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NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. — As he observes Veterans Day and prepares to mark his 90th birthday Tuesday, Pughsley Lane is taking some time to remember when he, and thousands like him, made history and helped change American culture.
When Lane graduated from Ambler (Pa.) High School in 1943, he knew that, at some point, if he did not enlist, he would be drafted. With World War II raging, Lane said the choice was easy.
"I enlisted because it gave me the choice of which branch of the service I would go into, and I wanted to be a Marine," he said. "They were the best, and I wanted to be one of the best. I had three friends who were already in the Marines."
Lane's friends, however, where white.
Blacks had been barred from the Marine Corps until 1942, after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order to change that, ignoring the objections of Marine leadership, who said African-Americans could not meet the Corps' high standards.
They were soon proved wrong by the thousands of blacks who, like the Buffalo Soldiers and Tuskegee Airmen, enlisted, endured and excelled in the years to come. They trained at a segregated camp in Montford Point, N.C., served in segregated units and became known as the Montford Point Marines. Most, like Lane, served in the Pacific during the final years of World War II.
About 20,000 Marines passed through Montford Point until 1949, when it was closed and the Marine Corps was fully integrated. They included Lane and two others from Westchester County, New York — Frederick C. Branch, who in 1945 became the first black commissioned officer in the Marine Corps and died in 2005; and Howard L. McCoy, who served as Mount Vernon, N.Y.'s first African-American police chief from 1977 until his retirement in 1992. He died in 2003.
In June, Lane and 400 other surviving Montford Point Marines were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation's highest civilian honor, at a ceremony in Washington as guests of the Marine Corps.
"I didn't recognize anyone, and nobody recognized me. But we had shared an experience all those years ago, and soon enough we were joking with each other and it was a beautiful thing," Lane said. "I'm still shocked that we finally got that recognition. It should have happened a long time ago, before so many of us passed away."
McCoy's daughters, Sonserray McCoy and Coleen McCoy, said their father would have been happy to know that the Montford Point Marines were finally getting their official due.
"It would have been a high point for him," Coleen McCoy said. "I'm sure he would have been very excited and proud."
Sonnserray McCoy said she used to go with her father to reunions of the Montford Point Marine Association.
"He looked forward to every year," she said. "He would meet up with his old buddies and it meant a lot to him. When I was young I didn't know how important the Montford Point Marines were in our history, the impact they had. I don't understand why they aren't as well known as the Tuskegee Airmen or the Buffalo Soldiers. They were pioneers."
Lane said Montford Point was not an easy place.
"I was knee-high to a duck when I went down there," he said, "and it was very, very rough. Most of us had never been away from home before, and I know there were some tears shed those first few nights. Anybody who went through Montford Point, no matter how old you were, you spent some time crying."
While he was in training, Lane said, Montford Point switched from white to black drill instructors.
"The blacks were tougher," he said, chuckling. "They were strict and stern and didn't put up with anything. They would hit you with the butt of a rifle if you did anything wrong. If you got more than three letters from home in a week they would paddle you. It was hazing, but it made us tough, and made us pull together. They made sure we were sharp and serious about what we were doing."
The experience, he said, "bound all of us together."
"It taught us to love each other," he said. "You had to look out for your buddies, and they had to look out for you. If somebody stepped out of line, we would straighten him out. Looking back, I wouldn't change a thing. It made men out of us. I learned how to treat my fellow man, and how to put myself in his shoes."
Lane, who was discharged in 1946 at the rank of sergeant, went on to a career as a mechanical engineer and consultant, specializing in aircraft design.
"I'm very proud that I'm a Montford Point Marine, even though most people don't even know we existed," he said.
"It's a history that should have been written, just like any other history," he said. "We went through hell in the beginning, but, after basic, you began to love the Marines. I still do. When I was in Washington for the ceremony, the young white Marines were saying that if it wasn't for us, the Marine Corps wouldn't be what it is today. That meant a lot to me. We must have done something right."