Andrew Miles, 88, one of the first 20,000 African-Americans to enter the United States Marine Corps in 1944, was honored Thursday, June 12, in a ceremony in his room at Harbor Hospice in Beaumont as part of the hospice center’s veterans program.
Miles joined the armed services as a member of the Montford Point Black Marines 52nd Defense Battalion — one of two segregated Marine battalions established in 1942 and named after the North Carolina camp where they trained.
Miles’ niece Joan Eulian, of Port Arthur, said she met her uncle, who is originally from Kentucky but resided in Chicago in the latter part of his life, for the first time in September at her father’s funeral. She discovered Miles had prostate cancer in November, and took him into her home in Port Arthur in hopes the cancer could be treated and her uncle could recover. Unfortunately, the cancer spread and she could no longer care for Miles, Eulian said, adding that chemotherapy or surgery would be too much for her uncle to bear at his age.
“We made about 14 or 15 trips to M.D. Anderson and a few to the V.A.,” Eulian said. “We just decided to do (hospice) care and hand it over to God.”
Miles spoke what might have been his final public words to a room filled with nurses, doctors, chaplains and a special guest, retired Marine C.P. Williams of Southeast Texas Veterans Service Group, who presented Miles with a certificate of appreciation for his service. Miles is no stranger to awards, as he received a prestigious award from President Barack Obama — the Congressional Gold Medal. Miles received the award along with around 400 other Montford Point Marines in Washington D.C. in June of 2012.
“I waited for this for 69 years,” Miles said, pointing to the medal hanging around his neck. “Now, I can go away peacefully.”Struggling to speak to the room filled with eager yet silent listeners, Miles shared war stories, some meant to evoke laughter — although several listeners were driven to tears instead.
Miles said he originally wanted to join the Navy and planned to volunteer. When the Marine Corps came to Kentucky to draft him, Miles dodged the recruiting officer. Well, sort of.
“We were all lined up and he started picking out everybody,” Miles recounted. “While he was picking out, I stooped down.”
As soon as the officer saw him stoop down, he pointed to the young Miles and said, “Come on out here! You are going to be a good Marine.”
Humor aside, training to become a Marine during a time of racial prejudice, Cpl. Miles pursued the right to fight for his country along with other Montford Point Black Marines, who worked toward defeating racism in the Armed Forces and beyond.
Miles said he received his Marine training from the Montford Point facility at Camp Lejune, N.C.
“The camp wasn’t even ready for us,” Miles said. “We had to go there and finish it — 20,000 young men. We had to finish clearing off the land.”Finding a job that fit him was no easy task for Miles, either. “When I was going through boot camp they wanted me to operate one of those big 90mm guns,” Miles said. “I told my instructor, ‘This ain’t gonna work for me.’ I didn’t weigh but 118 pounds. I said, ‘You’re gonna have to find something else for me to do.”
Miles was then trained as a searchlight operator, and assigned to fight in Okinawa, Japan, in World War II’s Pacific Theater.
“World War II searchlights formed part of a system of aircraft detection linking locator devices, searchlights, and antiaircraft (AAA) guns. The locators sent electronic information to the lights and guns, which in turn tracked the target in synch with each other … so the target could be nearly simultaneously illuminated and then destroyed,” according to the website www.skylighters.org .
The fight for Okinawa, which proved to be the last battle of World War II, involved some 2,000 black Marines, a larger concentration than for any previous operation, according to the National Parks Service website.
Miles said his fellow Marines gave him the nickname “Red,” which they would shout during combat when they needed him.
“I don’t know why they called me that,” Miles said. “But when they needed a little juice, they’d call at me, ‘Hey, Red! Give me a little more juice!’ So, I’d kick it up a notch.”
Miles was honorably discharged from the Marines in 1946 and worked as a janitor in Chicago from 1974 to 2013, continuing to work part-time after retirement.He gave his time and energy to many Chicago community service programs and scholarship initiatives the Chicago Montford Point Marines sponsor. He was also a Senior Citizen Hall of Fame 2012 Luminary Award recipient.
“I understand that you were the very first black Marine. That is a real honor,” special guest Williams told Miles before handing him a certificate of appreciation. “On behalf of the United States Marine Corps, the Commandant of the Marine Corps and a very grateful nation, we would like to take this opportunity to present Mr. Andrew Miles with this certificate of appreciation for your service to the United States of America. You have demonstrated professionalism, leadership, and devotion. The duty brings credit upon yourself and the United States Marine Corps. You are a true American hero.”