HAMILTON TOWNSHIP — Rain fell on Bill French’s parade Friday, but the 92-year-old township resident didn’t care.
He has been through worse.
As a member of the U.S. Marine Corps’ segregated “Montford Point Marines” during World War II, French fought through extreme prejudice and abuse to serve the country he loved.
“We had to work three times as hard as other Marines but weren’t allowed to advance past sergeant,” French said. “We were yelled at constantly and made to stand outside in our skivvies for hours, where we were dark meat for the mosquitoes.”
So when rain forced a ceremony at which French would be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal — the highest possible honor for an American civilian — from War Memorial Park to inside the Municipal Building on Friday, he just shrugged and went with the flow.
President Barack Obama announced in November that the Montford Point Marines would receive the medals for their sacrifices in World War II and for “paving the way for future generations.”
French’s health prohibited him from being able to attend the official ceremony June 27 in Washington, D.C., where other local Montford Point Marines — including Vineland’s Egbert Brady, Fairfield Township’s Thomas Lane IV and Mays Landing’s Melvin Scott — received their medals.
Friday’s ceremony was an attempt to make up for that.
A caravan of cars, motorcycles and emergency vehicles escorted French to the ceremony, which featured U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, the Atlantic City Fire Department Sandpipers Pipe & Drums corps, veterans from multiple wars and active military personnel.
“In a time when people are in desperate need of inspiration and heroes, there may be a reason this was delayed all this time. Now could be the right time for people to understand your sacrifices and the courage it took to do what you did,” said LoBiondo, who presented French with the medal and a flag that was flown over the U.S. Capitol in his honor.
“The things you endured are incomprehensible and not tolerated at all in today’s day and age. ... Through your sacrifices, you paved the way for others to follow,” Marine Col. Jon D. Schleifer, who helped organize the event, said in a tearful thank you to French during the ceremony.
When it came time for French to address the crowd, the tears in his eyes prevented him from being able to read his prepared remarks. So he passed them to a young, white, female Marine to read it for him.
She read about the times that French was repeatedly turned away from the Marines because of his race and how his younger brother, Fred, was “blown up” by the Japanese while aboard a Navy vessel in the Pacific. She touched on the punishment he endured from white officers and what it meant to him to wear the Marine Corps emblem.
“If today’s colored Marines don’t understand what we went through, then they will never appreciate the way things are now,” the Marine read. “History was made here in our clean little town of Mays Landing, history that will never be made here again. … Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
When the ceremony ended, the more than 100 people in attendance lined up to thank French.
“Thank you for paving the way for me,” said Sam Burch, 76, of Egg Harbor Township. “I was in Vietnam from ’65 to ’68.”
“Oh, you’re just a baby,” French joked.
Marine Staff Sgt. Antonio Robertson has been stationed at Montford Point, which is now called Camp Johnson, in North Carolina.
The 32-year-old Philadelphia resident, who is black, waited patiently in line to thank French. And after he thanked him, he thanked him again.
“The stuff he went through really puts the stuff I go through now into perspective,” Robertson said. “I have obstacles, but they are nowhere near the obstacles he faced.”
In between the handshakes and the kudos, French snuck in some verbal jabs.
When he spotted Lance Cpl. Frederick Sheilds, 21, of Philadelphia, with a shooting medal hanging from his chest that was not as proficient as the medal on the Marine next to him, French told him to pick up his game.
“With all the experiences he’s gone through. The fact that he’s still able to joke around a little is actually kind of comforting,” Sheilds said afterward.
French’s eyes began to well up almost as soon as the ceremony began. But when his fellow Marines past and present stood and sang the Marines’ Hymn at the end of the ceremony, he could hide them no longer.
So with tears flowing down his face, French once again went with the flow and sang along.
“I was thinking of everything I went through,” he said. “It was tough.”
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