An Honor Seven Decades in the Making

Marie Brown-Mercadel, a San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency Deputy Director, shows the Congressional Gold Medal she accepted on her father's behalf. Brown-Mercadel said there may be other families in San Diego unaware their fathers or other relatives from the Montford Point Marines may be eligible posthumously for the honor.
November 11, 2013 | 9:00am

It sometimes takes history years to get things right.

In the case of thousands of African American marines, it took nearly seven decades.

Marie Brown-Mercadel ‘s father Arthur Brown, Sr., was one of them. He was among 20,000 marines who served their country during WWII who were trained at Montford Point, a segregated boot camp in Jacksonville, North Carolina, between 1942 and 1949.

The Montford Point Marines weren’t as prominent as the Tuskegee Airmen or Buffalo Soldiers, but recent actions by the Marines Corps and Congress hope to change that.

Through a unanimous action of Congress last year the Montford Point Marines were bestowed the Congressional Gold Medal – the nation’s highest civilian honor.

 “My dad was one of those marines and he was just proud to serve his country,” said Brown-Mercadel, Health and Human Services Agency deputy director. “There is a local San Diego chapter of veterans from Montford Point, and I thought Veterans Day would be a good time to let people know they might be able to receive this honor for their family member.”

She accepted the medal on behalf of her dad who died in 1986 at the age of 63.

“It took more than 60-some years after the camp closed for these marines to get this recognition,” said Brown-Mercadel. “There are about 400 of them still alive, but most people don’t know that if their father or relative was a Montford Point Marine that they are eligible to receive their medal posthumously.”

The Veterans – most in their mid-80’s – or their survivors receive replicas of the medal. Brown-Mercadel said the passage of so much time has not diminished the sense of pride for the recipients and their families.

“Their eyes lit up and it seemed to give them more life,” said Mercadel-Brown. “They were carrying those medals around like someone gave them a million dollars.”

The Montford Point Marines were the first African Americans to serve in the Marine Corps.

“They were only allowed to do certain things,” said Brown-Mercadel. They mainly did supply, maintenance, worked the chow line, or other support roles.

That wasn’t the only way they were treated differently, though. They had to ride in special rail cars reserved for African-Americans on their way to camp. When they returned from service overseas, many told of being refused free coffee from Red Cross workers who were handing them out to troops according to news reports.

But their sense of pride at serving their country overwhelms any negative feelings about the experience.

“They were doing exactly what they needed to do,” said Brown-Mercadel. “They were not resentful or angry, they were just grateful.”

Brown-Mercadel said her father joined for reasons similar to many marines.

“He never thought he was doing anything extraordinary,” she said. “He was just doing two things – serving his country and taking care of his family.”

He left school in eighth grade to support his family. He had 12 sisters and a brother.

“He was just 16 when he went in,” said Brown-Mercadel. “He was just so happy to serve.

“That’s just the way things were and his options were limited.”

She said he would have appreciated the medal but would not have thought it was a big deal.

“He probably would have been nonchalant about receiving this medal, but he would have been overwhelmed by all the attention,” said Brown-Mercadel. “He was just proud to serve his country and he was never bitter.”

And that 16-year-old that enlisted nearly 70 years ago had no idea the impact he would have on his daughter’s life decades later.

Brown-Mercadel’s husband, Alvin Mercadel, has been a marine for 27 years. He just left on his seventh tour to either Iraq or Afghanistan since 2001.

“He’s a master gunnery sergeant,” she said. “If it wouldn’t have been for the Montford Point Marines, he wouldn’t have been able to be as advanced.

“They paved the way and the success my husband has been able to have in the marines today is because of them.”