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ASHTABULA, Ohio (AP) — A northeast Ohio man who was one of the first blacks to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps has been honored by his country nearly 70 years after his service ended.
Family and friends of Lenel Moore, 87, of Ashtabula, cheered, applauded and wept Saturday as Moore received the Congressional Gold Medal at a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in his hometown of Ashtabula, The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer reported.
Moore received the medal from the members of the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines, headquartered in the Cleveland suburb of Brook Park.
“If I had to do it over again, I would,” said Moore, wiping away his own tears after receiving the medal from the members of the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines from suburban Cleveland. “I appreciate this honor that I thought I’d never see.”
Congress authorized the gold medals for the first black Marines, known as the Montford Point Marines. They joined the Marine Corps after President Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order in 1942 to open up enlistment regardless of race.
Between 1942 and 1946, 20,000 men trained at a segregated corner of Camp Lejeune called Camp Montford Point. Marine Lt. Col. Pete McAleer, said Saturday that the Corps retained only 1,000 of the Montford Point Marines and discharged the rest in 1946 “without so much as a thank you.”
McAleer said only about 900 are still alive, although some Marine Corps estimates place the number closer to 500.
Moore “joined at a time when his country was not treating everyone equally,” said McAleer, inspector instructor with the battalion in Brook Park.
The Montford Point Marines, another group of black servicemen known as the Tuskegee Airmen and the Japanese-American battalions that served in Europe, “changed the way we viewed minorities,” McAleer said.
But while recruitment was opened to everyone, the armed forces would remain officially segregated until President Harry S. Truman ordered total integration in 1948.
McAleer said Congress decided to recognize the Montford Point Marines earlier this year with the medals, but he believes that fewer than half of the eligible Marines received their medals in Washington D.C. last summer. The Corps is trying to find the rest, he said.
Moore’s daughter, Rosemary Moore, said that they tried to surprise her father Saturday, telling him that one of his nephews would pick him up and take him to the hall under the pretense that the nephew was being honored. But Moore said he realized what was going on the moment he arrived.
“When I stepped in the door, I felt the joy,” he said.
Moore served on Iwo Jima, where some of the most brutal fighting in the Pacific occurred during World War II. The Marines suffered around 24,000 casualties, including 6,000 dead, according to government statistics.
Most of the black Marines were relegated to support units, but many still ended up in the middle of the fighting. Moore described his unit as “the cleanup crew,” which retrieved the dead and wounded from the battlefield.
Only eight members of the 32 in his platoon survived, and Moore was hit with a piece of shrapnel in his left leg.
Grandson Alvin Lewis, 23, said after the ceremony that he never knew about his grandfather’s service.
“That’s one of the hardest medals to achieve, and I’m proud of him,” Lewis said.