BY DAWN BAUMGARTNER VAUGHAN
It’s been more than a decade since the alarm was sounded about the rate of World War II veterans dying at about 1,000 a day. The National World War II Memorial was completed, and many veterans have visited it, though many more died before the monument even broke ground. Yet WWII veterans are still here, many of them who entered the military as teenagers.
Gunnery Sgt. Mack Haynes Sr. joined the U.S. Marine Corps when he was just 17 years old. His distinction is more than the war in which he served, but also the color barrier he and thousands of other African-American Marines broke during World War II. Haynes is a Montford Point Marine, named for the segregated Marine Corps training camp at Camp Lejeune in the 1940s.
Now, with the Montford Point Marines well into their twilight years, Haynes, 86, and others will be honored and recognized by Congress for their contribution to history. On Wednesday, they will be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal during a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center. About 20,000 African-American Marines went through Montford Point between 1942 and 1949. There are 425 still alive, identified in the past six years by the Montford Point Marine Association. About 100 will attend the ceremony Wednesday, followed by a reception Thursday with the Marine Corps commandant.
Haynes, who is originally from Flint, Mich., was 17 when he arrived in North Carolina on March 21, 1943. Training was hard, and many men washed out. Not Haynes. He was in the 36th platoon to graduate.
“I was just determined to make it,” Haynes said. He didn’t think about the significance of being one of the first African-American Marines. “It was all real segregated then,” he said.
During World War II, Haynes served in the Pacific, doing what was referred to as “island hopping” – securing islands after U.S. battles with Japan.
After the war, Haynes continued his career in the Marines.
“All my buddies stayed in the Marines. My home friends were gone – there was nothing to go back to,” he said. Haynes noted that Marines often talk about how they like the uniform. They had respect, he said. He was stationed at several bases around the country, including California, in the years after. Haynes just went where they sent him, he said. That included the Korean War and the Vietnam War, too.
In Vietnam from 1966 to 1967, he worked a supply command in an area that received rocket fire most nights.
Haynes was “blown out of the bunker” and received shrapnel wounds. His right hip still bothers him, and he has post traumatic stress disorder. Agent Orange, he said, led to the throat cancer that left him with a voice no louder than a whisper.
Haynes retired in 1970 after 28 years of service. His best and worst base assignments were in California, he said. The best was Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, he said, for the proximity to Los Angeles and Hollywood. The worst was Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center 29 Palms, out in the desert and home to sand fleas and rattlesnakes.
After retiring, Haynes moved to Durham and married his wife, Dorothy. He was chief custodian at Immaculata Catholic School for two decades, retiring again in the late 1990s.
Each Marine going to the D.C. ceremony is allowed to be accompanied by one person. Fellow veteran Mike Floyd, a generation younger, will escort Haynes. Floyd, an Air Force veteran who served in Vietnam, met Haynes at a Veterans for Benefits Justice event. Veterans have a bond, Floyd said.
“In my mind, we are part of the same cloth, a piece of string in the cloth. We make the whole blanket, or quilt, if you will,” Floyd said. He learned not to leave a soldier or airman behind, and wants to make sure Haynes receives all his veteran’s benefits. He helped with the paperwork for the Montford Point recognition, and corresponded with U.S. Rep. David Price about it on Haynes’ behalf.
Haynes hopes to see some of the guys he served with at the ceremony, he said. “I think I did my part. It was rough, but I made it.”
He’s glad the recognition is finally coming.
“It should have happened sooner,” Haynes said.