EXCHANGE: Military honor recipient remembered

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DECATUR, Ill. (AP) - The few. The proud. And, from 1942 to 1949, the segregated Marines of Montford Point.

Much has been written about the courage and service of black soldiers in America’s military history: from the Buffalo Soldiers of the Civil War and American West to the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II.

Montford Point in North Carolina is perhaps less known but served with distinction as the first training camp created for black Marines after an executive order from President Franklin Roosevelt in 1942 required the armed forces to recruit blacks. From June of that year until 1949, after another executive order from President Harry S. Truman ended desegregation in the military, Montford Point minted some 20,000 black Marines.

One of those soldiers was the late Pvt. 1st Class Rudolph “R.D.” Phillips from Decatur, who saw action as a gunner fighting for his country against the Japanese in World War II.

It’s been a long time coming, but on Feb. 3, in a ceremony at Fort Sill, Okla., Phillips (who died in 1988, at age 60) was posthumously presented with a Congressional Gold Medal engraved with the words: “For Outstanding Perseverance and Courage that Inspired Social Change in the Marine Corps.”

President Obama signed the law authorizing the award of the medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor, to all Montford Point Marines in 2011. The medal was to mark the courage of men whose bravery and service helped change hearts in a country that said they were good enough to fight and die for it overseas but wouldn’t let them buy a meal in the same restaurant as a white solider if they lived to come home.

Maj. Gen. Mark McDonald presented Rudolph Phillips‘ medal to his son, Johnny, who lives in Lawton, Okla. McDonald told the son that the nation was “absolutely proud” of men such as his father and the trail they had blazed.

McDonald said true racial integration in the armed forces, and the country, had to wait until after World War II. But he said soldiers had long ago learned another kind of integration amid the blood and fire of the battlefield when confronting a common enemy: “When it came time to fight, nobody cared who was on their left or their right,” he says.

Phillips had returned to Decatur after the war to raise six boys, three girls, with his late wife, Pauline. He spent 43 years working at the former Wagner Castings Co., spoke little about his wartime experiences and gave his family tough love.

“He was hard, but fair,” recalls his son Larry Phillips, 66, a retired supervisor with Caterpillar Inc., who lives in Decatur not too far from siblings Kent Phillips and Sandra Mickle.

“He wanted us to do well, so we would have a chance at a better life than he had,” recalls Kent Phillips, 59, a supervisor with the Illinois Department of Human Services. “When I graduated from Millikin University and came down the steps off that stage, the first person who was there to congratulate me was my father.”

Growing up, all of his children would encounter racism and learn to overcome it, leaning on the lessons the old soldier had taught them.

“This is your fight: Be tough, step up, take care of yourself, because nobody is going to do that for you,” says Kent Phillips. “That’s what our dad taught us, and he said anything you want you’ve got to work for it, and then you’ve got to fight to keep it.”

The children learned well but can’t help wondering what life was really like for the father who had taken an oath at 17 to serve a country that regarded him as a second-class citizen. “Can you imagine going into a service that treated you like an animal, like a dog?” asks Larry Phillips. “Getting talked down to, mistreated, getting called the ‘N’ word, not getting the conditions white soldiers were getting. And yet expected to serve your country and maybe die for it.”

In later years, after suffering a stroke, their father’s mind slipped into the past and suddenly he was back amid the horrors of war and crying out as he mentally replayed some nightmare combat scene.

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