MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. -- The battle that took place from 1939 to 1945 for world freedom has been referred to as America’s war, but while American troops fought the horror of World War II, the Montford Point Marines fought a second battle; for equality, according to Coral Theill, reporter and author.
A sense of great pride filled the room as more than 100 guests from across California, including Combat Center Marines, veterans, and family members of Freeman Stokes sat silently, watching as a video played in dedication to his service. A selfless service, which now, more than 60 years later, earned him the Congressional Gold Medal during a ceremony held for him at Banning City Hall in Banning, Calif., Jan. 25.
Stokes, who was among the first African-American U.S. Marines trained at Montford Point, in Jacksonville, N.C., fought in the Pacific during World War II, in the Korean War in the 1950s, and later fulfilled reserve obligations at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton and Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, before moving to Banning in 1960.
From 1942 to 1949, Montford Point recruits trained and served separate from white Marines. Approximately 20,000 African-American Marines were trained at Montford Point and approximately 13,000 served overseas during World War II, according to the Montford Point Marine Association.
Upon completion of training at Montford Point, Stokes was assigned to communications and ended up in one of the Russell Islands, northwest of Guadalcanal, during his first deployment. After a break in service, Stokes enlisted in the Marine Corps for a second time and eventually retired in 1959. His active and reserve time combine to nearly 14 years.
Now 90 years old, Stokes, with his family by his side, received this medal in honor of his dedication to service.
“Since the beginning of my term in Congress, it has been my greatest honor to serve veterans of the greatest military in the world,” said Raul Ruiz, Congressman, California’s 36th District. “Today, we all have the honor of being in the presence of a man of great dignity, stature and excellence. Stokes signed up to serve his country during a time of peril, and today we honor him for everything he has done.”
The ceremony began with Combat Center base color guards presentation of the colors, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance and "The Star Spangled Banner."
Following the presentation of the colors, Banning city officials, as well as Montford Point Association members and followers of the local church, spoke on behalf of Stokes, honoring his legacy as a Marine and a man.
“If you see a few tears in my eyes, it is only because of all my brothers who fought side-by-side with me, who couldn’t be here with me today to receive this great honor,” Stokes said. “On behalf of everyone involved, and everyone who could be here today, I say thank you for this great honor.”
Marines with 4th Tank Battalion presented the medal to Stokes as Congressman Ruiz declared Jan. 25th a day that will forever honor Stokes' service.
“It was a very humbling and great honor to be a part of this ceremony,” said Capt. Erik Brandriff, tank officer, 4th Tanks. “It is a reminder of how far we have come as a great nation, and I’m truly grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this.”