By Jennifer Martin - email
JACKSON, MS (WLBT) - "I wanted to be a Marine. I loved those uniforms. Those dress blues just knocked me out, " James Rundels remembers. "Unfortunately, it was segregated. But as soon as President Roosevelt gave an executive order, that anyone could join the Marines, I joined. I was the first Mississippian, African American, to be sworn in."
It was 1942. Rundles was only 17 years-old. It would take about three months before he could begin training.
"I was told I was going to have to wait because they were building a separate camp in North Carolina for blacks. It was Montford Point Camp, which was part of Camp Lejune, NC. Once we got there, we were trained by veteran white marines who had fought on Guadalcanal. And they stayed there and trained us. And trained some of us to be trainers. And we trained other Marines. I happened to be one of those drill instructors."
Two years later, the Marines of Montford Point finally got the green light to enter the war effort.
"We wound up on Iwo Jima. First of all, it was called the bloodiest combat of WWII. The Japanese had been there 40 years setting up some kind of defense. Because it was one of the last stops before you hit Tokyo. And they killed 5000 marines on the beaches.
And we had to wait for them to clear the beach before we could go in. And we went in. We had to step on dead marines, which was no good experience. But we made it. And we had to fight our way across the island.
We had to dig in because they were throwing mortar shells at us. We had to dig foxholes. And they had dug tunnels under us. They had dug a city beneath us."
It wasn't easy to gain acceptance from the white Marines. But Rundles says it did come, when it counted.
"As soon as a fight broke out. When everybody's rifle counted. That's when they started to realize that we were just as good as everybody else and our bullets hit just as true."
After the allies secured Iwo Jima, Rundles and his men stayed to clear the beaches.
"We left the day President Roosevelt died." They went to Hawaii, where they stayed until the end of the war.
As a black Marine in the 1940's, Rundles faced more than his share of obstacles, but in the end, he says it was worth it.
"It was the first time you felt like you were part of the whole and not left out of anything. You didn't feel second-handed. And you didn't feel like a slave. You felt like you were an American citizen.
You've got to make a contribution to your country. You can't just live off somebody else. Whatever your contribution to your country and the continuance of democracy is, or can be, you find out. And you do it. Give something. Don't just take everything and do nothing.
My legacy was, I did the best I could. And I think I did alright.
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