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He was one of the first black Marines and served in WWII. Now he’s receiving a top honor

Montford Point Marine Association guests talk Black History on Parris Island

Retired US Marine Corps Master Gunnery Sgt. Tyrone Jackson, president of Montford Point Marine Association Chapter 9, speaks about black history at the Black History Month celebration at the Lyceum on Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, on F
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Retired US Marine Corps Master Gunnery Sgt. Tyrone Jackson, president of Montford Point Marine Association Chapter 9, speaks about black history at the Black History Month celebration at the Lyceum on Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, on F

Much of what is known about John Legree Sr.’s military service died with him almost 50 years ago or in a fire a few years later.

The St. Helena Island native was one of the first African-Americans to join the Marine Corps and trained with other black recruits at Montford Point in Jacksonville, N.C.

He served in the Pacific during World War II as a private first class and later received an honorable discharge. He died in 1973 at age 47.

His family has learned more about his service in recent years and was recently notified that Legree was eligible to receive the Congressional Gold Medal awarded to Montford Point Marines in 2012.

Legree’s son, John Legree Jr., will accept the medal on his father’s behalf during a ceremony Saturday at Technical College of the Lowcountry.

“I feel like for him to be recognized is a monumental achievement in his life and in our lives, because you just don’t get this every day,” John Legree Jr. said. “He just was a good man; he died early, but he taught us a lot.

“For them to recognize him in that matter means he placed a stamp somewhere in history.”

About 20,000 black Marines trained at Montford Point from 1942 until 1949. They faced resistance from white drill instructors in the early years, said Tyrone Jackson, a retired master gunnery sergeant and president of the Beaufort chapter of the Montford Point Marine Association.

“But they stayed and endured the hard and rough training,” Jackson said.

The Montford Point Marines for the most part were kept from combat and faced discrimination when they traveled in the United States, Jackson said.

Many have long since died but some are still around on Lady’s Island, Savannah and Charleston. Rufus Lockwood, a 92-year-old World War II veteran living in North Charleston, will receive his Congressional Gold Medal on March 31.

Legree Sr. worked as a civil service employee on Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island after leaving the Corps, his son said. He was an entrepreneur, a commercial fisherman and farmer on St. Helena.

His wife, Essie Mae Legree, is still living at age 88 and plans to attend the ceremony Saturday. So will Legree’s four sons and two daughters and their families.

Legree Sr. died of bone cancer, the family believes. His son is still researching his health record from when he was treated at Naval Hospital Beaufort.

Some questions remain unanswered, but the ceremony Saturday serves as affirmation of Legree Sr.’s legacy. He was a good father and a detailed person, his son said.

“He made a statement in his life,” Legree Jr. said. “And that to me is a great achievement.”

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Stephen Fastenau covers northern Beaufort County as a reporter for The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet, where he has worked since 2010 and been recognized with state and national awards. He studied journalism and political science at the University of South Carolina in Columbia and lives in Beaufort.
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