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  1. Military

Medal honors black Marines who served despite discrimination in WWII

Some 20,000 black Marines were stationed from 1942-1949 at Camp Montford Point, a segregated, rundown barracks outside of Camp Lejeune, N.C. [Courtesy of Fountain family]
Some 20,000 black Marines were stationed from 1942-1949 at Camp Montford Point, a segregated, rundown barracks outside of Camp Lejeune, N.C. [Courtesy of Fountain family]
Published Jan. 27, 2017

TAMPA — In 1943, as the Marines were slogging through a bloody Pacific island-hopping campaign, two good friends from Nyack, New York, showed up at a recruiting station to join the fight.

David Knight was given orders to report to boot camp within a week. His friend, Charles Robert Fountain, passed the physical too, but then had to undergo questioning about his personal life, education and marital status. It would be seven months before the corps would accept him.

The difference?

Knight was white, Fountain black.

Friday at noon, Fountain's service as one of the first black Marines was honored during a ceremony at MacDill Air Force Base presided over by the commander of Marine Corps Forces Central Command, Lt. Gen. William Beydler. Fountain's daughter, Kim Fountaine of Ruskin, received a Congressional Gold Medal, awarded to those black Marines stationed at the Camp Montford Point — a rundown barracks outside of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, where some 20,000 were housed in substandard, segregated quarters between 1942 and 1949.

"My father would be so proud," Fountaine said. "He is up in heaven, cheering and laughing and running around right now."

On June 25, 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order No. 8802, the beginning of the end of formal race discrimination in the armed forces.

Not all welcomed the change.

Fountain, married and 23 when he was finally allowed to join up, didn't realize what he was in for, his daughter said.

"I think he was kind of naive."

He didn't know for a while that his friend was accepted long before him, Fountaine said. He started losing hope as he waited.

"He wanted to be a Marine because he always felt that was the best and my father always was the best."

Fountain talked often about conditions at Montford Point and even wrote a work of fiction, We Earned The Right, based on his time there.

"He said it was basically falling apart at the time. It was not a nice place to be. Bad, deplorable conditions."

Though the black Marines were segregated on base, there was an unbreakable esprit de corps among all the Marines, Fountaine said.

"When they would go out on furlough, the black Marines couldn't go certain places," she said. "There was an incident on a train to New York. They were trying to put out my father, but the white Marines all stood up and said, 'No, we are all Marines, stay right here.'"

Fountain would go on to serve in the Pacific as an anti-aircraft gunner, and left the service in 1946. After the war, he worked for Republic Aircraft, the U.S. Postal Service and the New York State Department of Corrections, where he was stationed at the infamous Sing Sing prison.

"He was so proud to have been a Marine," Fountaine said. "He said it contributed to his work ethic, because the Marines are always tough, always did what they had to do."

On March 15, 2004, Fountain died in Trotwood, Ohio. He was a week shy of 83.

On Nov. 23, 2011, President Barack Obama signed a law awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to the Montford Point Marines, recognizing their contributions to the corps "during a time of hardship and segregation," according to the Marines.

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Too late for Fountain to accept in person, the award was presented to his daughter, thanks in part to the work of Stanley Gray, a medically retired Marine captain who met Fountaine during his unsuccessful campaign for the Hillsborough County School Board last year.

Gray said he contacted retired Marine Lt. Gen. Willie Williams, who helped get the ball rolling.

"We are kind of clannish," Gray said, speaking of the Marines. "We take care of our own."

And, as a black Marine, Gray said, "We all stand on their shoulders. The commandant at the time really didn't want African-Americans. When they went to war they were ammunition humpers and stretcher bearers. It was not a very welcome place, but they did what they were supposed to do and did it very well."

In the summer of 1965, a group of former Montford Point Marines met in Philadelphia and eventually formed the Montford Point Marine Association, a non-profit veterans group that now has 33 active charters nationwide.

Forest E. Spencer, the organization's president, estimates about 470 Montford Point Marines are still alive.

"We continue to be vigilant in our efforts to discover and document these American heroes," said Spencer, who processed Fountain's medal paperwork.

Today, about 21,000 blacks wear the Marine symbol, the Eagle, Anchor and Globe — about 11 percent of the 188,000 in the total force, according to the Marines.

Said Fountaine, "This is such an honor."

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.