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Marine gets his due

Melissa Topey • Nov 14, 2013 at 6:00 PM

Tuesday afternoon, tears streaming down his face, Winfield Finch Sr. finally got the recognition he deserved.


It was more than six decades in the making. “Semper Fidelis,” Finch said to Marine Lt. Colonel Pete McAleer and Sgt. Major Michael Burke, who handed him his award and a framed proclamation.


“Semper Fidelis,” Burke replied, leaning down until he was face-to-face with Finch. It was a snapshot of living history: a young, white Marine honoring the experiences and service of his elder counterpart, a black man whose time in the military was marked not just by combat in far-off lands, but cultural battles right here at home. Finch, 87, broke many barriers as a serviceman during World War II.

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In 1944, he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the military. 


The shortest line at the recruitment center was for the Marine Corps.


That simple twist of fate led the Cleveland resident to become a Montford Point Marine.    


While white Marine candidates trained at Parris Island in South Carolina or Camp Pendleton in California, about 20,000 African American recruits trained at Montford Point Camp, a separate facility at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

They were black men who grew up in an America where “whites only” signs were common. They joined to fight for their country, despite segregation.

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About 13,000 of the Montford Marines were assigned to overseas battalions or combat support in the direct line of fire. Finch served in the infantry in the Pacific Theater and was stationed in Guam and Hawaii.

“We were ready to fight and prove we were as good or better than anyone else,” Finch said, his voice soft with age.

Now in a wheelchair, he is one of the many residents at the Ohio Veterans Home in Perkins Township. His battles these days are more of the medical sort, such as his struggle with kidney failure.

His Marine pride has not wavered one iota, despite all the passing years.

Finch recalled a Japanese unit of about 70 soldiers being very surprised when they came across a unit of black Marines. He also remembered having to pull down the shades of a military transport bus traveling through Atlanta, so people could not see in and realize a white bus driver was transporting black Marines.

Finch never talked much about the combat or the bodies he saw, said Winfield Finch Jr., his son.

“But he would tell us about watching the planes fly overhead as they headed to Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” Finch Jr. said.

The elder Finch also told his family about the challenges of being a black Marine during World War II, and what happened to one of his fellow Montford Marines. The friend was arrested when he went into town wearing his uniform.

“They did not believe he was a Marine,” Finch Jr. said. “My father never wore his uniform out after that.”

In July 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed an executive order ending segregation in the military. The Montford Marine Camp was de-activated the following year, and the service of the black Marines was mostly ignored for the next few decades.

In 2011, legislators in Washington voted to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the surviving Montford Point Marines fortheir service to their country. President Barack Obama approved the measure that November, and about 400 Montford Point Marines went to Washington for the awards ceremony.

Finch Sr. was unable to go because his wife was ill; he had to stay home to care for her. She died recently.

In 2012, there were about 900 surviving Montford Marines, the last figure available.

Tuesday’s ceremony was tailored exclusively for Finch, recognizing him for his service as a Montford Point Marine.

“Today, we go out of our way to remember our history and the men who broke those barriers down,” McAleer said to a crowd of a few dozen. “Today we cannot even imagine segregation in the military.”

Finch kept it simple: “Thank you.”

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