Wineka column: Picking up honors for Montford Point Marine a family mission
Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 7, 2012
SALISBURY — If we could just have the real Ivery Alexander back with us for one day.
He could light up his favorite pipe, lean against the fender of his truck — the one with a U.S. Marine Corps decal and USMC plate — and tell us about fighting in a segregated military during World War II.
Alexander could describe his first arduous days at Montford Point, the basic training site for black Marines. A swamp separated it from the all-white Marine base of Camp Lejeune.
He could remember his trip across the country to San Diego, where he shipped out for heavy fighting in the Asian-Pacific theater. Alexander could relive his discharge after the war and coming back home to his new bride, Ruth, whom he married while on leave in March 1944.
And he could show us his Congressional Gold Medal, awarded to him June 28.
But dementia has robbed us of the lucid and robust Ivery Alexander, the man who was a Mason, a deacon at his church and a member of J.C. Price American Legion Post No. 107. And he was a man, too, of that “Greatest Generation,” who seldom spoke of his days in the war as part of Uncle Sam’s segregated forces.
One of his daughters, Arnethia “A.J.” Alexander-Daniels, wishes he had.
“It really hit home last week, that he can’t tell his story now,” she says.
• • •
It was only three years ago that Alexander-Daniels truly began absorbing what an important part of history her father had participated in as one of the nation’s first African-American Marines.
So it became an important family mission — as difficult as it was — for him to make the trip to Washington, D.C., where the Marine Corps and Congress were honoring the 400-plus Montford Point Marines. The Congressional Gold Medal is the nation’s highest civilian honor.
“I cannot describe how I felt when we arrived at the hotel and all these gentlemen were there and all of this history was in one place, each with a story to be told,” Alexander-Daniels says. “I’m so happy we went.”
His son, Honore Alexander, served as Ivery’s escort for the Washington trip. Others in the family who attended were Ruth; Honore and Arnethia’s sister, Annie McQuaige; Arnethia’s husband, John Daniels; Annie’s daughter, Brigette, and her granddaughter, Charlese; and Honore’s grandchildren, Katana and Olivia Alexander.
“I was just glad he had the opportunity to fulfill his dream, though it should have been presented to him 20 or 30 years ago,” Honore says.
From 1942 to 1949, approximately 20,000 African-American men enlisted in the Marine Corps and went through a segregated basic training at Montford Point, N.C.
But those men are fading away now, thanks to time, and many of the surviving Montford Point Marines attending the June 27-28 ceremonies in Washington did so in wheelchairs or relied on walkers and canes. The heat was so wilting at the Marine Corps parade grounds in Washington June 28 that Ivery Alexander (and others) became dehydrated. He had to be taken to the VA Medical Center in Washington for a 24-hour stay.
• • •
Ivery Alexander, 87, grew up on his mother’s farm off West Ritchie Road. He attended Lincoln, Monroe Street and Price high schools before heading off to Washington, D.C., to find work.
Ruth, who grew up in Lumberton but went to Washington looking for employment, too, says she met Ivery in a drugstore. They worked at Union Station — Ivery in a bar and Ruth in a cafe. While they were dating, Ivery decided to enlist, joining the Marine Corps in October 1943.
The only Pacific battleground Alexander-Daniels ever remembers her father mentioning is Okinawa. And when he talked of basic training, it was Camp Lejeune that he spoke of, not Montford Point.
“He was very proud to be in the Marines,” says John Daniels, his son-in-law. “He would tell you quick.”
Ivery and Ruth married quickly in Dillon, S.C., on March 26, 1944. By May 6, he was off to fight in the Pacific theater. A rifle marksman, Alexander received his honorable discharge in November 1945.
The Alexanders shuttled back and forth between Salisbury and Washington during the early years of their marriage after the war. Honore, their only son, was born here; Annie, in Washington; and Arnethia, again back in Salisbury.
Finally settling in Salisbury, Ivery Alexander worked 12 years for Southern Railway. Alexander-Daniels remembers riding in the car with her mother to pick him up at the transfer shed.
When Southern Railway decided to shift Ivery’s job and others to Chattanooga, Tenn., he decided against uprooting his family. For three years, he worked for the city of Salisbury, before starting a long tenure with Carolina Rubber Hose (later B.F. Goodrich) up until his retirement as a supervisor.
• • •
Alexander took advantage of a GI loan to build his handsome brick home in 1954 on Henderson Grove Church Road. “Daddy said he did not want his wife to work,” Alexander-Daniels says.
He also had a similar response when Alexander-Daniels wanted to join the Air Force after high school.
No daughter of his, he said, would be going into “the man’s service.”
When the children were growing up, Ivery and Ruth Alexander had cows, hogs, billy goats, a pony and chickens for eggs. The kids looked forward to the last day of school every year, until they realized it meant tending to the garden and livestock around them all summer.
Ruth says she canned constantly. “My cupboards were lined with every kind of food you could grow,” she says.
Ivery Alexander strongly supported his children in their athletic endeavors and academic pursuits. But he and Ruth were strict, Alexander-Daniels says.
She and Honore remember their father’s always talking about determination, perseverance and doing what was right. They think that’s a carryover from his Marine training.
“His experience in the military probably defined who he was,” Alexander-Daniels says.
As a high school graduation gift for his three children, Ivery bought each of them a car.
• • •
Alexander-Daniels and her husband, John, have liked to travel over their 20-year marriage, and this past April they visited Montford Point. The museum was closed that particular day.
When she and John stopped by the base PX for a soft drink before leaving, Arnethia spoke with a young soldier from Raleigh, who has been a Marine for eight years.
“What can you tell me about the Montford Point Marines?” Alexander-Daniels asked, thinking she might have the modern-day Marine stumped. But Alexander-Daniels was thrilled when the young woman knew the whole story.
Ivery Alexander’s dementia started settling in about six years ago. Honore was able to get him into the Abundant Living daycare program. He also has a doctor he sees at the Hefner VA Medical Center, besides his private physician.
On the dining room table Saturday, Alexander-Daniels spread out the programs from all the Washington festivities. She also displayed his military discharge paper, the medals and pins he earned as a Marine and his Legion hat.
A black-and-white photo had him in a tender moment with Ruth, back when they were young.
Where were they that day? If we had the real Ivery back, he could tell us.
Integration of the military came slowly:
• In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a presidential directive giving blacks an opportunity to be recruited into the Marine Corps. The African-Americans who enlisted, such as Ivery Alexander of Salisbury, were from all states, but the Marine Corps didn’t send them to the traditional boot camps of Parris Island, S.C., or San Diego, Calif.
They went to Montford Point instead.
• The intent, historians say, was for black Marines to return to civilian life after World War II, leaving the Marine Corps an all-white entity. But the black Marines’ performance in the war went a long way in changing that attitude.
• By 1948, President Harry Truman signed the executive order ending segregation in the military.
• Montford Point was deactivated as a base in 1949.
• In 1974, Montford Point Camp was renamed Camp Johnson, in recognition of Sgt. Maj. Gilbert H. “Hashmark” Johnson, one of the first black Marines, a former drill instructor at Montford Point and a veteran of World War II and Korea. Camp Johnson is the only Marine Corps installation named in honor of an African-American.
• Reunions started in 1965, and now the Montford Point Marine Association has 33 chapters.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@ salisburypost.com.