The Montford Point Marines have been given a long overdue thank you including a brave man from here in Cleveland. The Montford Point Marines helped change the face of the American military.
James Willis, 86, is a Cleveland institution. He is a community leader who has been practicing law for nearly 60 years. But in 1944, as a tough 18 year old, he became one of the first African Americans to join the Marines.
"I wrote my mother. I said if you hear the war's over and you hear there's only one Marine left coming home that's me. She never worried about me again. That's a true story."
With the beginning of World War II, President Roosevelt ordered the integration of all government agencies, including the military. But Black marines were not allowed to train at the Corp's legendary Parris Island facility. They were sent instead to the Montford Point camp in Jacksonville, North Carolina.
Between 1942 and 1949, the year the camp was closed, 19,000 African American Marines trained at Montford Point. Thirteen thousand of them served in World War II, including James Willis, but for years, the history and the impact of the trailblazers of Montford Point was forgotten.
"When they gave the medal to the Tuskegee Airmen and the Buffalo Soldiers I used to say, what about the Marines. That used to bother me. It really did."
James Willis and the 366 other remaining Montford Point veterans finally got their due. In the US Capitol building, each received The Congressional Gold Medal, the nation's highest civilian honor.
The Montford Point Marines will also be honored with a parade in Washington D.C.