A 92-year-old Mays Landing resident will receive the highest honor possible for an American civilian Friday.
Nearly 70 years after fighting for his country, Bill French, a retired Marine from 1943 to 1945 who was part of the first group of men to break the Marine Corps color barrier, will receive the Congressional Gold Medal at a ceremony at War Memorial Park.
“I am very pleased,” French said. “This is the greatest honor of my life.”
French was part of the first group of black Marines who were stationed in Montford Point at Camp LeJeune, N.C., at the end of World War II.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued executive order No. 8802 on June 25, 1941, which opened the door for African-America men to serve in the U.S. military. Although the Army and Navy quickly integrated, it wasn’t until 1942 when FDR established a presidential order that enabled African Americans to be recruited into the Marine Corps.
About 20,000 African-American men served in the Marines through that camp.
There was a special ceremony in Washington, D.C., in June to present all of the Montford Point Marines with the medals. About 400 former Montford Point Marines were there but French was unable to attend.
Marine Colonel Jon Schleifer met French during a ceremony in Mays Landing on Memorial Day. French told him he was eligible for the medal but would be unable to attend the ceremony.
Schleifer, 49, began talking to local officials and U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2, to coordinate a ceremony to make the day special for French. Schleifer, a Mays Landing resident who has served with the Marines for 27 years, knew about the legacy of this special unit and what they meant for the military’s future.
“Today, race is not even a consideration with the Marines,” Schleifer said. “They paved the way, so today it’s not even a consideration.”
French said he wanted to serve in the military after his brother, Fred French, who served in the Phillipines as a Navy sailor, went missing when his boat sank.
French, who worked as a laborer in the Newark post Office, said he tried to enlist in New Jersey, but was told “no coloreds.” After being rejected again after trying to enlist in Manhattan, he said he was later allowed to enlist.
Although North Carolina was segregated — the Marines had to use different bathrooms, eat at separate lunch counters and were not permitted to use public transportation. French said he did not recall any prejudice on the base or the use of racial slurs.
On the base, French worked in the post office and was a member of the base’s track team where he ran the mile.
French said he had “no idea at the time” that his service would be groundbreaking.
In 1948, President Harry Truman signed an order negating segregation in the military and the Montford Marine Camp was deactivated in September 1949.
When he was discharged, French stayed in the post office and retired after 30 years with the federal agency. He also owned horse stables in central Jersey before moving to the township in 1983.
Committeewoman Aline Dix said she has known French for more than 10 years, but never knew about his service with the Montford Marines until recently. She said French is an extremely humble guy. She didn’t know about his past until she talked to Schleifer.
“I’m thrilled that we have someone who was part of such a significant part of American history living right here in Hamilton Township,” she said.
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