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July 27, 2014, 10:15 pm

Local WWII vet gets highest U.S. civilian award

When the Montford Point Marines are awarded Congress’ highest civilian honor later this month, Tom Snowden will be among them.

Snowden is one of the nation’s first Black Marines, trained at the segregated Montford Point Camp in New River, N.C.

On June 27, the Montford Point Marines will receive the Congressional Gold Medal for their heroic and historic service.

Snowden is looking forward to the occasion when he and his fellow Marines will receive special recognition.

“I was overjoyed when I heard about it,” said Snowden, who is an 89-year-old resident of East Mount Airy.

There are about 300 survivors of the 19,168 Montford Point Marines who trained at the camp from 1942 to 1949. Snowden is one of 11 Montford Marines who hail from Philadelphia.

Snowden and his wife of 64 years, Louise, are preparing to visit Washington, D.C., for the ceremony.

“I think what they are doing for him and the many other Marines is due to them. It’s time for them to really recognize their service, just like they did the Tuskegee Airmen,” said Louise. “It’s an honor for him to be part of it.”

When Snowden was drafted in 1942, he didn’t know he’d be tapped to join the Marines Corps.

“I didn’t have a choice. It was a surprise to me. The enlister tapped me right on the shoulder and said ‘you’re in the Marine Corps,’” said Snowden.

As he reflected on his days as a Marine, Snowden recalled the discrimination that he and others faced. Even though President Franklin D. Roosevelt had ordered the military in 1941 to accept African Americans, the Marine Corps balked. While training at Montford Point, the Black troops were kept separate from whites at nearby Camp Lejeune.

“They didn’t like the colored (Marines) when we first went in there, so they treated us rough, but we stood up against it,” said Snowden.

Many of the Blacks who joined the Marines were subjected to supporting roles during World War II.

He recalled the days of driving from North Carolina to Philadelphia with fellow Marines and not being able to stop at restaurants along the way because of his skin color.

Snowden grew up in South Philadelphia and attended Overbrook High School. He was able to utilize the carpentry skills he learned in high school during his time at Montford Point.

While they were overseas, Snowden would often cook for his fellow Marines. He recalled how he had been assigned night duty while fighting in Guam during World War II. Snowden also remembers his days of having to quickly dig foxholes.

Snowden was honorably discharged in 1946 at the rank of corporal. However, he would be called back to serve as a reservist during the Korean War.

“I didn’t know they were going to call me right back,” says Snowden.

Snowden became a drill sergeant, responsible for ensuring that new recruits made it through Montford Point.

When he received an honorable discharge in 1955, Snowden says that some of his fellow Marines wanted him to stay.

“They wanted me to stay because I was a good leader,” says Snowden.

After being discharged, Snowden came back to Philadelphia, became a member of the carpenter’s union and worked in the construction industry with his father. He would go on to work for the jeweler, Bailey, Banks and Biddle in Center City, for more than 35 years.

Designed and approved by the Montford Point Marine Association, the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Mint, the Montford Point Marines Congressional Gold Medal will be preserved at the National Museum of the Marine Corps located in Triangle, Va. The Marines can receive a bronze replica.

The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest civilian award granted by Congress. The medal requires 67 co-sponsors to be considered on the Senate floor.

Sen. Kay R. Hagan, R-N.C., introduced the Congressional Gold Medal bill last September with Senators Richard Barr, R-N.C.; Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Patrick Roberts, R-Kan., and Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., as lead sponsors.

“I am elated that the North Carolina-based Montford Point Marines will at long last receive the honor and recognition they deserve,” Hagan said in a release.

“These African-American men put their lives on the line and served our country with distinction in the face of discrimination and intolerance. I feel privileged to have worked with these Marines and to have garnered the support of my colleagues to award these brave men the Congressional Gold Medal.”

In receiving the Congressional Gold Medal, the Montford Point Marines join the select group of people who have received the medal since it was first granted to General George Washington in 1776, including Mother Teresa, the Wright Brothers and Thomas Edison.

 

Contact staff writer Ayana Jones at (215) 893-5747 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .