GRAND RAPIDS (WZZM) - Nearly seven decades after they helped the U.S. and its allies prevail in World War II, four local Marines are being honored for their efforts. U.S. Senator Carl Levin (D) Mich. was in Grand Rapids Wednesday to present the Congressional Gold Medal to members of the nation's first African American Marines.
"As chairman of the Armed Services Committee it is very important to me personally that I be here just to be in their presence," said Levin.
In June, the Montford Point Marines were awarded the medal at a ceremony in Washington D.C. But two local recipients, Reuben Smart and Bobby Jones, could not make that trip. So Sen. Levin came to Grand Rapids to honor them. Two other men, David King and Fred Johnson, Sr. also received the award posthumously.
"Clearly it is long overdue," said Levin. "First of all they fought. We needed their courage and bravery not just in World War II, but we needed the African American community to support our efforts in the Korean war and the wars that followed. That support has been forthcoming even though there was a long way to go in terms of equal treatment."
Smartt, Jones, King and Johnson were 20,000 African American marines that passed through the segregated boot camp in North Carolina during the 1940's. About 13,000 of them served overseas during World War II. Most of served on the front lines and helped the US defeat Hitler and a Nazi Germany.
"These men were serving in the Marine Crops at a time when they were denied justice back home and they still gave their time and blood and sweat to help others even though they were not getting the same rights at home," said US Attorney Western District, Patrick Miles, Jr. who hosted the Grand Rapids ceremony.
Levin agreed. "They were treated as second class citizens they loved their country so much that they fought for it and were willing to die for it and that is really and ultimate test of love," he said.
The men's service and sacrifice is widely accepted as helping pave the way for minorities and women to be accepted and included in the United States Armed Forces.
"I knew my dad was a marine but I had no idea he was involved with integrating the Marine corps," said Gayle King of her father David. "I mean he didn't talk about those things. He talked about being a marine and being very proud but he never talked about being with the first group that integrated the Marine Corps."
At the end of the war all but 1,500 of the Montford Marines were discharged from service. Most went back to their communities and continued to break barriers and lead through example
"My dad was the only black fire-fighter in Grand Rapids for 30 years. He suffered a lot of racial injustice initially being a fire fighter. He ever harbored any bitterness or resentment. He won out because so many of the local fire fighters became his friends and colleagues and he was very beloved," said King whose father died in 2003. "If he were here today he would be so proud and so honored. They didn't talk about the injustices they just traced ahead all of these men."
King has a personal connection to all of the men and says it was a tremendous honor to witness history being made.
"Bobby Jones, his first wife was my mother's sister. So he was Uncle Bobby. Fred Johnson we knew him as Uncle Fred and Reuben Smartt was our junior high school and high school teacher and counselor at South High school," she said. "He is a special man."
Reuben Smartt, 87, has been highly revered in the Grand Rapids community for decades. An educator at South High School of many years and member of the Negro Baseball League, Smartt was bombarded with people offering appreciation and congratulations following the ceremony.
When asked what lessons can be learned from his service and that of other men like him he simply said, "Have patience, patience. Aint nothing going to change over night."
Smart says they endured some hard times but believes the hard work and code of honor, "Semper Fidelis," (Always Faithful) paid off.
"Yeah, yeah. It was worth it. Oh yeah," said Smartt.