Legionnaire earns highest civilian honor

In 1948, segregation was a way of life south of the Mason-Dixon line. So when 17-year-old John Hill got his mother to sign him into the Marine Corps on March 16 of that year, he was sent to where all African-American Marines were trained — Camp Montford Point in New River, N.C.

Hill said he "didn’t even think about the segregation" at Montford since he was born in the Deep South and raised in an area that had designated "white" and "colored" water fountains. But he does remember "being yelled at" and running a lot. "I was trying to grow into manhood, and I said, ‘This training will probably help me.’ So this is one way of getting started in life."

During a ceremony on June 27  — 64 years later — at the Emancipation Hall of the Capitol Visitor's Center in Washington, D.C.,  Hill and nearly 100 of his fellow Montford Marines were honored for their service to their country. Hill received the Congressional Gold Medal — America’s highest honor — for his 22 years, four months and 15 days of active duty that took him to Korea in 1950 where he took part in the Inchon landing and the Battle of Chosin Reservoir.

At 82 years old, Hill is not only proud of his military service, but also of his membership and service to American Legion Post 291 in Atlanta. He too is proud of his role as a detachment adjutant for the Sons of The American Legion (SAL). "I’ve got more than 30 years in the Legion and more than 20 years in the SAL," Hill said. Hill joined these organizations because he "always felt that you should put something back into what you got something out of; it’s a way of helping all the veterans."

After making it through basic training, Hill was assigned to work the switchboard at Camp Montford. He was there on July 26, 1948, when President Harry S. Truman sounded the death knell of segregation in the U.S. Armed Forces with Executive Order 9981, which made it clear "that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin." The next day, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Omar N. Bradley announced that the Army would desegregate only when the rest of American society did so. Two days later, President Truman held a press conference and made the point of his executive order crystal clear: Segregation in the Armed Forces is over.

"That’s when Harry S. Truman said, ‘The buck stops at my desk’ and segregation was ended," Hill said. "Then we were moved out from Montford Point over to Camp Lejeune." Hill attended electronics school but when the Korean War broke out, he transferred to Camp Pendleton, Calif., and found himself assigned to a motor transport unit.

"We fell out one morning," Hill recalled, "and someone said, ‘Everyone who’s got a driver’s license take one pace forward.’ I did that, they gave us a right face, a march, stopped us, then left face and parade rest — ‘You are now in motor transport.’" Hill landed at Inchon in September 1950, drove an M-5 truck across a pontoon bridge on the Han River, and ended up in Seoul, South Korea’s capital. "After some skirmishes and whatnot (General Douglas) MacArthur gave the city back to Syngman Rhee, president of South Korea at the time."

While driving, Hill kept his M-1 rifle next to him. Although his unit was ambushed several times by North Korean and Communist Chinese forces, he never was wounded.

Hill’s outfit, the 7th Motor Transport Battalion, had four platoons and he was in A Company. "I was the only colored person in A Company. There was another guy in D Company, and I can remember we were the only two there." Hill made friends with "four white guys. We got together, and it was like we were a team — if you saw one, you saw the others." The five of them stuck together until they were separated during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir in December 1950.

After a few months in Korea, Hill came back stateside in April 1951 to continue his career in the integrated Marine Corps.

About 20,000 African-Americans went through Marine training at Montford from 1942 to 1949. "We were a fighting outfit, and we were just as good as any Caucasian," Hill said. "Being a second-class citizen, when you risk your life — when you’re dead — it makes no difference."

Being honored with the Congressional Gold Medal is something Hill never imagined. He also never dreamed "that there would be a black man as the president of the United States. These are blessings altogether and it’s history, and it’s something you’re just glad to be a part of," Hill said. "I have a granddaughter and three great-grandsons, and I would always like them to remember that the old man did do something in life."

Hill wishes that his wife of nearly 62 years, Essie, was still alive to share his great day. "My wife, she passed on March 5, 2011," he said. "We got married in 1949 and she was my best friend. She would have loved to have been here to see this honor given to me. A lot of people ask us how did we manage to get through all this ordeal? But our women, they didn’t have it so easy. They had it rough, too."