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Georgia man talks about being one of first black Marines

When he got his draft card in 1943, Thomas Mosley faced the same fears and uncertainty as thousands of other men across the country.

He would be leaving home for the first time in time his life and could soon be sent to an unknown place with bullets flying at him. But he had an additional challenge most of the others didn't.

Mosley was among the first black men to serve in the Marines, in a unit known today as the Montford Point Marines. They trained at Montford Point, a segregated camp next to Camp Lejeune, N.C. They were so little trusted they couldn't set foot on Camp Lejeune unless they were escorted by a white officer.

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But despite the discrimination they faced, Mosley said they were determined to succeed.

"We were supposed to be citizens and not have different policies for people, but these men were determined to be free, and whatever conditions they were in, they still joined in and did whatever job they had to do," Mosley said as he sat in his Macon home last week with his Congressional Gold Medal hung around his neck.

He was among about 400 Montford Point Marines to receive the honor in June in recognition of their ground-breaking service. Like the better-known Tuskegee Airmen and Buffalo Soldiers, they helped pave the way for the eventual full integration of the military.

Mosley is one of two Montford Point Marines known to be living in Macon. The other is Frank Johnson, often called the "mayor of Unionville" for his activism in the neighborhood. Johnson suffered a stroke in 2000 and now lives in a nursing home.

Melvin D. Ragin, who served in the Marine Corps from 1962 to 1988, is president of the local Montford Point Marine Association Chapter 35. The organization strives to educate people about the service of those trained at Montford Point from 1942 until 1949, soon after President Harry Truman in 1948 ordered the full integration of the military and the camp was closed.

"They are my heroes," Ragin said. "I spent 26 years in the Marine Corps, and I wouldn't have been able to do that if it not been for these guys. Because of the standard they set, we were able to be fully integrated into the Marine Corps."

Mosley trained to handle ammunition. He never saw combat, but he did contribute to the war effort. He was stationed near Pearl Harbor and loaded ammunition onto ships. He also unloaded injured soldiers returning from the Pacific Theater.

In boot camp, he had black drill instructors, but afterward he served under white officers. Most of them did not want the duty of commanding black troops.

After the war, however, those same officers came to their defense when some people wanted to boot blacks from the Marines entirely.

"Some of the white officers said, 'These are some of the finest Marines I've ever served with,' " Mosley said.

He was told he would be part of the force that would invade Japan, and was packed and ready to go when the U.S. dropped two nuclear bombs, forcing the Japanese to surrender.

Mosley said he regretted the loss of civilian life, but the nuclear bombing may have saved his.

"It did spare a lot of time and even death on both sides of the military," he said.

He left the Marines in 1946 and became an aircraft mechanic. In 1965, he took a job at Robins Air Force Base and retired in 1984.

Ragin said all Montford Point Marines he has met, including Mosely and Johnson, have gone on to be dedicated community servants.

Johnson's wife, Dorothy P. Johnson, said her husband's service in the Marines had everything to do with that.

"He said the Marines made him what he is," she said.

The military has long been recognized for being ahead of its time on integration and equal opportunity. When he served in Vietnam, Ragin saw firsthand how racial differences erode when bullets start flying.

"When you are dependent on somebody for your life, it doesn't matter what color somebody is," he said. "Combat makes good buddies of anybody if you are on his side."

 

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