10/06/10 — The Corps, first, always

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The Corps, first, always

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on October 6, 2010 1:46 PM

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From his home in Dudley, former Montford Point Marine Henry Rayner talks about why he joined the Marine Corps -- he liked the uniform -- and just what the experience of serving his country still means to him, long after he left the service to become a family man.

DUDLEY -- Henry Rayner could relive the verbal abuse, but won't.

He could talk about the struggles that come with helping break a barrier, but doesn't.

Dwelling on the negative just isn't his way.

Especially if describing all that he went through to become one of the nation's first black Marines could damage the Corps.

So he speaks about his military experience at Montford Point, mostly, in generalities.

"I don't want to be too negative," he said. "I don't want nothing to go against the Marine Corps because, in a sense, the Marines helped make me."

Maybe that's why the 80-year-old covets his eagle, globe and anchor far more than his role in the Civil Rights movement.

Being a Marine, he said, is that much of an honor.

"So if I had to do it all over again, I would," Rayner said.

But had his mother gotten her way, he never would have left the family farm.

"I'm the son of a sharecropper and at the end of each year, what would happen is, you would work all year long and at the end of the year, there's no money. Nothing," he said. "That gave me an idea that I must leave. I just didn't see no progress on the farm."

So when a group of his friends decided to travel to Raleigh to enlist in the military, he joined them.

"My mother didn't approve of it. She cried, kept crying, 'No. Don't.' She just didn't like for me to leave home," Rayner said. "But my daddy said, 'Well let the boy go. He knows what he wants.' And so I went.

"I could've gone into any branch but I decided on the Marine Corps. It might seem silly, but my reason was because of the uniform. I thought it looked sharp."

And so he left Raleigh bound for Montford Point, the only location that trained black Marines -- more than 20,000 were trained at the camp from 1942 until the Corps was integrated in 1949.

"People were hollering that night and there was noise all around. And we were looked down on because of our color. When you drove around North Carolina, people would make remarks. They said, 'Black Marine? We don't want you in the Marine Corps,'" Rayner said. "I kept saying to myself, 'Did I do the right thing? Is this really a place for a black fellow?'"

But despite his reservations, he entered boot camp.

"The farm, it was hard labor, but it wasn't as hard as the Marine Corps," Rayner said. "Some of that training was difficult."

He wasn't used to obeying commands -- he was often ordered to scrub bathroom floors with a toothbrush and in the winter, he and his comrades had to "do the duck walk" outside while holding their foot-lockers.

"They put us through quite a bit," he said, smiling. "But to this day, I feel grateful today that I went through it."

He knows that if he hadn't, the moment he says, in many ways, defines him, likely would not have happened.

"When I finally got my eagle, globe and anchor, I was proud. That was the proudest time in my life," Rayner said. "I felt great. I had accomplished something."

So don't ask the former Marine if he wishes he had stayed on that farm to avoid the torment.

"Things could have been better, but what I have learned because of the Marines, I have a lot to appreciate," he said. "I always said I just happened to be one of those Montford Point Marines."

And don't think he doesn't still get the urge to pick up a rifle and man his post.

"Once a Marine, always a Marine. It's in me and I can't ever get rid of it," Rayner said. "Those guys over there fighting now, I pray for them and if I could, I would be there. But at 80 years old, there isn't too much I can do.

"As old as I am, I never forgot the Marine Corps. Military service kind of rubs off on you. You just always want to be a part of it."