Honor for Marine came just in time
The Free Lance-Star
Back in June, I got a handwritten note from Lawrence "Reggie" Lucas. He asked whether I might be interested in mentioning that he'd be getting some recognition for a long-ago stint in the Montford Point Marines.
He said his daughter, Cheryl Hepburn, and son-in-law, Marty, would be driving him to Washington to receive a Congressional Gold Medal for his service in the Marine Corps' first all-black unit.
The medal is the nation's highest civilian honor; George Washington was among the recipients.
I dropped by Lucas' home in Spotsylvania County for an interview a few days later. After greeting me in the driveway, he welcomed me inside and told his story of the black men who received little recognition during World War II and for long afterward.
At 88, he was articulate, with a vivid memory and a wicked sense of humor that had me wishing our two-hour visit had been longer.
Lucas grew up in segregated Fredericksburg. He shined shoes on Caroline Street in the 1930s. White boys, he recalled, "would beat me up and run me home" on a regular basis.
It was the same story on the nearby basketball court. Smiling, he said, "I'd go right back the next day and get run home again."
That was the reality of life for him then -- and later.
After graduating from Virginia State College, Lucas went to Montford Point Camp at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
He spent two months there, then he and 50 other men in his unit boarded a ship in 1943 bound for what is now Tuvalu in the South Pacific. Not long after he arrived in the war zone, Japanese planes bombed the atoll.
Lucas jumped into the nearest foxhole, which was occupied by a white Marine who pulled a pistol and ordered him out.
The Montford Marines' job was to unload ships, but Lucas got one of the better positions, operating a switchboard.
There were some white Marines, including some from Fredericksburg, who treated him kindly, he recalled. After 18 months, Lucas was back in the States. He was discharged, then in 1948 joined the Reserve and was promoted to corporal.
He was called back to active duty in 1950, expecting to go to Korea, but contracted tuberculosis and spent months in a hospital. By then he had married his wife, Francis, a longtime Spotsylvania teacher who died in 2011.
Lucas worked in a supply position at Quantico for 28 years before retiring. He also cut hair on the side, and still had a barber's chair in his garage when I stopped by to see him.
He told me that, despite the challenges, he was always proud of having served in the Marines, and that his time in the military served him well for the rest of his life.
I thought about our conversation when I learned that Lucas had died over the weekend.
I particularly remember one thing he said: "We were looked upon as not being able to do what white Marines could do. This has proved that, given the opportunity, a black person can do anything that anybody else can."