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Hear stories of the first Black men who joined the Marine Corps during World War II

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Time now for StoryCorps' Military Voices Initiative, recording and sharing the stories of service members and their families. 1942, in the midst of World War II, the U.S. Marine Corps officially opened its ranks to Black men. More than 19,000 Black recruits signed up, and they became known as the Montford Point Marines after the North Carolina base where they trained. Most of these men have passed away, but through the StoryCorps archive, we can still hear their stories.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARI ANN ROBERTS: Do you remember the first time you put on a uniform?

ESTEL ROBERTS: Just felt like, oh, I'm a proud Marine, you know? I thought I was something.

BENJAMIN JENKINS: I wanted to help fight for our country and also to show that we have the courage and intelligence to do so.

WILLIAM PICKENS: We knew we were the best. But we made it our business to be the best of the best - not mediocre, but the best.

SIMON: That was Private First Class William Pickens, Staff Sergeant Benjamin Jenkins and Mari Ann Roberts speaking to her father, Marine Estel Roberts. And now we're going to hear from Corporal Sydney Alan Francis. After serving as one of the first Black Marines, he worked as a New York City police detective. And in 2005, he spoke with his daughter, Candice, at StoryCorps.

SIDNEY ALLEN FRANCIS: I wanted to go into the Army, but they said no.

CANDICE FRANCIS: And this was World War II?

S FRANCIS: Yeah. And they stamped my papers Navy. And there was no way in the hell I was going to go into Navy.

C FRANCIS: Why didn't you want to go in the Navy?

S FRANCIS: I didn't like the little hats they wore and the little (laughter). So then I said, what about the Marine Corps? The guy says, well, you have to go around and see the sergeant major. First thing he said to me, are you a high school graduate? I said yes, sir. And I went to North Carolina for boot camp.

C FRANCIS: And what was that like?

S FRANCIS: I mean, they were rough.

C FRANCIS: Now, were your drill instructors - were they white or Black?

S FRANCIS: No, they were Black. But see, they had trained on the white instructors because up to 1942, the Marine Corps had no Blacks. And that's why they were extra tough on us. They wanted us to make it, and we did.

Well, I have to tell you, I almost went to jail down there. I was with my buddy from New York. He was in the Marine Corps, and we were going to Raleigh from Montford Point. And we're sitting in the back of the bus. Then the bus stopped to pick up people, and the bus driver came up, and he said, you guys all have to get up. So I said, get up for what? He says, these white people have to sit down. I said, we're in the back of the bus. He said you had to get up. And I lost my head then. I says, we're not getting up. And lo and behold, not even 10 minutes, in comes police with guns drawn. And they took me that night to some little prison camp.

And in the morning, I heard, Warden, this is Major Papa (ph), the United States Marine Corps. You got one of my boys in there. All the Marines from Montford Point - they were on 6-by-6 trucks with machine guns at the ready. You can see they just wanted to tear that jail down. And when I came out, Major Papa, he says, PFC Francis, you get on that truck. We're out of here. And he hollered back, thank you, Warden, that you didn't hurt one of my Marines. He said, you would have been in trouble.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: That was Corporal Sidney Allen Francis speaking with his daughter Candice. He died on February 15, 2014, and his daughter recently came back to StoryCorps.

C FRANCIS: So I didn't know that story before. He had never shared that with me, but it sounded like my father. I wasn't surprised by that at all. You know, a lot of Black men who served this country had to also suffer indignities even while in uniform. I don't think that they've gotten the credit that they deserve for putting their lives in danger and coming out of it with scars that didn't come from the so-called enemy, but came from within. But what I appreciate about my father is that he used his military service to give him what he needed to build a life for himself and his family. It gave him purpose and it gave him an anchor, and I'm grateful for that.

So what do you want your grandchildren to know about you?

S FRANCIS: I want them to remember that I loved them, that's all. There's nothing exciting about me. I'm just a man.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Candice Francis interviewing her father, Corporal Sidney Allen Francis, one of the first Black U.S. Marines to serve his country. Their conversation is archived, along with all StoryCorps interviews, at the U.S. Library of Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kayla Lattimore