided to lobby Washington to have the medal shipped to Vicksburg and presented with full honors to Long. No date has yet been set for a presentation for Long, the only Montford Marine in Vicksburg and possibly the only one in Mississippi.

“I want to make sure he gets his,” Wince said. “If I didn’t think he deserved it, I wouldn’t be pushing for it like that.”

The Montford Point Marines suffered through hardships that seem unfathomable today, so each of them deserves recognition for his service, Wince said.

“A lot of those guys were treated so bad they didn’t want to talk about it for years,” Wince said.

In 1942, Long, who was 16, lied about his age to join the military. He didn’t know what the Marine Corps was or what it would have him do, but he needed a steady paycheck.

Finding a job in Vicksburg “was out of the question,” Long said.

At Montford Point, all the ranking officers were white, but drill instructors including Sgt. Maj. Gilbert “Hashmark” Johnson were black, Long said. Johnson was stern, tough and a good leader, Long said. Johnson also was often at odds with the white leadership.

“They wanted to fight him,” Long said. “But that boy was a karate master.”

Johnson was so influential that Montford Point was renamed in his honor in 1974, two years after his death.

The black Marines were trained, given menial tasks and not allowed to interact with white troops, Long said. His assignment with the most responsibility was guarding Japanese prisoners of war after the Battle of Iwo Jima, he said. Mostly work involved sweeping or cleaning.

“We were so segregated at that time that I wasn’t even recognized as a soldier,” Long said.

When Long returned from his three years in the Marine Corps, little had changed. Black soldiers were not allowed to serve alongside their white counterparts until 1951. In North Carolina, the Montford Point Marines encountered racism, but Long recalls feeling at home in a few towns.

“There were certain groups that would treat us real nice and would consider us Marines,” he said.