Marine endured segregation, receives Congressional medal in Oak Harbor
By KATHY REED
Whidbey News Times Whidbey Crosswinds
August 31, 2012 · Updated 5:11 PM
Allen Frazier says he really doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about.
The charming 85-year-old was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal by members of the U.S. Marine Corps 4th Land and Support Battalion from Joint Base Lewis-McChord Thursday outside his Oak Harbor home.
The Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award in the nation, along with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, is awarded to those who perform an outstanding act of service to the country.
“I don’t see where I did anything special,” Frazier said. “We did things and put up with things most people in the military didn’t have to, but that was the time then.”
Frazier is one of the surviving Marines of Montford Point, a satellite section of the U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, located near Jacksonville, N.C. Montford Point was a segregated camp where African-American Marine recruits received basic training. Between 1942 and 1949, more than 20,000 men trained at Montford Point. During that time, none of the black recruits were allowed to enter the main base of Camp Lejeune unless they were accompanied by a white Marine.
“The first time I went to mass — I was the only Catholic — they had to bring a truck to take me to the main headquarters to church,” Frazier recalled. “They had to find me a separate pew in the back.”
According to Frazier, Wednesday was the only day Montford Point Marines were allowed to go to the Post Exchange to shop and they weren’t allowed to exchange merchandise if they bought the wrong thing. In order to go to see a movie at the base theater, they had to march in as a group and sit in a certain section in the back.
“To stand fire watch for Montford Point Marines was truly a fire watch,” he said. “Where the rest of the Marines had steam heat, we had three pot-bellied stoves that we had to tend to. It might sound crazy now but it wasn’t crazy at the time.”
Started at sea
When Frazier was 16 years old, he entered the Merchant Marines. Because it was during World War II, the Merchant Marines essentially served as another branch of the Armed Forces. It was a dangerous time to sail the ocean, even in a merchant vessel.
“The money was fine if you could survive,” Frazier said. “If you were on a ship that went to Europe and came back in one piece, that’s where all the bonuses came in.
“The German submarines would wait off the coast and sometimes they’d trail a merchant vessel almost all the way home and then launch a torpedo at it, even when it was empty,” he continued. “So many Allied merchant ships got blown out of the water.”
But Frazier, who laughingly admitted to making a lot of bad decisions when he was young, signed off the Merchant Marines after his third ship. Because the U.S. was at war, he had to choose to enlist in one of the Armed Forces or be drafted. He chose the Marines and was sent to Montford Point.
“For a kid like me, born in New Jersey, having to put up with all this business was really something,” he said.
After two years in the Marine Corps, Frazier got out and went to school, getting an associates degree. Then he went back to the Marines and went on to serve another 20 years, retiring as a master gunnery sergeant. He went on to work as a Civil Servant and following that, he took temporary jobs to keep himself busy. Now divorced, he has five children — three daughters and two sons — but no grandchildren.
When the opportunity arose for him to travel to Washington, D.C. in June for the official gold medal ceremony for the Montford Point Marines, he declined.
“I didn’t want to go to the formal ceremony,” he said. “Every time I think about some of the things that happened, it gets me stirred up.”
It’s clear talking about his experiences at Montford Point stir up memories. Frazier teared up as he talked about President Roosevelt’s wife, and all she did to help end segregation in the military.
Even though Frazier is very humble about the role he played in the nation’s history, it was plain to see he enjoyed talking with the Marine officers there to bestow the honor, which included a letter from President Obama, read by Lt. Col. Jeff Symons.
“Embodying the Marine Corps motto of Semper Fidelis, Always Faithful, these heroes paved the way for future generations of warriors, regardless of background, to serve in the finest military the world has ever known,” Symons read.
“This is outstanding,” Frazier said. “I really appreciate the effort, because there’s not too many of us left.
“I consider myself damn lucky to be here talking to you,” he continued. “I kind of get choked up.”
“What you guys have done for the Marine Corps is beyond words,” Symons said.
On the back of the medal is the inscription “For outstanding perseverance and courage that inspired social change in the Marine Corps.”
“It’s a great honor to be able to come here and acknowledge the hard work that all the Montford Point Marines did,” said Sgt. Maj. Thomas Johnson. “He paved the way for me. It makes you feel proud.”
“It’s an honor to be able to meet someone who is a living legend in the Marine Corps,” agreed Symons.
Montford Point was deactivated in 1949, following President Harry Truman’s Executive Order 9981, which ended segregation in the military.
After that, African-American recruits were sent to Parris Island and Camp Pendleton.
The memory of Montford Point lives on, although that area of Camp Lejeune is now referred to as Camp Johnson, named after the late Sgt. Maj. Gilbert “Hashmark” Johnson, a drill instructor at Montford Point who served during World War II and the Korean War.
“It’s the only base in the Marine Corps named after an African-American,” said Symons.
Frazier may never be convinced that his role in history is worthy of a Congressional Gold Medal, but he may be the only one who believes that.
“Seeing what he’s done and the hard times he went through, it’s a learning experience for us for the future and we should acknowledge that,” said Frazier’s neighbor and friend, Elizabeth Tellez. “With the way the world is changing, every day we see bad news. It’s good to have these proud moments to treasure.”