by Paul Roberts
Little did Robert Owens realize in 1943, at the tender age of 16, that falsifying his age to enlist in the United States Marine Corps, would be the beginning of a reversal of race relations, resulting in the ultimate election more than 70 years later of the first African American as president of this country. His beginnings were training in the segregated boot camp of Camp Lejeune, New River, named Montford Point, a former (CCC) Civilian Conservation Corps camp of the Great Depression, going through the same rigors as his white compatriots in the next camp. As it turned out, many of his mates were in combat situations in the South Pacific with them. Robert didn’t see actual combat but wound up on the island of Guam, guarding Japanese prisoners of war. Although it was devoid of risk, he had several scares from the renegade Japanese hiding out in the hilly jungles of Guam, determined to keep on fighting when it was supposed to be all over.
This 200 square mile base started enlisting African Americans on 1 June 1942, organized as the 51st Defense Battalion. Although these men were segregated at the time, which was the culture of the time, they received comparable training that their white equals were receiving at the adjacent Camp Lejeune. Men were interviewed and tested to determine where they could best serve. Under the competent guidance of skilled drill instructors green ‘boots’ were woven into polished Marines. It took 24 days of training and 21 days on the rifle range to do this. They were given training in every aspect of combat, including judo, hand to hand combat and bayonet attacks. This training regimen has remained with Robert all these years, who continues to work out in a local gym.
Many of these ‘boots’ wound up in support units in some of the fiercest fighting in the Pacific. On the island of Peleliu, while unloading materiels for the embattled 7th Marines, they were “drafted” as stretchers bearers for the wounded, and on several occasions found themselves on the front line, assaulting the enemy side by side with other Marines. On the initial beach assault, they were subjected to the same retaliatory fire, suffering their own casualties.
After the end of the war, Robert married, sired nine children, worked hard as a building contractor and truck driver, participating in hotel and casino building in his native Atlantic City, New Jersey. His children have all been successful, scattered all over the country. Aside from the pride he has with all his children, 24 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren, he was the recipient of the prestigious Congressional Gold Medal, authorized in 2015 by the Congress, for his service with the Montford Point Marines. Thanks to the National Montford Point Marine Association’s lobbying the Congress, the medal was pushed through the Congress in 2011, with a separate ceremony at the Capitol. Robert missed it but had his own ceremony in the party room of the Greens in Leisure World®, replete with attendance by Congressman Chris Van Hollen. He is now a minor celebrity at Leisure World®, as well as the six foot three ‘darling’ of his building at the Greens.
All photos courtesy of Paul Roberts – Resident of Leisure World® Maryland