Alameda veteran who broke barriers is honored
Alameda veteran who broke barriers is honored
Benjamin Jenkins, who broke barriers as one of America's first black Marines, received a Congressional Gold Medal on Friday for his service during World War II. Photo by Janice Worthen.
Benjamin Jenkins originally wanted to serve in the Air Force but wasn’t allowed to join. So he chose the Marine Corps because he thought it would be tough.
“I always like to be on the front lines of things,” Jenkins said.
In addition to seeing combat during World War II, Jenkins battled segregation as one of the first black Marines in American history. In a surprise award ceremony Friday at the Ronald V. Dellums Federal Building in Oakland, Jenkins was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor in the United States, for his service.
Jenkins was part of the Montford Point Marines, the first black Marines in U.S. history. Of the over 19,000 recruits who trained at Montford Point in North Carolina between 1942 and 1949, around 13,000 served overseas in places like Guam and Iwo Jima. As a member of the 52nd Defense Battalion, an anti-aircraft unit, Jenkins was among these active combat Marines. Today, only about 500 Montford Point Marines are still alive.
“I’m part of history,” Jenkins said.
Larry Williams, Jenkins’ friend, wanted to make sure his friend received recognition for that part. After President Barack Obama signed legislation in 2011 allowing the Montford Point Marines to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, Williams thought about an award ceremony for Jenkins, and last year, Williams pushed Jenkins for his permission to apply for the medal on his behalf.
When Jenkins finally granted that permission, Williams contacted Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s office, and her staff helped him arrange the ceremony that took place Friday among friends and family, many of whom flew in for the event. For months, Williams kept this ceremony a secret from Jenkins, who arrived at the federal building in Oakland expecting to meet friends for a birthday lunch. He turned 92 on Sunday.
When Jenkins followed his friends and family into the auditorium and saw the Marines standing at the front of the room, a big grin brightened his features. Later, on stage with medal in hand, Jenkins embraced Williams, thanked him, and shook his hand.
“I’m walking on water for myself and all the men who served with me,” Jenkins said.
Before the presentation of the medal, a Marine stood and discussed the challenges the Montford Point Marines faced in segregated America when they started their training. These challenges included discrimination from commanding officers, a limit on rank achievement, and hostility and racism from members of the communities where they trained and deployed.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed an order in 1942 allowing African Americans to join the Marines, but instead of being sent to the service’s traditional boot camps, they were segregated at Montford Point, according to a history posted by the Montford Point Marine Association. The camp was deactivated in 1949, 14 months after another president, Harry S. Truman, signed an order ending segregation in the military.
Jenkins said he and his fellow Montford Point Marines had to be careful to avoid situations in the segregated community in which they trained and that they “learned how to demand respect without demanding it.” Jenkins said that many of his fellow Marines had a college education, and several had PhDs, but all of the recruits started as privates and could not rise to a rank above sergeant until much later. Jenkins finished his service as a sergeant.
“We had a proof goal on our minds,” Jenkins said. “We wanted to show we loved our country just as much as anyone else did.”
When asked why Jenkins wanted to be a Marine in such a tense atmosphere, he said he always believed in himself and knew he would do the best job possible.
During the award ceremony, the Marine describing the history of the Montford Point Marines credited them with helping lead America away from segregation and laying the groundwork for women to eventually enter the armed forces. Jenkins said he and his fellow Marines helped show “an integrated military is more efficient than a segregated military.”
After his service in World War II, Jenkins retired from the Marine Corps and finished his education in the sciences. He worked as a science teacher for many years, then as an administrator. At one point he served as the Peralta Community College District’s assistant director for human resources, and at another, he was the vice president for a helicopter company in New York. He has also served as a board member for several organizations and was involved in many committees. Jenkins also raised two sons, Craig and Alan.
But Jenkins said he doesn’t like to talk about his achievements because it may sound like bragging.
“A Marine is a Marine,” Jenkins said. “We’ll always be Marines. No one can take that from us.”