- Associated Press - Sunday, November 2, 2014

FLORENCE, S.C. (AP) - The Rev. Vandroth Backus of Florence has been a jack of many trades in the Pee Dee area, all of which he’s seemed to master.

During his 89 years of life, he could have been known by community members as a policeman, educator, Florence County councilman, funeral home director and pastor, among several other titles.

Recently he was awarded and is now known as one of the newest recipients of the Congressional Gold Medal. He was honored for his service as a Montford Point Marine.

The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest civilian honor awarded by Congress.

Backus was recently presented the award by U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C.

Such a prestigious award comes with a price. Backus paid the price when he served as a Montford Point Marine before military desegregation.

After graduating from a school in Florence that trained young men for defense jobs, Backus was sent to the Norfolk Navy Yard in Virginia.

“I was inspired by the swagger and devotion to duty on the Battleship Nevada that was in the dry dock being prepared after altercation by the enemy at sea,” Backus said.

He was informed by a white Marine that a Marine Corp for African Americans had just been opened.

“And that was my determination to join, knowing that it was a crime to quit my defense job,” Backus said.

He enlisted in the Montford Point Marines during World War II.

After being sent to Columbia for examination, Backus then went to Montford Point Camp Lejeune, near Jacksonville, North Carolina.

When he arrived to Montford Point, torture from white sergeants soon began.

“They took everything out of my pockets, and I resisted,” Backus said. “And after they broke my spirit mentally and physically, they made me, with my zoot suit on, get in a large barrel of water and dip down until it covered my head.”

He was later taken out of the barrel, carried to a tent, placed on a cart and told not to make a sound until daylight.

“After the drilling instructor left, I looked around and found out I was not the only one shaking,” Backus said.

He said at that time, he wished he had never known the name of Marines.

“And I asked myself, ‘What have I gotten myself into,’” Backus said.

For the next 90 days, Backus said he could have been described as a “nobody.”

“It would take a book to describe the rest of those 90 days,” he said.

When he graduated from boot camp, Backus was assigned to the first all-black combat group, the 51st Defense Battalion. Each member, except commission officers, was an African American.

“It was a battalion that we all realized was one to fail,” Backus said.

The notion at that time, by a segregated society, was that African Americans could not master the technical requirement, Backus said. But many of the Marines who were placed in fire control, including Backus, stayed up at night and studied the TM Manual in order to master their equipment.

“After being cleared to handle secret and confidential TMs, we sat at Camp Lejeune it seemed like forever as the war entered the south Pacific,” Backus said.

Maneuvers were set up on Onslow Beach, Camp Lejeune, during which radio drones/planes were shot down on their first passage over the ocean. That proved too expensive, so sleeves were drawn on a long cable behind a man-flown plane. Backus said they cut the cables that drew the sleeves.

Several of the gunman received sergeant stripes for their performance.

“We were told after we came back to camp to load our equipment on a train headed to Camp Pendleton in California, and that we’d be ready to disembark in two weeks for the south Pacific” Backus said.

Backus and his group were in the south and central Pacific to defend an island that was the base of the Pacific fleet, atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“The war was over, and President Truman and those in Washington realized that a warrior is a warrior no matter his race,” Backus said. “And (Truman) integrated the armed forces for our nation.”

Backus later joined the Marine Reserves on discharge and was assigned to the 92nd Combat Service Group at Camp Lejeune.

“I was discharged after the conflict of Korea, returning to my job as policeman in the city of Florence, where I retired later to enter the gospel of ministry,” Backus said.

After his time at Montford Point, Backus went on to found Monumental Missionary Baptist Church in Florence, and he continues to inspire those around him with his wisdom.

More than 20,000 African Americans trained at Montford Point, and more than 300 of them were recognized for their service in 2012 in Washington, D.C. Backus said his name was left off of that list, which is why he received his award Wednesday during a special ceremony.

“We’re excited about the Congressional Medal of Honor that Reverend Backus was given,” said state Rep. Terry Alexander, D-Florence. “A lot of people don’t understand who his is. He was one of the ones that desegregated the military, and it was very heroic of him to want to be a part of that.”

Backus said Alexander and Clyburn helped see that he received his award after being omitted in 2012.

Terry Law of Florence also has known Backus for years and describes him as a community role model.

As a young pastor, Law said Backus has helped him stay focused in the ministry.

“Not only is he a trailblazer and a person of integrity, one thing is that he’s a family oriented man that demonstrated leadership in our community,” Law said. “We are so honored to have him in our community. He is a man of deep, deep wisdom. Hats off to him.”

In addition to pastoring at Monumental Missionary Baptist Church, Backus owns Backus Funeral Home in Florence. He was an educator in Darlington County for 14 years. In June, Oakland Avenue toward Norfolk Street was renamed Rev. Dr. Vandroth Backus Way as part of a resolution from the South Carolina House of Representatives, with a concurrence from the state Senate, to honor Backus.

“I don’t do things and want it known for prestige,” Backus said. “I move undercover.”

The Congressional Gold Medal “is a tremendous honor,” he said. “You don’t see many people get that.”

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