A 91-year-old Ohio man has been recognized for his World War II service with a Congressional Gold Medal.
John Lee Cooper was one of about 20,000 African-American recruits trained to become Marines at Montford Point, N.C., adjacent to Camp Lejeune, between 1942 and 1949.
Like the Tuskegee Airmen, the Montford Point Marines served in segregated units separate from their white counterparts. After boot camp, Cooper was sent to the Pacific theater during the war.
“It means everything to me,” Cooper said Monday at the Hospice of Dayton, where the ceremony took place. “I thought maybe they had forgotten about me.”
Cooper heard a presidential proclamation and congressional and mayoral letters read during the ceremony in his honor.
Cooper’s nephew, W. Roger Smith, maneuvered through federal bureaucracy for a year and a half to get his uncle the honor, the Dayton Daily News reported.
“I almost teared up because I knew he wanted it,” Smith said. “Whenever I mentioned it, he would brighten up.”
Charles H. Stallard, president of the Louisville, Ky., chapter of the Montford Point Marines, said the group is important to black history and stands as a symbol of men willing to give their lives for a country that discriminated against them in the 1940s.
“If people don’t know about the history, it’s just going to fade away,” said Stallard, a former Marine who is a Vietnam veteran.
In June 2012 at a Washington ceremony, about 400 surviving Montford Point Marines were presented with a bronze replica of the Congressional Gold Medal acknowledging their contributions during World War II.
The Montford Point Marines Association doesn’t know how many of the World War II-era Marines are still living.