TERRE HAUTE —
Ezell Odom left his footprints on the tiny South Pacific island of Funafuti as part of the U.S. military effort during the final years of World War II.
On Friday — almost 70 years later — Odom humbly and gratefully accepted a Congressional Gold Medal from U.S. Marine Capt. Nickoli Johnson during a ceremony to honor Odom’s service in the Montford Point Marines.
Odom is one of the few surviving members of the Montford Point Marines — the first African-American men to be recruited into the Marine Corps despite a policy of segregation.
“I really appreciate what everybody’s done,” Odom said as he sat with his wife, family and friends enjoying cake and punch inside the Marine Corps Reserve Center on Fruitridge Avenue in Terre Haute. “They really went out of their way to give honor to someone who was one little dot in the whole big thing.”
The event outside the Marine Corps Reserve Center featured a solemn ceremony and the presentation of the medal, along with a reading of the history of the Montford Point Marines.
The narration by USMC Master Sgt. Henry Rimkus acknowledged the “overt racism and segregation of the era,” while also uplifting the successes of the 20,000 African-Americans who served “with honor, courage and commitment in defense of freedom as a part of the ‘Greatest Generation’ and beyond.”
On June 27, Congress conferred the Congressional Gold Medal on the Montford Point Marines, who completed their arduous basic training in North Carolina. Odom was unable to attend a commemorative ceremony in Washington, D.C., on June 28, so the honor fell to the Marines in Terre Haute to present Odom with his medal.
Odom’s daughter Benita McGee said she and her sisters did not know a lot about their father’s service in the Marines until a few years ago, when he wrote a book about it. More recently, they have learned the history of the Montford Point Marines and their father’s place in history.
“He knew his own experience, but he didn’t understand the entirety of the whole experience,” McGee said. “It wasn’t until this started happening [the commemoration] that he started talking more about this. A part of him has been saying that he should have gotten this recognition 70 years ago.”
The Congressional Gold Medal is the nation’s highest civilian award.
Upon returning to the United States after his more than two years in the service, the Tennessee native moved to Terre Haute to be near his parents. He settled down and married, working and raising a family. And his military service became a memory.
He didn’t see his part in the integration of the Marine Corps as anything more than normal. He was simply assigned a task to do, and he did it.
Following the ceremony, Odom said with modesty that perhaps the medal was “more than I deserve. I didn’t do nothing more than 400,000 other Marines didn’t do.”
But he was part of a generation that pulled down racial barriers in the military. And today’s service members celebrate that legacy.
Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at (812) 231-4254 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.