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One of nation’s first black Marines to be honored in CA

Interview with Robert L. Moore on the day the Montford Point Marines receive the Congressional Gold Medal at Camp Pendleton, Calif. on Aug. 14, 2012. (Sgt. Eugenio Montanez/U.S. Marine Corps)

Oceanside veteran Robert L. Moore remembers the first time he ever saw a Marine. It was in 1943 at a North Carolina movie theater where movie stars played Marines in the patriotic war film “Guadalcanal Diary.”

“I liked the word Marine. I liked the idea of Marines. I saw how elite they were compared to all the other services,” said Moore, who turned 90 on Tuesday.

But it wasn’t until three years later, when the teenage Moore saw two black Marines in uniform walking down the street, that he realized he could be a Marine, too. Moore is one of the nation’s last surviving Montford Point Marines, who were the first black men to serve in the Marine Corps.

Beginning on Aug. 26, 1942, some 20,000 black enlistees were trained at the segregated Camp Montford Point near the all-white Marine base Camp Lejuene in Jacksonville, N.C. The Montford camp was decommissioned in 1949 when President Harry Truman desegregated the armed forces. Thousands of Montford Point Marines fought in World War II, as well as in the Korea and Vietnam wars.

Most of these men struggled against racism, limited advancement opportunities and a lack of acknowledgment for their heroism in combat. Then in 2011, at the request of then-Marine Commandant James F. Amos, President Barack Obama authorized the award of the Congressional Gold Medal to all Montford Point Marines.

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Fewer than 400 of these pioneering men are still alive, but the Montford Point Marine Association in Pennsylvania is working to find the families of those who have passed for posthumous distribution. So far, fewer than 2,000 medals have been given out, said Joe Geeter, the association’s national public relations director.

Moore is being celebrated this month by family, friends and fellow veterans at a pair of celebrations to honor his Marine Corps service and his birthday. His family held a private gathering this weekend. And at 7 p.m. Saturday , the public is invited to attend “A Night at the Theater” celebration honoring Moore at the Brooks Theatre at 217 N. Coast Highway in Oceanside.

Moore’s granddaughter, Trina Lloyd-Hodge, said the celebration had to be split in two because so many people wanted to be involved in honoring her granddad. With his late wife of 57 years, Willie Mae, Moore raised 11 children in Oceanside who have produced 10 children, 32 grandchildren, 45 great-grandchildren and 14 great-great grandchildren. And Moore spent most of his 45-year career with the Marines — 25 on active duty, 20 as a civil servant — at Camp Pendleton.

“He’s got deep roots here. Everyone knows him,” Lloyd-Hodge said.

Moore is one of just three surviving Montford Point Marines in San Diego County and the only one affiliated with the association’s Chapter 44, which was formed in 2017 to help spread the word on this little-known chapter of Marine Corps history.

Chapter 44 President Gerald Hampton spent 22 years in the Marine Corps, retiring in 1996 as a chief warrant officer. Despite being a black Marine himself, Hampton had never heard of the Montford Point Marines until around 1992 because the Corps didn’t teach about them in its history curriculum. That changed in 2012.

“The Montford Point Marines are to the Marine Corps what the Tuskegee Airmen are to the modern-day Air Force. The only difference is they got the movie and the notoriety and we’re still trying to get our story out to the public,” Hampton said.

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Moore was born in 1929 at a Catholic hospital in Queens to a white, possibly immigrant mother. When the nuns at the hospital saw the baby’s dark skin, they quietly gave him away to a black domestic worker named Mary Grace Moore who had recently moved to New York from North Carolina, looking for work. No birth certificate or adoption papers were ever filed. Mary Grace named her son, Robert, and gave him her own birthday, Aug. 13.

To keep her son out of trouble in his teens, Mary Grace sent Robert to live with her mother in North Carolina, where, in 1946, he enlisted in the Marines.

Camp Montford Point was on a rattlesnake-infested peninsula where Moore said white Marines would throw bags filled with snakes into the bunks of black Marines as they slept. Even some of the black drill instructors subjected the Montford Point Marines to humiliating hazing rituals and surprise middle-of-the-night missions. Moore said he was often the odd man out because of his light skin color.

“The white guys saw me as black but the black guys thought I was too white,” he said. “There was a lot of racism but I let that roll off my back. The guys I worked with were fine, but some of the brass didn’t like me much.”

After finishing basic training, Moore was assigned to food service operations at Camp Lejeune and married his sweetheart, Willie Mae Miles. A year later, he was transferred to Camp Pendleton, which he affectionately calls “my loving home” because there was less discrimination here and he loved the Southern California weather.

“Coming to Camp Pendleton from Camp Lejeune was like coming out of hell and into heaven,” he said.

In 1951, Moore was shipped to Korea for 16 months, where he ran a field kitchen near the battle lines in the Korean War. He cooked by day and slept with a rifle by night because the North Korean and Chinese soldiers always attacked after dark. Every evening, he would load sticks of explosives into the camp stoves to turn them into makeshift bombs if the enemy ever got too close.

He later served in Sasebo, Japan, before returning to Southern California where he became a trainer for Marines in food service. He spent three years in the 1960s running a mess hall on the Navy amphibious assault ship USS Princeton. And his final tour of duty was in Vietnam.

“It was a terrible place. We never won that war and we lost a lot of men trying,” he said. “I did what I had to do and whenever I could I got myself a bottle of liquor. I think I was drunk on the plane home.”

In 1972, Moore retired from the Marine Corps at the rank of gunnery sergeant. Then, after earning a degree at Palomar College, he returned to Camp Pendleton where he worked another 20 years as a dietetic technician at the base hospital.

Since Moore retired in 1993, one of his favorite hobbies has been trying to learn more about his birth parents. He has conducted record searches on birth, orphan and adoption records in New York, New Jersey and North Carolina, with no luck. Two ancestry DNA tests have found evidence that both of his birth parents were likely immigrants, his mother from Western Europe, his father from West Africa. That’s as much as he knows.

As part of this month’s celebration, Lloyd-Hodge said her family has launched a Gofundme campaign to raise money to hire a genealogical investigator and to fund a trip back to New York for Moore and two family members to try and solve the mystery.(gofundme.com, “A 90 year olds gift of family”).

“Discouragement has slowed him down,” Lloyd-Hodge said. “To embark upon a research project that leads to finding the answers to who our father’s family could be would be the greatest gift anyone could give him.”

To learn more about the Montford Point Marines or to apply for a family member’s posthumous medal, visit montfordpointmarines.org.

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© 2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune