AUSTIN, Texas -- The Defense Department honored five black military pioneers during its observance of National African American History Month here at Huston-Tillotson University.
Among the five honorees were two battlefield heroes, Silver Star medal recipient Barnett Person of Fort Worth, Texas, and Bronze Star with V device for valor recipient Jack McDowell of Long Beach, Calif.
Person, a retired first sergeant decorated with the Silver Star Medal for gallantry in Vietnam, also received two Purple Hearts in Vietnam. Person said he was hit by enemy fire on May 8, 1967, and again on Aug. 29.
The tank retriever driver and later tank gunner said he wasn’t wounded during the Korean War.
The Silver Star citation cited Person for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action while serving as a platoon sergeant with Company A, 3rd Tank Battalion, 3rd Marine Division, in Vietnam.
The decoration’s citation stated that during the early morning hours of May 8, 1967, the area in which Person’s and other units came under intense enemy mortar and artillery fire from a numerically superior North Vietnamese Army force.
When the enemy penetrated the perimeter defenses in several place, ‘‘Person reacted instantly, calmly directed his 90 mm canister fire into the oncoming Viet Cong,” the citation read. ‘‘Disregarding enemy attempts to destroy his tank by exploding satchel charges against the turret, Person fearlessly increased his fire, employing both his main armament and his machine guns.
The citation said he ‘‘was responsible for killing more than 40 North Vietnamese soldiers, preventing the perimeter from being overrun and undoubtedly turned what could have been a potentially dangerous situation for friendly troops into a complete rout of a numerically superior enemy force.”
Retired 1st Sgt. Jack McDowell, 79, joined the Marines in April 1945, and served in the Korean and Vietnam Wars as well. He earned the Bronze Star with V device for valor and three Purple Hearts.
He suffered a gunshot wound to his left foot in North Korea in 1951. McDowell was wounded in his back by shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade in Vietnam in May 1967. He received gunshot wounds to his left leg by a .51-caliber machine gun on July 29. His leg was amputated on Navy hospital ship USS Sanctuary.
McDowell was decorated with the Bronze Star with V device for valor in Vietnam. The award citation stated that McDowell was cited ‘‘for heroic achievement in combat operations as first sergeant of Company G, 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, on July 29, 1967.
‘‘The battalion’s lead company triggered an ambush that soon engulfed the unit in a heavy barrage of small arms, automatic weapons fire and artillery,” the citation continued.
McDowell assisted in gathering casualties and directing the priorities of fire, the citation stated. ‘‘After being wounded by a gunshot in the foot, McDowell continued his actions and assisted in establishment of a secure defensive position,” the citation read. ‘‘Throughout the encounter, he bolstered morale and aided in re-establishing organization amidst the confusion generated by the attack.”
Retired Master Gunnery Sgt. Joe Geeter, national president of the Montford Point Marine Association, introduced the two veterans and told the audience about the contributions of five American military pioneers.
Geeter, who said he’s too young to be an original Montford Pointer, then introduced retired Lt. Col. Joseph Carpenter, a Montford Pointer who was later commissioned. He served as a data processing officer and later worked as a civil affairs officer.
Carpenter, who retired on June 19, 1986, said he was assigned a chief clerk at Montford Point.
Geeter pointed out that Carpenter, who resides in Washington, is national historian for the Montford Point Marines Association and travels with presentation that tells the story of Montford Point.
‘‘Retired Master Gunnery Sgt. Robert Reid served during the Korean and Vietnam wars and reached the highest enlisted rank and paved the way for the next generation of African-American Marines like myself,” said Geeter. Reid lives in Norco, Calif.
Charleston, S.C., resident Ellis Cunningham, a retired first sergeant, is an Iwo Jima survivor and Korean War Purple Heart recipient.
More than 2,000 African Americans participated in the World War II fight for Okinawa. American flag was raised on Mount Suribachi at Iwo Jima on Feb. 23, 1945.
Maj. Gen. James R. Myles, commander of the Army Test and Evaluation Command, walked gave special recognition to Cunningham and his wife, Lucille, for being married for 52 years. The command co-hosted the reception with DoD.
Geeter said he joined the association because he was motivated when he first heard the story of these heroes. ‘‘I wanted to make sure their legacy was not forgotten,” said Geeter, a corporate employee relations manager for AmeriGas Propane. ‘‘I’ve been teaching younger Marines about their African American heritage since 1978.”
Geeter said, on June 25, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order No. 8802 establishing the fair employment practice that began to erase discrimination in the armed forces and paved the way for African Americans to enlist in the Marine Corps.
But it wasn’t until 1942 when Roosevelt established a presidential directive giving African Americans an opportunity to be recruited into the Marine Corps. But instead of training at the Parris Island, S.C., and San Diego boot camps, they trained separately at Montford Point Camp - a part of Camp Lejeune and New River, N.C.
African Americans who trained the nation’s first black Marines became known as the Montford Point Marines.
‘‘It was a long time coming,” Geeter said. ‘‘These men had to fight to get into Montford Point.”