Wednesday, July 11, 2012
Awards and recognition are nothing new to Willie A. Haslerig, who is well-known in Walker County as a civic, church and business leader.
Some day in the near future he will receive yet another recognition, but this time it’s not just any award — it’s the Congressional Gold Medal.
“I’ve achieved a lot of things in my life and this is just part of it,” Haslerig said when asked about this latest honor. “Sometimes you think it is the highest award and then something else comes along.”
The Congressional Gold Medal is the nation’s highest civilian honor. It’s being awarded to Haslerig for his service as a Montford Point Marine.
Last fall the 112 Congress of the United States put partisan politics aside in order to recognize some of World War II’s forgotten warriors. Those senators and congressmen voted unanimously to award the Congressional Gold Medal to all the surviving Montford Point Marines. Of the nearly 20,000 who trained at Montford Point, officials estimate that fewer than 500 are still living.
On June 27, 2012, bronze replicas of the gold medal were presented to Haslerig’s comrades during ceremonies in Washington, D.C. But because the LaFayette nursing home resident’s health made travel to Marine Barracks Washington too difficult, the Marines are coming to him.
Who are the Montford Point Marines and why are they being honored?
In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the United States Marine Corps to accept blacks into their ranks. But black recruits were not allowed to train at Parris Island or San Diego. Instead, from Aug. 26, 1942, until Sept. 9, 1949, they were segregated and received basic training at Montford Point, a facility at Camp Lejeune, N.C., where black Marines were not allowed to enter unless accompanied by a white officer.
Haslerig was one of those black recruits who trained and served in the segregated military of the mid-20th century. He became a Montford Point Marine.
“I had been deferred because I was living on a farm,” said Haslerig, who was born in Chickamauga.
That status changed and in 1945; the young husband and father found himself taking a military physical in Columbus and having his papers stamped “Army.” Upon reporting for induction, Haslerig found his papers were now stamped “Navy.”
“I was then sent to Macon and told that I was going to be a Marine,” he said.
Haslerig recalled his arrival, nearly 70 years ago, at Camp Lejeune.
“We were met at the gate and sent to Montford Point,” he said. “I was about starved to death. They ran us to the chow hall but when we got there I was too tired to eat.”
Being a Marine is tough. Being among the first black Marines, serving where all officers were white and training was more rigorous than for non-black recruits, was tougher.
“We were given our general orders that first night and told to learn them by morning, but we had no lights,” Haslerig said.
Ingenuity and boxes of matches helped him learn those orders before reveille in what was to be an intense seven weeks of training, Haslerig said.
In the swampy, mosquito and snake infested Carolina lowlands, he and other recruits were versed in skills needed for combat.
“We were the infantry of the Navy,” Haslerig said.
But instead of a rifle, the young Georgian was selected by the officer in charge to help with administrative duties.
“I was a poor typist, but they gave me a chance with an old Underwood typewriter,” he recalled with a grin. “My main job was doing the duty rosters and I got even with every training officer that ever mistreated me. I was hard on them.”
From the base on the Atlantic coast, Heslerig crossed the continent and sailed across the Pacific to Hawaii, where he continued his clerical duties until war’s end.
“The whole time I stayed in Hawaii it was segregated, but not like stateside,” he said. “I was in charge of an integrated group on the ship back from Hawaii. Things were fine until we arrived. Segregation set back in as soon as we crossed into San Francisco Bay: signs said ‘coloreds’ one way and ‘whites’ one way.”
Haslerig and the Marines parted ways as quickly as possible — “I had two kids and a wife” — and he returned home to Chickamauga and the dairy business until his retirement in 1984.
For the better part of 50 years Haslerig has been a fixture of his community, raising a family, being a businessman and serving as a church and civic leader.
And throughout these years he seldom mentioned or often thought of his military service.
It was only when an article appeared last year in the Chattanooga Times Free Press that he became aware of the Congressional Gold Medal being awarded to the Montford Marines.
A daughter, Carol Newman, who lives in Philadelphia, Pa., contacted the USMC and the Montford Point Marine Association and began the process of confirming Haslerig’s military service. Another daughter and son-in-law, Joyce and Tom Harrison of Chickamauga, have collaborated on what has become a family effort to have Haslerig recognized for being among those who crossed the Armed Forces’ final color line.
It is recognition that elected and military leaders feel is overdue, as witnessed by the Congressional action and by Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James F. Amos’ remarks last August.
Gen. Amos, in a formal salute at the Marine Barracks Washington Evening Parade, said:
“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.
“My promise to you is that your story will not be forgotten. It will take its rightful place and will be forever anchored in the rich history of the United States Marine Corps.”
And Willie Haslerig, named by the Walker County Chamber of Commerce as its 2003 Citizen of the Year, a founding member and past president of the local Habitat for Humanity and who has served on local, regional and state boards in both Tennessee and Georgia, waits for yet another award.