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."
During the Battle of Iwo Jima, he served as squad leader of the 36th Depot Company and spent 32 consecutive days on the island. Black Marines either worked in a depot or ammunition company, he recalls.
But a handful worked on defense battalions, handling specialized equipment. Depot companies worked loading ships, warehouses, anywhere where there was an assignment, he recalls. He said they also stood sentry during lulls, but there were very few lulls on Iwo Jima. There were fierce battles going on all day, he says.
"I served as a squad leader of a group of about 10 men who were ambushed by a fierce number of Japanese shortly after we arrived," he says. "I can't begin to tell you the heroics that went on. It was hard to see at night. It was so dark. I know of two men on my squad that just fired. All I could see was gunfire. I couldn't see people or men.
"It was just a matter of firing wherever we saw a flash. We were hoping by all means that we would not hit our own men. It does happen in fierce battles like this, especially when you can't see the enemy. Two of my men earned the bronze star. They got those awards later on. One can't begin to describe how gung ho these guys were. It was the enemy who had to be destroyed."
Doughty, who enlisted in the Marines at 18, earned a bachelor's degree from City College of the City University of New York after retiring from the military in 1946. He then went on to work as a manager of a department store for several years before retiring. Since then he has worked with the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation and serves as president emeritus of the Montford Point Marine Association. He is married and has two children.
Reflecting on his service in the Marine Corps, Doughty says he is proud of his work and that of his comrades. "There were so many heroics by black Marines," he recalls. "We participated in every battle except for one in the Pacific, and there were times when we had to really be alert in case the enemy attacked.
"But I can't tell you how much we are looking forward to receiving the Gold Medal after all of these years," he continues. "We are just so grateful. When the day comes, it will be a hump day for those of us who are able to survive."
Lynette Holloway is a contributing editor at The Root.