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Posted: February 25, 2014 10:00 p.m.

Virgil Weems helped to integrate Marines

'Leatherneck' saw brutal action in World War II in the Pacific

After absurd bickering and declining political roadblocks, "men of color" were finally able to serve in the United States Marine Corps. The date was June 1, 1942. Sent to Camp Lejeune, N.C., for training, black recruits quickly discovered a segregated military still existed; they were assigned to a separate training facility called Montford Point.

Black recruits didn’t object as much to their grueling Marine training as they did to the offensive treatment from local citizens. Many businesses refused to serve black recruits, and a few were even arrested in uniform for "impersonating" a Marine. A college degree didn’t matter, nor did the title of doctor or lawyer; all recruits were given the rank of "private’."

Indignities were hurled in their direction, and racism repeatedly reared its ugly head, but these "men of color" stayed the course and achieved the important goal – to wear the uniform of a United States Marine. By the war’s end, more than 19,000 African-Americans became Leathernecks. This is one of their stories.

"I was born on a farm in 1924 and raised in McDonough," Virgil Weems recalled. "I remember Dec. 7, 1941, as a sad day when we got the word that Pearl Harbor had been bombed, but we didn’t know where it was. An elderly black man sat me down and told me Pearl Harbor was a big American Navy base. Then I knew that my country was in a war, but I never thought I’d be in that war. I remember we had a terrible storm that day with big black clouds."

A 1941 graduate of Henry County Training School, Weems was one of 12 siblings who worked on the family farm.

"We raised cotton, corn, peas, vegetables, and fruits during the Great Depression," he said. "It was tough back then, but we survived, we did OK." Weems farmed until his draft notice arrived in 1943.

He recalled, "They bused me and around 30 other black guys down to Fort Benning for induction. All those boys went into the Army, but my papers were stamped ‘Marines.’ Shoot, I didn’t know what a Marine was. When I asked why I’d been selected for the ‘Marines,’ I was told, ‘You’re too educated for the Army.’"

In a then-segregated military, black Marine recruits trained separately at Camp Lejeune in a backwater area called Montford Point. The black recruits were destined to spearhead acceptance and respect for African-Americans in the United States Marine Corps.

Weems recalled, "The first black Marine to enlist was Alfred Masters in 1942. In 1943, black drill instructors were used for the first time. That’s about the time I arrived. My D.I. was Mortimer A. Cox. He was a tough man and he was tough on us." Many black recruits claimed their black drill instructors were meaner and tougher than the white D.I.’s. The black drill instructors had to be; they knew these young recruits would soon be in the Pacific fighting a well-trained and ruthless J.I.A., the Japanese Imperial Army.

After advanced training at Camp Pendleton, Calif., Weems boarded a ship for his baptism under fire with the 25th Marines.

"Our mission was to retake Guam," he said. "It was rough, and it rained from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m. every day. The mud was knee-deep, and we sure got tired of sleeping on cots in standing water."

Trained on the M-1 Garand and M-1 Carbine, Weems said, "I preferred the carbine. A man could carry a lot of ammo, and it was lighter than the Garand."

Weems saw combat, lost a lot of friends both black and white, but did not dwell on the fighting. He said, "What’s scary was being separated from my unit for five days hunkered down in a foxhole. The Japanese didn’t get me, but I sure was glad when my unit found me."

His next port-of-call was a little island in the middle of nowhere, Iwo Jima. "Oh, Lord, that was terrible. It was just a little island, but the Japanese were dug in and hard to dislodge. Japanese POWs would ask for a cigarette; we learned not to do that. The Japs were suicidal and vicious."

The 25th Marines were part of the battle for Hill 382 (Turkey Knob), or as the Marines called it, "the Meat Grinder.’" A Presidential Unit Citation was earned on Hill 382, but the loss of life was incredible.

Another island called Okinawa lay ahead. "Oh, Lord," Weems repeated. "It was terrible there, too. But I will say this; we fought as brothers and took care of each other. War is the great equalizer."

Weems returned home on Good Friday in 1946. Before the war he had courted a young lady named Tommie Nadine Lindsey. Weems said, "We got married within a week after I came home."

Retired after a long career with Sims Superior Seating in Griffin, Weems and his wife moved back to McDonough. Mrs. Weems passed on in 1989. Weems has three children, several grandchildren, and in his own words, a "passel" of great-grandchildren.

Virgil Weems will celebrate his 90th birthday this year. Only two of his siblings are still with us: his "baby" sister in McDonough is 85, and a sister in California is 102. Weems has served as a deacon in several churches for more than 70 years and still serves at Shiloh Baptist.

His final thoughts: "I’ve lived to see a lot of changes in my life and want the kids of today to listen to my words: Obey your parents, stay out of the streets and stay in school, and stay off drugs. You have too much to live for."

Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at aveteransstory@gmail.com or aveteransstory.us.

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