Walker County community leader and Marine Corps veteran Private First Class Willie A. Haslerig was introduced and awarded amid standing ovations as members of the Mike Battery 3rd Battalion, 14th Marine Regiment out of Chattanooga formally escorted and presented him with the honor.
Haslerig was one of the first African-Americans accepted into the Marine Corps, and was trained at a specially segregated and poorly-outfitted camp in North Carolina known as Montford Point. From 1942 to 1949, approximately 20,000 African-American recruits were trained at Montford Point, many of whom served in active combat in World War II and beyond.
“The initial attempt of the Marine Corps hierarchy was to discharge these African-American Marines after the war, returning them to civilian life, and leaving the Marine Corps an all-white organization,” said Gunnery Sergeant Brian Marzluf. “Attitudes changed and reality took hold as the war progressed. Once given a chance to prove themselves -- among the first to fight in places such as Saipan, Guam, Tinian, Pelelieu, Iwo Jima and Okinawa -- it became clear that this new breed of Marines was just as capable as all other Marines, and that race, color, creed and/or national origin were no longer relevant factors in the consideration of who gets the title and who among those would earn the title and wear the eagle, globe and anchor.”
Congressional Gold Medals are rare; the legislation considering the bestowing of a Congressional Gold Medal is only put forth after a dual sponsorship by two-thirds of both the Senate and the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. In honor of the event, a letter of recognition from President Barack Obama was read at the ceremony as well.
“After completing arduous and segregated basic training at Montford Point camp, many of these Marines served with distinction during a number of World War II's bloodiest battles,” read the Commander in Chief's pronouncement. “Despite being denied many basic rights, the Montford Point Marines committed to serve our country with selfless dignity. Choosing to put their lives on the line, these men helped to gain civil rights and influenced President Harry Truman's decision to de-segregate the Army in 1948. Embodying the Marine Corps motto of “Semper fidelis” -- “always faithful”-- these heroes paved the way for future generations of warriors, regardless of background, to serve in the finest military the world has ever known. On behalf of a grateful nation, I thank you for your service and your contributions both in your home and around the world.”
Haslerig now joins honorees that includes Pope John Paul II, Frank Sinatra, Mother Teresa, Rosa Parks and the recently departed Neil Armstrong.
Haslerig thanked the representatives in Washington who made the award possible, as well as local officials, the U.S. Marine Corps, and the LaFayette Health Care facility. “I see so much to be thankful for. And to my family, who have been right beside me. Thanks to you all, and may God bless you,” he said.