Va. lawmaker meets with Montford Point Marines
Thomas Byrdsong left his Newport News foster home when he was 18 years old to take a military test in Richmond, figuring he'd be back the same day.
He didn't come home again for nearly a decade.
Byrdsong found out later that because his score that day in 1943 was high enough, he'd been given the choice of which service he wanted to join.
He had never seen a black Marine. But upon hearing that he could be one, that's what he chose.
To his dismay, the recruiters put him on a train south the very same day.
"They packed us in as if we were cows," he recalled. "All the seats were taken up. People were sitting on the floor. And the train ran all night long."
Eventually, the men landed at Montford Point, a segregated training ground at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. Thus began Byrdsong's induction into the Montford Point Marines - the first blacks to serve in a reluctant Marine Corps. Over a nine-year span, 20,000 men endured segregated, sometimes brutal training under white officers with little room for promotion.
And then, after some died at war and others came home to build their lives, their service was all but forgotten.
It remained that way for more than 60 years until last June, when the surviving Montford Point Marines were given the nation's highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal. Since then, attention is being showered on the men, many in the last years of their lives.
"I have met a lot of people that the Marine Corps really destroyed," Byrdsong, 88, said at a luncheon in Virginia Beach. "All white officers, and the NCOs (non-commissioned officers) were black. And some of the officers didn't have a mentionable opinion of black people. You can imagine what it was like, working with them day in and day out."
"There are things that happen to you in this world that you have no control of," Byrdsong added. "What generally enables you to move ahead is how you let those disadvantages bother you. In my case, I wasn't going to let it upset the apple cart."
On Friday, Republican Rep. Scott Rigell hosted lunch for the Tidewater chapter of the Montford Point Marine Association to pay tribute.
Rigell is a former Marine, and his father fought at Iwo Jima.
He said he wanted to express his appreciation for the valor the men showed during the days when the country struggled to integrate.
The congressman read the opening passage of the Declaration of Independence:
" 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.' You fought for your country at a time when the meaning of that was not evident yet," Rigell told his audience.
Devon Smith, vice president of the chapter and a black Marine with two young children, said he never knew about the Montford Point Marines when he was growing up, and now he wants to preserve their story for future generations.
"Thanks to them for breaking down the door," he said. "I definitely wouldn't be here if it wasn't for them."
Byrdsong came home from the Pacific after World War II and left the Marines. He wanted to take advantage of the GI Bill and finally get his high school diploma.
But the high school kids were shooting spitballs, he recalled.
So he approached the president of the Norfolk Division of Virginia State College - now Norfolk State University - and asked to be allowed to attend.
The dean made a deal with Byrdsong: get his equivalency degree, and maintain at least a C average. Byrdsong did better - he made the honor roll- and the two men became lifelong friends, he said.
He went on to study at Howard University, where he got a degree in aeronautical engineering, and returned home to work at NASA's research facility in Hampton.
Nine years after leaving for what he thought was a day trip, Byrdsong finally came home for good.
The Montford Point Marines "really served to indoctrinate me in the world I had to live in," Byrdsong said. "The time I spent there rewarded me. It allowed me to have six years of training... to prepare for a profession that there's no way in the world I would have known about if I hadn't joined the Marines."
Distributed by MCT Information Services