By Grant Moser
PART ONE OF TWO
The Congressional Gold Medal is awarded by Congress and is the highest civilian award in the nation. On June 27, Mt. Airy resident Earl Guydon, 88, was in Washington, D.C., to receive that medal for his service with the Montford Point Marines from 1942-1946, which broke the military’s last color barrier.
At the ceremony, Guydon recalls countless Marines ranging from Private to General saluting him and thanking him for his service. A Lt. General, also an African-American, put the medal around his neck and thanked him with these words: “Your service opened the door for us. If you had failed, I wouldn’t have three stars. You guys got the foot in the door before Martin Luther King or Jackie Robinson came along.” This made the atrocious treatment that Guydon had received from the Marines back then a little easier to bear.
Guydon was drafted in 1942 at the age of 18, but received a one-year deferment since he was the breadwinner for his mother and five younger siblings in Clarendon, Arkansas. He entered the Marine Corps in November, 1943, and was sent to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. The mistreatment started immediately upon his being drafted.
“When I was drafted and went to be examined at Camp Robertson in Little Rock, Arkansas, I couldn’t eat in the chow hall. They gave me a meal ticket, and I had to go the bus station and go around back to a little window and present my ticket to get a sandwich. That was the day when I was inducted. I’m thinking all the time, ‘This is crazy. I’m going (overseas) to defend this system?’
“The drugstore was where they picked us up, and the white guys were allowed to sit in the drugstore and have coffee, but they put some cardboard on the floor for us to lie on in the back of the drugstore. No coffee or anything. Inhuman treatment all the way. That was the way of life. I was born into that. The thing that disturbed you was seeing fellas wearing the same uniform you’re wearing getting opportunities that you were denied.”
When Guydon arrived at Camp Lejeune, he discovered that he and his fellow black Marines weren’t living on the base. They had to live in a separate facility about 10 miles back in the woods along a creek on Montford Point, with about 50 quonset huts. “It looked like a barrel turned on its side,” he explained, “and there were 62 guys in one hut and one stove in the middle. If you weren’t close to the stove, you had a rough night. The mosquitoes were pretty bad, too. No windows either.”
All of his commanding officers were white, and they would arrive in the morning to drill recruits all day and then go back to the main camp in the evening. If any of the training had to take place at Camp Lejeune, African American troops had to go back to their own camp to eat.
The way that officers treated Guydon and his fellow Marines made it clear to him that they weren’t wanted in the Marine Corps, even though President Roosevelt had issued an order in 1942 to integrate the armed forces. “I think the brass wanted us to fail. We were set up for failure, but every challenge and every roadblock they threw at us we overcame.”
The Montford Point Marines were attached to the white 7th Marine Division. Out of the 29,000 black Marines, only two defense battalions were created, each with between 2,000 and 3,000 men to defend land that had already been captured. The rest performed supply jobs, such as loading and unloading ships or bringing ammunition to the front when it was needed. Guydon participated in the occupation of Japan in September of 1945 and then was shipped to Guam, where he helped destroy old ammunition and rode guard on trains from pineapple farms.
Guydon was discharged in 1946 and returned home to Arkansas. He remembers a federal government program that paid veterans $22.50 after their service. He and his brother went to the local courthouse to sign up and waited for all the white men to finish before they had their turn.
“When the last white fella was sitting there, I was right behind him. The lady asked, ‘What can I do for you?’ and he said, ‘Well, I’m building a house, and I want this money to tide me over.’ She said, ‘All right, sign him up.’
“My brother and I were also building a house for our mother because we were planning to leave for Philadelphia. I sat next and said, ‘My brother and I are building a house for our mother, and we need…’ and she interrupted with ‘We can’t do that.’ I was dumbfounded, I didn’t know what to do. I sat there and then walked out. We never got a dime. That was routine.”
Unfortunately, that was the way life was in America, and Guydon had grown up with nothing else but this sort of treatment. His family rented farmland in Arkansas and raised cotton, corn and sorghum. He remembers looking at the stars through his roof and the chickens under the house through the floor.
The white landlord would get every fourth bale of cotton and every third bushel of corn as rent. As soon as a child was big enough to work, he went into the fields. Guydon started working when he was 7. He and his younger brother would chop cotton together.
He did attend school for a while, which meant a walk of three to seven miles depending on where his family was living at the time. The white children would walk to the highway and get picked up by the school bus, but he and the other black school children had to keep walking. His schooling was scant, however, as it was more important to the family that he worked.
A typical year saw plowing and planting beginning in March and then harvesting the crops in the fall through Thanksgiving. So most black children, especially the boys, would only attend school December through February. During the summer months while the crop was growing, he worked in timber camps or the button factory or the barrel factory. Anything to try and make ends meet.
Guydon’s father, who passed away in December of 1940, had participated in a federal government program to stop overproduction of crops. They paid $10 for every acre you didn’t plant, and his father had $60 coming to him when he died. Another white landowner told their landlord that Guydon and his brother had cheated him out of some of his corn, “which we didn’t. You were walking on thin ice all the time anyway. Why would we try that?”
The landlord went to the post office and took his father’s check. Guydon’s mother went to see him, and he told her to sign the check and he’d take his portion and give her the rest. She refused. An old judge, whom Guydon’s father and grandfather had worked for, told his mother to write to the Treasury Department to recall the check and send it to her.
They were afraid to mail the letter in their hometown, so an older brother in Little Rock did it for them. The landlord attempted to take this check from the post office as well, but when he found out the federal government was involved, he backed off. So the family finally received the check, but then they had to move off the land.
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK