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Local Marine vet earns top civilian honor

June 17, 2012 12:10 am

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New recruits drill at Montford Point, the first training camp established for black U.S. Marines. The first 1,200 volunteers enlisted in 1942. lo061712lucasscr2.jpg

Lawrence Lucas at age 21, when he served with the Montford Point Marine unit in World War II. lo061712lucasscr1.jpg

Lawrence Lucas, 88, fought in World War II as a member of the Montford Point Marines, the first all-black unit in the Corps. He and others from the unit will receive a Congressional Gold Medal June 27 in Washington.

By RUSTY DENNEN

Lawrence "Reggie" Lucas will get another medal for his service in the Marines during World War II.

And not just any medal. Lucas, 88, of Spotsylvania County and other surviving Montford Point Marines, will receive replica Congressional Gold Medals June 27 in a ceremony at the Capitol.

The gold medal is Congress' highest civilian honor. George Washington was among the award's recipients.

President Obama signed a bill last year authorizing the award to Lucas and his comrades, who made up the first all-black unit in the Marine Corps.

"I am looking forward to it," said Lucas, who lives off Smith Station Road. The Marines, who trained at Montford Point Camp between 1942 and 1949, got little recognition during and after the war.

Lucas attended a parade and reception in Washington, D.C., last year honoring the unit. But the ceremony later this month is a much bigger deal.

His daughter, Cheryl Hepburn of Greensboro, N.C., and her husband, Marty, are driving him up. Lucas has been ill and cannot drive himself.

"I enjoyed the military, even though, in the beginning when we went in, it was terrible," he said. "But in the end, everybody would say 'We are brothers.' And that carried with me through life, and as I've gotten older."

Lucas was born in Fredericksburg and grew up near the train station. His father and brother were barbers.

"As a kid, I'd go down to Caroline street to shine shoes. The white boys would beat me up and run me home," he said.

He and a buddy would go to a nearby basketball court to play. "We'd be shooting and they'd run me home." He smiled, "I'd go right back the next day and get run home again."

While attending school, he worked at hotels in the late 1930s. His mother died when he was 15 and his father passed away a few years later.

DUTY AND A JOB

He attended Mayfield and Walker-Grant high schools, and Virginia State College for a couple of months after high school. Then he began considering work options.

"When I thought about it, the only opportunity in Fredericksburg was being a teacher, preacher or doctor, and I didn't want to do any of those."

Meanwhile, some of his friends were talking about going into the military. Lucas was 18 in December 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

He remembers that day not only for the attack and but also for its implications on his life.

"Yes sir; I made a lot of money selling [The Free Lance-Star] down by the train station that day."

In May 1943, he joined the Marines.

"I had seen so many Marines from Quantico, and thought it would be good."

He said he felt it was not only a patriotic duty, but a chance to get out of Fredericksburg.

"I didn't want to go in the Army, and I couldn't swim, so I didn't want to go in the Navy."

Lucas didn't know at the time that the Marine Corps in 1942 had established its first training site for blacks at Montford Point Camp, at Camp Lejeune, N.C. White recruits were sent to boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., and San Diego.

"I had no idea, well, maybe I did, because everything was segregated back then. I guess I took it as it was going to be segregated," Lucas said.

Basic training, under white officers, he said, "was mostly physical training. We had to run and fight each other. We didn't have much equipment training."

He laughed, "They work on your mind, make you mean. It was more of a mind thing."

He was assigned to the 66th Platoon, about 50 men. They spent two months at Montford Point, then headed for a Navy base in Davisville, R.I. From there, they shipped out for what is now Tuvalu in the South Pacific.

"We spent 35 days on the ship," he recalled.

A private, he was assigned to sleep on deck. He found a couple of boards to lie on, covering himself with a poncho to stay dry.

On a stop in American Samoa, he met a white friend from Fredericksburg. They were about the same age, "and he was very nice to me. He wanted to know if I needed money or anything."

Lucas said he was hungry, and the friend, a baker in the military, "loaded me down with doughnuts."

'BOOM, BOOM, BOOM'

He was stationed on one of the nine atolls in the island chain in the South Pacific. The Montford Pointers' duty was to unload ships, but Lucas managed to get one of the better jobs.

"They needed someone to operate the switchboard, and being as I had worked at hotels, I raised my hand. It was a good job."

Lucas worked on that island, and occasionally, a neighboring one, for 18 months.

One night, he and some buddies heard that they might be going home, but were saying that they'd like to see some action before they left. "Then, boom, boom, boom boom," Lucas recalled.

Japanese planes were bombing the adjacent island. He ran out of his tent, collided with a vehicle, then jumped into the nearest foxhole.

"A white Marine pulled a .45 on me and made me get out ." Lucas said no one told the black Marines that they were needed.

"So the next day I got a couple buddies and we dug out a coconut tree and started digging foxholes, got sand off the beach and put bags around it."

They didn't know that cutting trees on the island was prohibited by the military, "and we almost got court-martialed." He said the island was frequently bombed, but there were no casualties in his unit.

Racial tensions were ever present. At one point, he smiled, a mess hall was built exclusively for the white Marines, "and we burned that down."

"Now, I didn't have any part in that," he added, "but some of my friends did."

CAPTAIN CALLING

He met some of the native Polynesians on one trip to the neighboring island.

"They looked at me like I was strange because of my skin. They were dark, but not as dark as I am," he said.

Lucas left the island in 1944 for Camp Catlett, Hawaii, then Hilo, where he drove a truck, unloading ships.

In Hawaii, he got a message that a captain wanted to see him. "I was thinking, 'What did I do?'"

It was Lemuel Houston, a postmaster from Fredericksburg. Houston wanted him to join his unit, offering to help Lucas secure a promotion.

"I thought about it, but told him I couldn't leave my buddies" from Montford Point.

He was glad he didn't move to Houston's unit: "They went straight to Saipan and Iwo Jima and got tore up."

After the war, Lucas returned to Camp Pendleton and was discharged. He earned Good Conduct and Asiatic-Pacific Campaign medals for his service.

In 1948, he enlisted in the reserves and was promoted to corporal. He was called back to active duty in 1950, expecting to go to Korea, but stayed stateside, and contracted tuberculosis.

"I spent two years, four months in a VA hospital," he said. He was discharged again and took a job as a truck driver at Quantico.

By then, he had met and married his wife, Francis, a longtime teacher, who died last July after a decades-long battle with lupus. They were married 55 years and had one daughter. Lucas has two children by a previous marriage.

He worked at Quantico for 28 years, retiring as supply manager at the Marine Corps Air Facility.

Lucas also worked at the National Bank of Fredericksburg, and as a barber--he still has a chair in his garage.

He says he still keeps in touch with some of the Montford Point Marines. Four others from the Fredericksburg area--Carl Sharperson of Spotsylvania, Thomas and Jerry Taylor of Fredericksburg and Booker Johnson of King George County--have all passed away.

Cheryl Hepburn, Lucas' daughter, says her father talked about his times at Montford Point, moments of discrimination and triumph, and his wartime service. One thing that he passed along from that experience: "You have to treat people the way you want to be treated."

She says the upcoming recognition for her father and his fellow black Marines is long overdue, "especially for someone in the service who puts his life on the line, particularly when they weren't wanted to begin with."

Lucas says he's looking forward to seeing others from the unit in Washington.

"I've always been proud of being a Marine," he said.

Looking back, "We were looked upon as not being able to do what white Marines could do. This has proved that, given the opportunity, a black person can do anything that anybody else can."

For more about Lucas, see historian and teacher Charles Harrell's military history website: http://harrellshistory.org:443/peresonal/vets/lu cas/lucasinterview.html

Rusty Dennen: 540/374-5431
Email: rdennen@freelancestar.com




In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order beginning the integration of the armed forces. Between 1942 and 1949, some 20,000 black Marines trained at Montford Point Camp, at Camp Lejeune, N.C. According to the Montford Point Marine Association, of that number, about 400 are still living.

For more on the unit, visit montford pointmarines.com.

The Marine Corps will host the Montford Point Marines with a reception and parade June 27 at the Marine Barracks in Washington. They will receive bronze replicas of a specially designed Congressional Gold Medal in an invitation-only ceremony at the Capitol Visitor Center at 3 p.m.




Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.