Ernie Smith and the Montford Point Marines

ernie smithIt’s almost a cliche to honor the patriot on Independence Day. Patriotism is so ingrained into the American psyche and with good reason. It’s not a difficult thing to feel patriotic – call it nationalistic if you must – about a country of such natural abundance and opportunity. “Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears”. We’re still the envy of the planet earth. But on the fourth of July it’s hard not to ponder the type of people whose love of country in hindsight seems almost supernatural. It’s the kind of patriotism that is personified in the form of Ernie Smith and the Montford Point Marines.

He has been an eyewitness to history on more than a few occasions. He once told me that one of his earliest memories took place on a drizzly May morning in 1927. Sitting atop top of his father’s strong shoulders at Roosevelt Field on Long Island, four-year-old Ernie watched as Charles A. Lindbergh roared down the runway in the Spirit of St. Louis. Disappearing into the horizon, the Lone Eagle would touch down at Le Bourget Airport in Paris thirty-three-and-a-half hours later. This wouldn’t be Ernie Smith’s last brush with history.

Shortly after World War Two broke out, Ernie read that President Franklin Roosevelt (prodded by Eleanor, God bless her) had issued an executive order banning exclusion from all branches of the service on the basis of race. The military would still be segregated, but at least there were “Negro” divisions where Americans whose ancestors were brought here in chains could distinguish themselves.

They were sent to the Montford Point training camp in North Carolina. The adjoining Camp Lejeune was for whites only. The arrangement was separate and quite unequal. The white recruits slept in heated, brick barracks. Their black counterparts weren’t so lucky – shacks that were exposed to the elements, infested with bugs and the occasional snake. When they ventured into the neighboring town of Jacksonville on a much-needed furlough, their R and R was neither restful nor relaxing. Mayberry it was not. They were forbidden the use most of the business establishments, and the nice folks of Jacksonville let it be known – in no uncertain terms – that these dark-skinned soldiers – some of whom would sacrifice their lives in the war – were not welcome in their fair community.

This is the type of “supernatural patriotism” I was referring to earlier. Ernie Smith and the Montford Point Marines were willing to serve and die for their country despite the fact that America in 1942 was none too appreciative of their sacrifice. You’ve got to tip your hat to these guys. They were – they are – a tough and heroic bunch of sons-of-bitches.

I just got a really neat Idea! On the week of December the seventh – PEARL HARBOR DAY – let’s hold a HUGE reunion and celebration for the Montford Point Marines. I’ve got the ideal location, too – Jacksonville, North Carolina! Wouldn’t that be a hoot??? I’m wicked, I know.

After the war and thanks to the GI Bill, Ernie was attending college on Prince Edward Island in Canada when he met Wanda McPhee. They married in 1952 and would eventually settle down in a house in Goshen, New York – just down the road and around the corner from where I now sit. There they would raise a family of nine girls and two boys.

My connection to this extraordinary family began, quite literally, on the day that I was born. My late, treasured friend Toni Smith DeGoede and I were born just a few hours apart in August of 1958 at the old Goshen Hospital. She was Ernie and Wanda’s daughter. Toni would grow up to become an environmental activist to be reckoned with, co-founding Orange Environment in the 1980’s. She died in 2003 at the depressingly young age of forty-five. Ernie’s beloved Wanda passed away the following year.

Ernie and Wanda Smith were the first interracial couple I ever saw – although that fact didn’t make much of an impression on me at the time. My first mental images of the family Smith are of them at church, around 1963. At the age of five their marriage did not seem such a revolutionary thing to me. After all, he was a guy; she was a gal. As young and as innocent as I was, I was at least old enough to understand that guys and gals had a habit of getting married to one another.

It was only after a few years of hindsight did the very fact of their marriage have a real impact on my consciousness. After all, the early sixties were a much different time. If any of them were ever on the receiving end of any hostility from the less-enlightened natives of Goshen (There were a few – trust me) they kept it to themselves. They were (and are) a very dignified family.

Here’s something to think about. When Ernie and Wanda were married on January 16, 1952, the very fact that they were husband and wife would have subjected them to criminal prosecution in at least fifteen states. Isn’t life strange?

The Smith family is packed to the rafters with too many doctors and lawyers to count. Daughter Alana is on the board of directors of the newly-opened Orange Regional Medical Center, and son Pete Smith is the owner/operator of Elyse’s Luncheonette on West Main Street in downtown Goshen. That’s what is known as a shameless plug.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Of the over 20,000 men who proudly – gallantly – served in the Montford Point Marines, less than 500 of them survive on Independence Day 2012. They were honored on June 27, a week ago today, at a ceremony in Washington DC. Seventy years after Ernie Smith and his compatriots answered their country’s call, they were rewarded the Congressional Gold Medal. Long overdue, but finally.

tom deganHappy Independence Day, Ernie Smith. You rock, Buster! You always have. You always will.

The photo at the top of this piece was taken on June 27, 2012 in Washington DC. To Ernie Smith’s right is his daughter, Marine Colonel Stephanie Smith.

Ya gotta love them Smiths. Ya just gotta!

Tom Degan
The Rant

Posted: Friday, 6 July 2012

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Comments

  1. Hwood007 says

    The marines in my family do not remember the brick barracks of which you write.  The seperation of which you write they remembered. Tom I have wondered how you received a teaching job when you do not even claim a teaching degree?  You may have taken a few too many freedoms in your bio and a new one may improve how you are seen, be proud of your pluses..

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