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Inglewood Says Goodbye To One Of The First Black Marines

The coffin of Luke Leo House Jr. before interment at the Inglewood Cemetery. (Emily Elena Dugdale/LAist)
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One of the nation's first black Marines was laid to rest in Inglewood on Monday.

Luke Leo House Jr., a 94-year-old World War II veteran, was one of 20,000 black men who enlisted in the Marine Corps from 1942 to 1949, at a time when the military was against integration. The men completed their training -- segregated from white Marines -- at Montford Point Camp in North Carolina, becoming known as the Montford Point Marines, a kind of Marine version of the Tuskegee Airmen.

"Not only [were they] fighting for their country, but they had to fight for their rights to be equal," said Michael Harris, House's neighbor and a former Marine.

Luke Leo House Jr. as a young man seen on an invitation to receive the Congressional Gold Medal. (c/o Eryn Brown)
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Harris described House and his fellow corps members as pioneers who had to endure numerous indignities. They broke the color barrier and served despite rampant discrimination from white Marines. They weathered racism and intolerance to make it easier for younger black Marines like himself to join the ranks and be treated with respect. Even German prisoners of war were allowed to sit in better train cars than the black Montford Point Marines during World War II.

"It's absolutely crazy," Harris said, shaking his head. "You gotta wonder, would I have been able to overcome those obstacles and still have that same Marine Corps fighting spirit. These guys did."

Marines from the National Montford Point Marine Association at the memorial service -- including three original Montford Marines: Henry C. Johnson, second from left, Robert Hammond, center, and Vaughn Whitworth, second from right. (Emily Elena Dugdale/LAist)

On Monday, neighbors, family and friends filed into white chairs set up at the Inglewood Mortuary behind a casket draped with flowers and a folded American flag. Certificates of House's accomplishments were presented to his family from the Marine Corps, the office of Mayor Eric Garcetti and Congresswoman Maxine Waters.

Military service members played taps to honor the man who attended 15 colleges -- including the University of Southern California -- and who in 2012 received the Congressional Gold Medal along with other Montford Marines.

Standing to the side of the ceremony in a decorated blue hat and jacket was Vaughn Whitworth, one of the surviving original Montford Marines. He stood next to two other similarly dressed, elderly men who said they went to as many memorial services for their fellow Marines as they could.

"We don't leave anyone behind," Whitworth said.

As young Marines, Whitworth said he and his black comrades had to fight for the right to fight.

"It wasn't easy," he said. "We had some rough times, but we endured it."

The National Montford Point Marines Association reports there are about 450 original Montford Marines left. Around 20 of them are in the Los Angeles Area.

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Henry C. Johnson, left, and Vaughn Whitworth -- two of the surviving original Montford Marines. (Emily Elena Dugdale/LAist)

Hard work, perseverance, and excelling in everything that he did: Luke House's nephew, Giles Hurley, said this was how he would sum up his uncle's legacy.

"Given the opportunity, we can and do excel. And he was living proof of that," he said.

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