On November 11, 2011, Congress voted to award a Congressional Gold Medal for the 20,000 black Marines of Montford Point, the first blacks to serve as Marines. I write about Staff Sgt. Elder — and my struggle to understand him — in my latest book, “Dear Father, Dear Son.”
On August 13, 2013, Col. Jason Bohm, commander, “Fighting 5th,” United States Marine Corps, Camp Pendleton, made the following remarks:
“We are honored that you joined us today to recognize the service of one of our own, Staff Sgt. Randolph Elder. …
“In the days leading up to World War II, the United States was a segregated society, in which the African-American Community faced bigotry, racial prejudice and discrimination. It was not until June 25, 1941, just five months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor thrust us into the Second World War, that President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order, No. 8802, that first opened the door for African-Americans to serve in all branches of the armed services. …
“But even with this direction, the Marine Corps was slow to embrace bringing African-Americans into its ranks. In fact, many doubted whether African-Americans would meet the high standards the Marine Corps was known for. There was little doubt how some in the Marine Corps felt about accepting these men into the corps when the commandant at the time stated, ‘The Negro race has every opportunity now to satisfy its aspirations for combat in the army, a very much larger organization than the Navy or Marine Corps. And their desire to enter the naval service is largely, I think, to break into a club that doesn’t want them.’
“Regardless of the commandant’s protest, our nation’s civilian leadership saw the need for equity in allowing African-Americans to serve proudly in the nation’s naval service, and announced in April, 1942, that a battalion of 900 African-Americans would be formed in the Marine Corps once suitable training sites were established. The battalion would be organized into a composite defense battalion, consisting of coastal defense artillery, antiaircraft artillery, tanks and infantry, to defend overseas bases like those of Wake, Johnston and Midway Islands they had already seen action against Japanese forces in the opening salvos of World War II. …
“The first recruits were used to build the now-famous camp of wooden huts (at Montford Point, near what soon became known as Camp Lejeune), so others could follow and begin their training. Soon they will all be braving a variety of threats — ranging from the swagger sticks of tough drill instructors to the snakes, mosquitoes and bears that inhabited the area. As the camp was built, the call went out and the country’s African-American communities responded.
“Recruits start to pile in, from the North and from the South, from all walks of life. They came for different reasons. Some wanted the challenge of being a Marine. Some wanted to earn a living. But they all came to serve their country honorably, regardless of still being treated like second-class citizens. Randolph Elder was one of these men. …
“(He) was born in Athens, Georgia, in 1915. And he grew up during the Great Depression. He would work a number of odd jobs, such as being a bellboy, a shoe-shiner, a valet and a cook before becoming a porter on the railroad and getting his first taste of California. Like many Americans at the outbreak of World War II, Randolph Elder chose to serve his country. But he wouldn’t settle for any service. He wanted to be one of the best. Although he knew it would be challenging, Randolph enlisted in the Marine Corps and would be sent to Montford Point, where he would earn the title of Marine.
“Based on past job experience, Pvt. Elder, at the time, was made a cook, a job critically important to the Marine Corps — because any Marine will tell you that there are two things you don’t mess with: a Marine’s pay and his chow. Living up to the ethos of the corps, of every Marine’s a rifleman and a fighter — regardless of what their primary job is — Pvt. Elder was trained for combat and sent overseas to the Pacific theater to prepare for the expected invasion of Japan. He would spend his time in the Pacific on the island of Guam, and performed so well he was promoted four times, attaining the rank of staff sergeant.
“Having gone through a time of racism and bigotry, Randolph Elder overcame. He would raise his sons to understand that the sky’s the limit, and they should follow their dreams. But his legacy goes beyond that of his immediate family. The hard work, superior performance and professionalism of Staff Sgt. Elder and his fellow Montford Point Marines broke down the barriers and opened the doors to future generations of African-Americans, resulting in a Marine Corps today in which one is judged on the value they bring to the table, not by their race, color or gender.”
COPYRIGHT 2015 LAURENCE A. ELDER
Larry Elder is a best-selling author and radio talk-show host. To find out more about Larry Elder, or become an “Elderado,” visit www.LarryElder.com. Follow Larry on Twitter @larryelder.