A Pioneering Black Marine Recalls Iwo Jima

The 86-year-old is happy the Montford Point Marines are finally getting recognition.

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Gene Doughty recalls seeing the American flag cut through the sky, bannerlike, as it was hoisted atop Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima. He was about a mile and a half away, but he recalls the sound of cheers rolling across the island.

"I was happy to see the flag go up," the 86-year-old veteran says in a telephone interview with The Root from the Bronx, N.Y. "You could hear the thunderous roar of the men across the tiny island. They threw off their helmets and threw down their weapons. Some thought it meant the war was over. They were wrong. It was just the beginning. They were commanded to pick up their weapons. We learned later that the Japanese were hiding in caves."

Doughty was just 20 years old when he landed on Iwo Jima on Feb. 19, 1945, during World War II. His story is significant because he was one of the first blacks to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps. He was part of the Montford Point Marines, which was made up of about 20,000 men who trained at Camp Lejeune, N.C., from 1942 to 1949, when the U.S. military was segregated.

While the stories of these extraordinary men are as wide and varied as those of the Tuskegee Airmen and the U.S. Army buffalo soldiers, they have received less notoriety. Who knows why? Maybe they lacked the glitz and glam of flyboys or the rugged rough-and-tumble exterior of buffalo soldiers.

But none of that matters now. Congress voted in October to confer a long-overdue Congressional Gold Medal on the Montford Point Marines. Actually, none of it ever mattered to Doughty, whose demeanor is as humble as it is strong and confident. He says that he always viewed the Tuskegee Airmen, whose story is most recently featured in the newly released George Lucas film Red Tails, as brothers and comrades-in-arms.

"I feel equal with some of the Tuskegee Airmen even though they are a little more professional than we are as Marines," he says. "We're getting almost the same award. Their award was a presidential award, whereas we are getting the Congressional Medal. We are honored."

The stoic Marine sergeant, who suffers from osteoporosis and uses a walker to get around, is just happy to be acknowledged for his work, he says. It is unclear just how many African Americans served with him because poor records were kept, he says.

"We are waiting for the ceremony," he says, sounding like a kid at Christmas. "It will be a big ceremony. They are going to honor the first black Marines. Isn't that something? I can't describe how happy we are."

The reason it took so long for the men to be honored can be boiled down to one explanation: discrimination. Just ask Sen. Kay R. Hagan (D-N.C.), who led the bipartisan effort to pass the measure to honor the men. She called them trailblazers.

Doughty, a native of Stamford, Conn., who grew up in Harlem, N.Y., says discrimination in the military was just as bad as it was in home. "Black soldiers were isolated from the rest the troops," he says. "We had to stick together. When it came to eating and sleeping, it was all segregated. But when we went onto the battlefield, we all operated as one."