When Chicagoan William Pickens joined the Marines during WWII, he was among the first black men ever to do so.
Pickens says he was part of the famed Montford Point Marines, a group that was some 20,000 strong. The Montford Point Marines fought through segregation in the barracks and substandard conditions to become highly decorated.
This summer (nearly 70 years after their service), they were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
Pickens shared his story with his daughter, Lisa Marie.
He went into the Marines when he was just 16. He got a fake birth certificate, then told his mother:
WILLIAM: “ ‘If I go into the Marine Corps, I’ll be able to send money to get you out of this hole, you and my brothers.’”
Pickens says if he got killed, he knew he’d “be worth $10,000” for his family.
WILLIAM: “The first place they sent me to, Camp Lejeune.”
LISA MARIE: “And this was during WWII?”
WILLIAM: “Yeah, the government said, ‘We can’t have these black Marines with the white Marines.’ The white Marines lived up on the hill with nice clean barracks, steam heat, and everything. And we were down in the lower part and they named it Montford Point, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. We were the Montford Point Marines. And all of these powerful black men came to fight for the United States of America.”
The men were at attention one day when the colonel came out to talk to them. The U.S. Marines' plan at the time was to muster the men out after the war, and return to a white corps.
WILLIAM: “He [the Colonel] said: ‘We’re gonna get you out as soon as possible. We don’t need you, you’re of no value at all. We’ve never had black Marines, and we don’t want ‘em now.’ So we stood at attention and listened, it was all we could do.
And after he left, Sgt. Blood (a black officer who’d been in all the Pacific campaigns) looked around to see was the Colonel gone, and he said: ‘Ya’ll gonna make him eat them words.’ We said, ‘Yes, sir’.”
To find out what happened when that Colonel returned six months later, and what it's like to survive shell-shock, listen to the audio above.
—Adam Peindl helped produce this report.
This interview was recorded in collaboration with Affinity Community Services, a station partner.