When he was discharged from the U.S. Marine Corps in 1946, Otis Stewart was homesick to get back to Baton Rouge and rarely thought much about the three years he’d spent in that branch of the military.
That changed when his grandson, who lives in New Orleans, heard an advertisement several months ago: The Marine Corps was looking for Marines still living who had trained at Montford Point.
Stewart, 91, fit that description. He is one of a few hundred surviving Marines out of the 20,000 men who served as Montford Pointers.
Located in rural North Carolina, five miles from the better-known Marine Camp Lejeune, Montford Point was a special camp built to train black Marines, while white Marines trained separately at Camp Lejeune.
Unlike better-known black military units such as the Tuskegee Airmen of the U.S. Army Air Force and the U.S. Army’s Buffalo Soldiers, the war efforts of the Montford Point Marines were long uncelebrated.
That changed on June 27 when about 400 retired Marines who trained at Montford Point, including Stewart, received the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Stewart was happy but surprised when he learned of the belated honor.
“I never thought I would hear any more about the Marines,” Stewart said Tuesday. “It’s been 66 years.”
Last week, Stewart, who retired from the U.S. Post Office in 1980, went to Washington, D.C., to accept the award. He was accompanied by his son, Michael, who lives in Houston. It was a “wonderful, wonderful trip,” the elder Stewart said.
Michael Stewart said that while he was growing up, his father rarely talked about his experiences as a Marine. But during the trip to Washington, the elder Stewart opened up, telling his son vivid stories.
“It’s amazing how they talk about it like it was yesterday,” Michael Stewart said. “I hope my memory is that good.”
Otis Stewart’s last trip to the nation’s capital was when he took a short leave while he was a Marine. The town is nothing like it was in the early ’40s, he said.
Stewart said he wore the medal the whole way home.
“I’m going to keep it and show it to people,” he said.
Stewart said he was drafted in May 1943, two years after President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the Marine Corps to accept black Marines, the last military branch to do so.
Stewart said he chose the Marines mainly because he preferred the uniforms they wore to those of the Navy.
When he first got off the train at Montfort Point, it looked like the farm in Port Hudson where he grew up.
While Roosevelt ordered the Marines to open its doors to black people, the Marines resisted at first by training the recruits, but not using them.
“Well, they recruited, but they didn’t have anywhere to put them because segregation was in full force,” Stewart said.
Many of the accounts about life at Montford Point paint a harsh picture, including frequent mistreatment by the white officers.
Stewart’s memories are not so bad. He said boot camp was tough, but he was in good shape after loading 100-pound bags of animal feed in a Baton Rouge warehouse. He said the white officers he served under were not overly harsh, and as the war progressed, there were more black noncommissioned officers. Stewart said he rose to the rank of sergeant by the time he left the Corps.
Montford Point Marines were not allowed to fight in combat alongside their white counterparts until the Korean War. Still, in their supporting roles in the Pacific during World War II, the black Marines were often under enemy fire while serving on Okinawa and Iwo Jima.
Stewart worked in the Motor Transport Division at the North Carolina camp, overseeing convoys and moving supplies from camp to camp. He said he was good enough at his job that he was not deployed.
“They didn’t like to change us too fast once you learned the ropes of the camp,” Stewart said.
He said he knows that some of his fellow Marines went through a lot, something he heard firsthand when he spoke to other soldiers at the June 27 ceremony.
“Some of those fellows in Washington, they had been to those places. It amazed me,” Stewart said of Marines who saw action in the Pacific.
At the ceremony, Stewart also saw a much-different military from the one he left. He saw many black Marines, some high-ranking.
“It made me feel good,” he said. “It showed me that progress is being made.”