Molly Harrison stood with a large crowd of people Saturday and felt what others there to watch her father being given the nation’s highest honor did not. “I felt a healing,” she said after Willie A. Haslerig was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal at a LaFayette, Ga., nursing home, “and I watched tears stream down my father’s cheeks because I believe he felt it, too.”
Willie, who graduated from Chattanooga’s Howard School in 1939, had always wanted to go to college but Haslerig, the seventh in a family of eight children, was denied the chance when her father fell ill and he had to tend to the family’s truck farm in Chickamauga. When World War II first broke out, Haslerig was granted an exemption but, towards the end, he was drafted into the Marines and was soon thrust into a quagmire of inhumane brutality, blatant racism and despicable conditions.
If that sounds like a P.O.W. camp, quit holding your breath. It all happened at a segregated boot camp called Montford Point in North Carolina and, unlike the heralded Tuskegee Airmen or the famed “Buffalo Soldiers,” the 20,000 men who became the very first blacks to enter the rough-and-tumble Marines were never accorded their rightful place in America’s lore until this summer when the Corps fervently insisted it would right a wrong.
Montford Point, a dilapidated and quite inferior outpost to Camp Lejeune, was so bad a black Marine was not allowed to enter the LeJeune grounds unless escorted by a white Marine. One Montford Marine, Joseph Ginyard, still remembers the day when a white Marine general told the black troops, “I never thought I would see you people in my uniform. I didn’t think it was that bad.”
Are you kidding? The plan was to discharge all black Marines after the war because some thought the USMC should be lily white but, no, there was soon too much that would prove otherwise. The Montfort Marines looked at the whole thing as a challenge and fought so valiantly on Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Saipan, Peleliu and so forth that today a United States Marine has no color whatsoever. That’s because of the Montford Marines.
Oh, once they got back stateside they were quickly segregated from their mixed units, refused free coffee at Red Cross canteens, and treated far less cordially that their white Leathernecks but the heroic actions, the stoic determination and overcoming society’s challenges were never forgotten. It took 70 years but, as Molly Harrison said of her father’s greatest honor, “It was an extraordinary accomplishment to watch the Marine Corps verbally express its sorrow and its thanks in a mixed audience. It was done with dignity, honor and duty and was magnificent.”
Dignity, honor and duty. I asked longtime lawyer Burton Brown, who has spent 80 years in Chickamauga as a lawyer, a farmer and a businessman, about Willie Haslerig. “He is easily one of the finest people I have ever known. His wonderful family is a testament to his life and he has done more to help others, regardless of their color, than just about anybody I can name. Willie is a fabulous man.”
“No, being in the Marine Corps wasn’t much fun,” Willie told me yesterday, “but I learned a lot from it. It was tough but I learned that when you come up against an obstacle, you use it as a climbing tool.”
Boy, it that an understatement. After an exemplary life as a milk producer, a businessman, a father, a community leader and an innovator, Willie Haslerig founded the Family Crisis Center in North Georgia, he started Habitat for Humanity in the region and tirelessly worked with troubled youth in the courts.
“My father has always been a great believer in fairness, integrity and justice,” said Molly. “When he even senses there is a wrong, he rushes to get involved and make it right. His father was that way and I hope that his children will never forget the lessons he instilled in us.”
Molly, whose Christian name is Joyce, has two other sisters – Deloris Hodges in Maryland and Carol Newman in Pennsylvania – who were also with the father when he received his Congressional Gold Medal, aligning the Montfort Marines with Frank Sinatra, Mother Teresa and Roseanne Parks, among others.
Unable to attend the national recognition this summer due to health reasons, Haslerig was accorded his honors by the Marine Corp’s Mike Battery, 3rd Battalion, 14th Regiment this weekend. A personal letter from President Barack Obama was also hand delivered. It was a momentous occasion in the twilight of a great life.
“You think you are over the hurt but when the healing and peace overwhelmed me on Saturday, I realized that you are really not,” Molly told me. “That’s why I am so grateful that this whole thing happened while my father was still alive to see it.”
What a great moment for Willie A. Haslerig and his country, the United States of America.