Theodore Britton, at his Midtown Atlanta home, Friday, June 22, 2012
Next week, an 86-year-old Atlanta man will stand in the U.S. Capitol with fellow Marines from World War II, and they'll receive the Congressional Gold Medal for their courage and patriotism and trail-blazing service.
It is a long-overdue salute from the nation they love.
The nation that once refused to salute them. ____________________
ATLANTA -- At his Midtown Atlanta home -- "That's me, down there on Guadalcanal. In 1944." -- Theodore Britton, 86, smiles and holds up a black-and-white photograph that shows him in the U.S. Marine Corps at age 18.
And he remembers that 18-year-old Marine with clarity and, now, even with humor. And he laughs in delight.
At 18, he had arrived: he was one of the nation's best, he was among "The Few, The Proud."
But Theodore Britton of Atlanta was, back then, during World War II, also part of an even more select group of Marines.
He was one the nation's first African American Marines.
He and the other recruits were, Yes, trailblazing, and No, not welcome.
"The Marine Corps had a stated policy that it simply did not want blacks in the Marine Corps," Britton explains, as a matter of historical fact.
The Marine Corps was the last branch of the service to admit blacks, and did so only because the wartime President, Franklin Roosevelt, ordered it to do so.
Why did he choose the Marines?
"It was new, a pioneering thing. And I'm always interested in covering new ground."
He was eager to serve.
Britton soon found out where he'd be going for his training. The Marines had constructed a segregated training facility at Montford Point, North Carolina specifically for African American recruits -- eventually 20,000 men trained there.
And he soon found out that the "Montford Point Marines," as they were called, were not being allowed to serve in battle, were not being allowed to fight with whites, and were not being allowed to become officers no matter how deserving.
Instead, at first, African American Marines served in support units, only.
"It was the Navy policy that no black person would ever be in command of a white person," Britton said. "The white person of lower rank would be in charge."
Such were the times that no whites ever saluted a Montford Point Marine.
Defense Department photos from early in the war show Montford Point Marines in their uniforms working in offices, sitting at typewriters, standing at file cabinets; later photos show them near the front lines managing fuel and supplies.
As Britton and others from his age group made it to the Pacific Theater, "The fighting intensified and fellows had to get on the battlefront."
Montford Point Marines were beginning to hit the beaches with the rest of the U.S. Armed Forces.
"Marine leaders were becoming a lot more educated and a lot more discerning. It made no sense for a man, a black Marine, holding an Expert Rifleman's badge, to be bringing ammunition to a gentleman who didn't qualify as a marksman on the rifle range. I mean, it doesn't make sense at all. But that's the way it was. And eventually we were right in the front lines with everybody else."
And the Commandant quickly changed his mind about the Montford Point Marines.
"And he said they're no longer on trial. They're Marines, period. And he gave them the highest Navy commendation for combat. So from that point on the fellows were fighting all the way up to Iwo Jima."
It was President Harry Truman who issued the order desegregating the military. Britton fulfilled all the requirements for a commission. He tried to serve in Korea. But his commission was denied.
Theodore Britton went on to successful careers in the private sector -- in banking and finance -- and in government, ultimately serving as U.S. Ambassador to Barbados and Grenada. He has remained active in veterans groups and programs.
His Marine service prepared him well for life, he says, and he displays no trace of bitterness, only pride and thankfulness that he was able to be part of the Marine Corps at a critical period when it was emerging from one era to another, which, to him, means he's part of the Marines' proud and evolving history and legacy.
In 2011, both the U.S. House and U.S. Senate unanimously passed legislation to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the Montford Point Marines. On November 11, the Commander in Chief, President Barack Obama, signed the legislation into law.
So the Legislative and Executive Branches are officially saluting the Montford Point Marines, saluting them for who they are and what they did -- for fighting segregation in the Marines of their times, in order to fight for their country overseas.
On June 27, Ambassador Britton and some 450 other Montford Point Marines -- about a dozen of them from Metro Atlanta -- will be at the U.S. Capitol for the award ceremony.
"I heard of one man who is checking out of a hospice to be there. Others are coming down from nursing homes. They just want to be there. It's a comaraderie. We go about saying 'Semper Fidelis.' Thanks to the country for being so generous and thoughtful even though it's 70 years later."
He's thanking the nation that is offering its grateful salute to him and his fellow trailblazers.
He especially thanks the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General James F. Amos, and describes in detail all that Gen. Amos has personally done to honor the Montford Point Marines and bring about this recognition.
And Ambassador Britton, himself, who was not allowed to be an officer so long ago, has long since earned, as a result of both his military and civilian service to the country he loves, the equivalent rank of a three star general.
Link: Montford Point Marine Association