By the time Thomas Cork enlisted in the Marines, President Franklin Roosevelt had ordered integration within the military, but all-black units were not common.
Instead of being sent to more common boot camps at Parris Island or San Diego, African-American recruits from 1942-1949 were sent instead to Montford Point, a facility at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
It was here the segregation still happened, regardless of Presidential order.
Cork is a member of the Montford Point Marines Association, and is among more than 20,000 Marines who were trained at the facility, which was separated by a railroad track from the main training camp.
In 1950, the 18-year-old Cork waded off an LST landing craft onto the beach at Pusan, South Korea – the only black Marine on the boat.
“I was in the thirteenth wave,” Cork recalled on Veterans Day. “By the time I hit the beach, dead Marines were stacked up like cords of wood.”
Surviving the onslaught, Cork charged on, continuing a tour of duty that took him to Chosin, as one of the regarded “Chosin Few”.
The Battle of Chosin Reservoir was a decisive battle of the Korean War. During the epic 17-day battle, troops battled not only each other, but also an unforgiving winter.
With temperatures dropping as low as -35 degrees Fahrenheit, 30,000 troops under the United Nations flag were encircled by 60,000 Chinese troops. Although the Chinese troops far outnumbered the UN forces, the UN troops broke free and delivered crippling losses to the Chinese.
Among those who helped turn the tide was Cork, a seasoned machine gunner.
However, Mother Nature’s brutality shown through, because after the battle while being examined, a medical officer asked how he was feeling.
“Fine,” he said, “no pain.”
“They knew that wasn’t a good answer,” he said. And they were right. Cork suffered severe frostbite, which resulted in part of his foot being amputated.
But, it didn’t stop him. After he was discharged, he returned to Louisville where he worked as a postal carrier for the next 31 years. He retired in 1984 after a distinguished career.
Now 82-years-old, standing ramrod straight and firm, Cork knows that segregation is no longer an issue with the military, but he’s pleased that ceremonies such as this keep the Montford Point story alive.
“It’s not just something symbolic or part of the past,” he said. “I don’t want this story to disappear. I don’t want anyone to forget where we came from.”
Category: Veteran's Day 2011