My heroes include my parents and grandparents, along with my siblings, and aunts and uncles. I never had the chance to meet retired Navy Chaplain and fellow North Carolinian, Capt. Thomas Hayswood McPhatter, USNR (Ret) but he is also my hero.
Last year I interviewed McPhatter by telephone from his nursing home in San Diego several times for my book. I found his name online at http://www.montfordpointmarines.com/About%20us.html. McPhatter was one of the first 1,000 black men to become a US Marine. The devoutly religious Presbyterian chaplain had a compelling life story but before he would agree to tell me his story he needed to know if I was raised in the church. ‘I was raised a Baptist,’ I said. ‘But I’m a Presbyterian now.’ This seemed to ease his concerns and he began to tell me his story. McPhatter was a freshman in college when World War II began. When he heard the Marine Corps was accepting black men he decided to enlist.
Blacks had been barred from joining the Marine Corps by Congress when the branch was first established in 1775. Pressured to change the policy, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Maj. Gen. Thomas Holcomb finally proposed the enlistment of 1,000 blacks in the volunteer Marine Corps Reserve for duty in the general service in a segregated composite defense battalion. They became known as Montford Point Marines in reference to the segregated boot camp at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina which was open from 1942 until 1949.
Sgt. McPhatter served in the Pacific and fought in the Battle of Iwo Jima. During our second telephone conversation he described the landing – blacks are conveniently left out of most accounts of the famous invasion of the Japanese island. McPhatter was very angry when he saw Flags of Our Fathers, Clint Eastwood's 2006 film of the battle. There were no blacks in the movie – much to McPhatter’s chagrin. “We were there, but you wouldn't know it from the movie,” McPhatter said. He remembered standing at debarkation waiting to go over the side of the Landing Ship, Tank (LST) with the first wave of Marines who landed on the beach.
I interviewed McPhatter in 2008 – 64 years after he and the other 900 Marines had risked their lives for black Americans like me – a generation not yet born. As he described climbing over the side of the ship I could hear the fear in his voice. Several books have been written about the Montford Point Marines who landed on Iwo Jima. McPhatter was part of the 8th Marine Ammunition Company. They had to keep the fighting Marines supplied with ammunition – which made the Montford Point Marines easy targets for the enemy, according to McPhatter. They finally got their recognition during a commemoration ceremony in 1995 – after which Chaplain McPhatter said he prayed, saying, “Thank you Lord, thank you Lord, they’ve finally acknowledged use.”
I am a Disaster Assistance Employee with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and travel. On Memorial Day, May 25, 2009 I was in my hotel room in Florida watching the evening news. The photograph of a black naval officer flashed on the screen followed by video of Marines carrying a flag draped coffin. I recognized the man – it was Capt. McPhatter. Instantly I knew I would never get to meet this invisible warrior.
I had called Capt. McPhatter in February. His voice was very weak, he sounded confused and he did not remember me. When I told him I was calling from North Carolina he wistfully said, “I wish I was in North Carolina right now.” Then his voice trailed off. I said goodbye and hung up.
In our final interview last year the chaplain quoted from a poem written by St. Isaac of Nineveh Bishop (c. 660-680), “Be at peace with your own soul, then heaven and earth will be at peace with you." The Marine (once a Marine always a Marine) who went into harm’s way to defend freedoms he did not yet enjoy is now at peace. He is back in the Tar Hill state and buried in his hometown of Lumberton, North Carolina.
Copyright © Sharon D. Powell, 2009 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED