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Fight On Two Fronts

They sent him to a segregated boot camp, relegated him to a support role hauling ammunition, and refused to let him fight. But Ambrose Anderson Jr. never considered himself anything less than a full-fledged U.S. Marine. “I wouldn’t want to go through boot camp again,’’ says Anderson, 86, a retired truck mechanic in Gloversville, New York. “But I am proud to be a Marine.’’

Now the Marine Corps and the United States government are finally returning the sentiment. The Senate and the House of Representatives have awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the so-called Montford Point Marines— Anderson and the other 20,000 black Marines who integrated the service branch from 1942 through 1949. They earned their nickname from the training camp they passed through at Montford Point, North Carolina.

The Marine Corps itself recently honored the aging veterans with a nighttime parade at the historic Marine Barracks in Washington, D.C., and is adding their exploits to the service history it teaches recruits and young officers. “Every Marine from private to general will know the history of those men who crossed the threshold to fight not only the enemy they were soon to know overseas, but the enemy of racism and segregation in their own country,” Marine Corps Commandant James Amos said at the ceremony.

Amos became intrigued with the Montford Point Marines, who served in support roles, after meeting some of them at Marine gatherings. “The more he learned, the more he realized the Marine Corps had not embraced this part of its history,” Marine spokesman Major Joseph Plenzler said. By contrast, the army has long celebrated the Buffalo Soldiers—a black cavalry unit that served in the West after the Civil War. And the air force has claimed the renowned Tuskegee Airmen, who flew combat missions in World War II.

A handful of blacks served in the Continental Marines during the Revolutionary War. But overall the Marines were far slower than the U.S. Army and Navy to accept blacks into their ranks. The insular Marines reacted with near-terror to government orders to integrate in 1941. Major General Thomas Holcomb, then the Marine commandant, declared, “If it were a question of having a Marine Corps of 5,000 whites or 250,000 Negroes, I would rather have the whites.”

Anderson, a football star at an integrated high school in Gloversville, was drafted into the Navy and put his hand up when the Marines asked for volunteers. He didn’t know what he was getting into.

He went south with white Marine recruits from his area. When they reached Washington, D.C., Anderson was ordered to the back of the train. It was his first experience with racial segregation. Then he was separated from his white friends for good. They went off to Parris Island, South Carolina, while he was shipped to a segregated camp at Montford Point, carved out of what is now Camp Lejeune.

Anderson made it through basic training, but he found Jim Crow restrictions suffocating during his off-duty hours. The Montford Point Marines were confined to the black sections of town when out on liberty. Even in Hawaii, where he went for more training en route to the Pacific, Anderson recalls that the black Marines were isolated and discouraged from socializing.

Though it was not part of their assigned duty, the Montford Point Marines sometimes got involved in combat. After Anderson arrived at Iwo Jima in February 1945, kamikazes promptly attacked his ship. Anderson fed ammunition to a gunner trying to shoot down the Japanese planes. When he came ashore, he saw carnage. He noticed a wounded white Marine being treated by a black from Montford Point. Anderson spent the next few weeks on Iwo Jima, taking refuge in foxholes as bullets passed overhead. In March, the embattled Japanese launched a counterattack, driving back U.S. forces. Two black Marines— privates James Whitlock and James Davis—helped stop the assault and were later awarded the Bronze Star for their heroic achievement.

Retired since 1986, Anderson is delighted with the recognition the Montford Point Marines are belatedly receiving, and is proud of his time as a Marine. “We did what we had to do,’’ he said.

The War, One Tweet at a Time

An Oxford University history graduate is squeezing the story of World War II into hundreds of 140-character Twitter messages. As many as 40 times a day, Alwyn Collinson, 24, posts a minidispatch on what was happening as the war unfolded decades earlier. He tries to tailor his “tweets” to the very hour when the events occurred.

The experiment in history-by-tweet has generated an enthusiastic following. Collinson’s @RealTimeWWII has attracted more than 171,000 followers and is translated into Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, and Russian.

“I’m hoping to use Twitter to help bring the past to life, helping people understand the past as people at the time saw it, without the benefit of hindsight,” Collinson told the Telegraph newspaper.

Collinson, who works in the marketing department for a magazine in Oxford, had been casting about for a Twitter project that would capture the public’s imagination. His brainstorm: tweet World War II in its entirety. His first tweet, which went out August 31, 2011—exactly 72 years after the Nazis set in motion the invasion of Poland—reads: “SS troops dressed as Poles are attacking radio transmitter in Gleiwitz, to provide pretext for Germany to attack Poland.” More recent tweets, from December 6, appear above.

Collinson initially relied on respected books for information, but his followers have directed him to more obscure sources, including family diaries. Conventional historians are impressed. “People in the past weren’t living in the past, they were living in their own present,” Yale University historian Timothy Snyder told the New York Times. “These kinds of tweets restore to the past the authentically confusing character of the present.”

A Mountain Keepsake

An Italian villager named Bruno Bernardoni was testing his new metal detector last year when he discovered what he thought was a dog collar, buried a foot underground near Iola in northern Italy. The object turned out to be a bracelet lost 66 years earlier by an American ski trooper named Jim Turck, who fought with the 10th Mountain Division. The bracelet was a gift from Turck’s mother, who had inscribed it with his name, serial number, and “Love, Mother.” It apparently slipped off Turck’s wrist as he was fighting in Italy’s Apennine Mountains in 1945.

Bernardoni enlisted his niece, who speaks English, to help track down the veteran. Their search led them to the 10th Mountain Division Foundation in Lakewood, Colorado, which helped them find Turck, a retired Long Island real estate developer, at his home in South Carolina.

Bernardoni mailed the bracelet to Turck.“It’s unblievable,” Turck said after receiving the bracelet. “After 66 years underground, it is in relatively good condition.” Turck thanked Bernardoni by e-mail and sent him a copy of Soldiers on Skis: A Pictorial Memoir of the 10th Mountain Division. He also invited the Italian to visit him, but that won’t be possible: Turck died on November 19, 2011.

Belated Bronze Stars

Forty Japanese American veterans received long-delayed Bronze Stars for their combat service during World War II, in a ceremony last November 1 at a hotel in Washington, D.C. The awards were overdue, delayed by botched paperwork. Army Chief of Staff Raymond Odierno praised the veterans for serving with distinction in Italy and France—even though in many cases their families back home were locked in internment camps. “What’s incredible to me is that many of them did not allow that grave injustice of the internment to stand in their way,” Odierno said. “They remained steadfast in their commitment to their country, and volunteered to serve a nation in combat— a selfless act of devotion.”


Originally published in the April 2012 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.