ANDERSON TWP, Ohio - Bill McGee was used to being one of only five black students in his high school, surrounded by Germans and Italians, but he wasn’t prepared for the next chapter of his life that made his differences an obstacle. That would come when he left home to fight for his country.
He remembered that at that time, he was more than ready to leave home, living with an uncle, whom he did not get along with. He had two feet out the door for as long as he could remember. That was when the military came calling.
“When you're 18, you want to fly and I was gung-ho,” he said about joining the Marine Corp.
McGee, 87, learned what the word ‘segregation’ meant when he left Brooklyn, New York for North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune in June of 1943, just weeks after graduating from high school.
"You gotta be pretty wise to live to be 87, not stupid. You don't go into the tiger's den and try to mesmerize him. It won’t work," he laughed, about knowing what to get his feathers ruffled for and what what not to. He didn’t let people who didn’t like him for being black bother his mission to serve his country.
"I didn't know I was going to be born. I'm here though, deal with it. So I just dealt with being what I was."
What he was, was a Marine among nearly 3,000 other black Marines in the first African-American unit in WWII, segregated into the Montford Point platoon.
But his platoon at Camp Lejeune was not his first taste of racism.
It was 1943, and the 17-year-old was fresh out of high school and on a train to the South.
"We got into Washington, D.C. and we had to get off the train and get on a segregated train to take us to North Carolina," said McGee.
He was seated on plastic, while the white Marines were given plush, cushioned seats. Restaurants along the route wouldn't allow him to eat inside—even though he was in uniform and even if it was raining outside.
But he didn't let narrow minds get the best of him.
"It rolled off my back like water off a duck's back because I was laughing at them. I don't know why you're wasting your time hating me... I don't even know ya," he chuckled, remembering the people and the comments he faced on a daily basis as a Marine.
After one or two visits off base in North Carolina, he decided to stay put, because it was too much hassle to be in town as a black man in the early 1940s, in the South.
"We didn't pay any attention to the prejudices. We tried to just avoid it because there wasn't anything you can do about it. If you hate me there's not much I can do about changing your mind."
He vividly remembered the dates when he was sent overseas. He was in the Pacific from Jan. 11, 1944 to Feb. 6, 1945, working inside, at the desk—not allowed in combat because of the color of his skin.
"We were separated; we weren't allowed to fight with the white boys,” said McGee.
He said that he had been put into the Marine Corp and then ignored.
“They didn't want us to get any action or glory. The commandant of Camp Lejeune said 'We want to keep the blacks around to police up the area. We don't want them to go overseas and get into the fighting.' And that was his attitude. He's the one who issued the order about, 'At no time will any black NCO order around any white boy.' That's the atmosphere we were living under," said the Veteran, who now lives in a modest one-bedroom apartment in Anderson Township.
Scattered throughout the main room where his bed sits, are patriotic trinkets and military memorabilia—small American flags, a Veteran hat, an engraved plaque, and a red, white and blue tie, presumably for him to wear for the Fourth of July celebration he was headed to later in the day.
Strewn across his bed are a program, brochure and a large, round medal still in its plastic sleeve. They are badges of honor recently doled out to him.
Seventy years after the war, he and his fellow Montford Point Marines were recognized with a Congressional Medal of Honor in Washington, D.C., last week, for the work they did, and for the work they were forbidden to do—fight in combat for freedom.
Today, only 430 Montford Point Marines remain.
The divorced father of one, put the medal, dangling from a wide red, white and blue ribbon, over his head and hat, which was adorned by a Marine pin, as it knocked his glasses from the bridge of his nose. He rearranged his spectacles and straightened his collar, placing the medallion around his neck, letting it rest upon his chest.
"It's about time. I felt unbelievable. I never expected it after 70 years."
Blazing the way for other black service members for nearly a century, he sat upright in his reclining chair to read the medal.
"Semper Fidelis... It means forever. It means be faithful forever," he said proudly holding up his large, heavy, gold medal.