ST. LOUIS - Almost 60 years after they walked out of their racially segregated boot camp and into World War II, three St. Louis Marines have been awarded one of the nation’s highest honors.
Yolande Latham, 86, Godfrey Wilson, 86, and James Wilkes, 89, were recognized with the Congressional Gold Medal at a ceremony Saturday afternoon, joining some 300 of their fellow servicemen who were similarly honored in Washington last year. Wilkes said he was elated to receive the medal.
The men were among the nearly 20,000 Marines who entered the service via a blacks-only military training center, called Montford Point, in North Carolina, that operated from 1942 to 1949. At the time, they trained and fought separately from other servicemen, despite facing the same dangers and sacrifices.
In 2011, after a long congressional push, President Barack Obama signed into law a bill, giving all the men — who have become known as the Montford Point Marines — some long-delayed recognition.
“While they were defending freedom, and saving the world from fascism in World War II, these three brave Americans and their courageous comrades were also fighting a battle for equality and full citizenship for African-Americans,” U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay said at the ceremony.
At the Capitol last June, four Montford Pointers from Missouri and 17 from Illinois were among the 370 or so Marines awarded the medal. Last fall, another Illinois man was given the award in his hometown of Jacksonville, about 100 miles north of St. Louis.
The Marine Corps estimated last year that roughly 500 Montford Pointers were still alive. The process of finding the remaining men is ongoing, Clay said, but hampered by incomplete records, poor health and the decades since the men left the armed services. Clay said he hoped his office could track down more Montford Pointers in this area and honor them in future ceremonies.
“When you think about the bravery and valor and perseverance,” Clay said. “They wanted to be Marines so badly, they went through all the racism and humiliation to do it.”
Saturday’s award presentation was limited slightly by a giant snowstorm on the East Coast, which snarled air traffic and prevented two of the medals from reaching St. Louis. (Only Wilkes received the physical medal.) Clay said, however, that he would go to the men’s homes in the coming days to hang the medals around their necks.
The lack of the symbolic medal didn’t seem to matter to Wilson or Latham, though — and neither, they said, did entering a segregated Marines as young men, knowing they’d face racism and unequal status.
“I went in,” Latham said, “because my country was asking.”