NJ Marine receives Congressional Gold Medal

August 10, 2012 4:55:49 PM PDT
A 92-year-old Mays Landing man received a Congressional Gold Medal - the highest honor possible for a civilian.

They pulled out all the stops and turned out in big numbers to honor a former marine - 92-year-old Bill French.

French served during World War II and was a part of the first group to break strict racial barriers in the Marine Corps. They were known as the Montford Point Marines.

"Despite being denied many of their basic rights, the Montford Point Marines committed to serve their country with selflessness and patriotism," said Colonel Jon D. Schleifer.

In 1941, it was Franklin D. Roosevelt who ordered the doors open for black Americans to serve in the military.

The Army and Navy followed orders quickly but President Roosevelt had to issue a second order to get the Marine Corps to fall in line.

"I loved the uniform, but then when my brother got killed that made me more determined," said French.

For his trailblazing role in history French received a Congressional Gold Medal which is the highest honor possible for a civilian.

About 400 surviving Montford Point Marines received their medals in Washington D.C. last month.

Meanwhile Friday's ceremony generated a lot of interest in South Jersey, especially among aging veterans who say this kind of event was long overdue.

"They had to use separate mess halls. They couldn't even train with white Marines. What I'm trying to say is that it's probably 70 years too late" said Bill Butler, former Marine.

Marines of today say this was a profound moment for them too.

"I don't think there was a path he had to take that didn't have any resistance at all," said Staff Sgt. Antonio Robinson.

What a historic road travelled for Sgt. French over the last 70 years.

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