Bridgeport Marine to receive Congressional Gold Medal
Monday, June 25, 2012
BRIDGEPORT -- Shortly after graduating from Central High School in 1943, 17-year-old Lavell Lynch heard African-Americans could join the U.S. Marine Corps. He figured he would try it out. "I was an adventurous type of young man," he recalled.
Lynch's parents didn't know their 5-foot-7-inch, 130-pound son had enlisted. "My father had a fit," Lynch said. His mother simply said, "Let him learn for himself."
On Tuesday, Lynch, now 85 years old, will receive a Congressional Gold Medal in Washington, D.C., for his service as one of the first African-American Marines in the country.
Lynch was a member of the Montford Point Marines, a segregated group of African-American Marines based in Jacksonville, N.C.
Congressional Gold Medals are the highest civilian awards in the United States, given to people who have made distinguished and outstanding contributions to the nation.
From 1942 to 1949, about 20,000 African-American soldiers received training at that camp, now known as Camp Gilbert H. Johnson, in honor of one of the first African-American drill instructors at Montford Point, said James Averhart, Jr., the president of the Montford Point Marine Association.
When Lynch arrived to the base for boot camp, his drill instructors were all white at first; some were even physically abusive, he said. "They gave us hell," Lynch said. "They didn't want us there to begin with."
After black soldiers became the drill sergeants, training was even tougher, he said. Black drill sergeants wanted to prove that black soldiers were just as capable as the white soldiers. "We appreciated it because it made us know what we could do," Lynch said.
After completing his basic training and returning to Bridgeport for a short vacation, people were surprised when they saw him in his uniform. "White folks didn't know they had black Marines." He said.
During his tenure as a Marine, Lynch said he and other soldiers had some of the most undesirable jobs.
African-American officers could not be in charge as officers, Averhart said. "These men had to fight for the right to fight."
Lynch was stationed in Hawaii and Nagasaki, Japan, where he worked as a switchboard operator and an ammunition carrier. Lynch had to load up barges with the ammunition and bring it to shore. "That's about the hardest job there is," he said. "It's very dangerous, heavy work."
Lynch was honorably discharged from the Marines in 1946, after three years of service, he said.
He said he decided not to re-enlist because of the prejudice in the Marine Corps. He also wanted a better job than ammunition handler, he said. So Lynch returned to Bridgeport and worked in a brass shop for a few months and the Acme Shear Company for 37 years. Last year, he retired as a sign-in monitor for Bassick High School, where he worked for eight years, he said. Now he's just taking it easy.
"I'm up in age," he said.
Lynch's wife, Lois, whom he met in Bridgeport, passed away in 1985. The couple had no children.
Lynch is happy to be receiving the Congressional Gold Medal and proud to be a Montford Point Marine. "We opened the door for the ones that came after us," he said. "The white men didn't want us in there and we did what they said we couldn't do."
At the ceremony, Lynch said, he hopes to be reunited with some of the Marines he lost touch with 70 years ago.
Averhart said the story of the Montford Point Marines is not just history that pertains to African-Americans. "I think America should know their story."