An Orange County soldier who served during World War II was honored posthumously with the Congressional Gold Medal at a weekend ceremony in Yorba Linda, California.
The family of Gunnery Sgt. Charles Shaw, who died in 1979, was presented with the medal by the Montford Point Marine Association on Oct. 10 at a ceremony at Friendship Baptist Church.
Brenda Matthews of Anaheim Hills was one of Shaw’s five children at the ceremony who proudly accepted the award on their father’s behalf.
She opened the ceremony by saying she and her siblings had been waiting for “this opportunity to celebrate our father” with “the highest honor a civilian can receive.”
Shaw was a member of the Montford Point Marines, an entirely black unit that served during World War II. The soldiers were housed in prefabricated huts in Camp Montford Point next to the all-white Camp Lejeune near Jacksonville, North Carolina.
Railroad tracks segregated the unit from the rest of the troops. Any Montford Point Marine was not allowed to enter Camp Lejeune unless accompanied by a white Marine.
On Nov. 23, 2011, President Barack Obama signed a law awarding all Montford Point Marines with the Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of their personal sacrifice and service to their country.
When nine Montford Point Marines from Southern California were honored with posthumous awards at a Camp Pendleton ceremony in 2012, “I thought my dad should have it, too,” Matthews said.
Retired Marine Staff Sgt. Mike Johnson, the Montford Point Marine Association’s national vice president, honored Matthews with the medal.
Engraved on the medal are the faces of three black Marines. The medal reads, “For outstanding perseverance and courage that inspired social change in the Marine Corps.”
On Nov. 11—Veterans Day—Shaw’s medal will be displayed at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana to recognize his and all other Montford Point Marines’ service.
“The dynamic personality and character of Sgt. Shaw is something that will stay with me all my life, and has been ever since I left boot camp. He was the hardest man on the planet and the fairest,” said retired Staff Sgt. Dave Culmer, 89, of Los Angeles, who was one of Shaw’s recruits.
“Fortitude and integrity and knowledge, and consistency in knowing how far to go with human beings, is a masterful art, and Sgt. Shaw had it,” Culmer said at the ceremony.
“There is no man that I respect more on this planet than that man, and nobody I’ve learned more from than that man, and he’s my hero.”
Matthews said her father treated his children like they too were in the Marines, and asked her siblings whether they were ever awakened at 2 a.m. to cut the lawn.
“My recollection is that every morning before I went to school, I had to come to the foot of the bed and stand at attention,” Matthews said during the ceremony.
“And my father had to inspect me to make sure my shoes were shined, make sure my hair was combed appropriately. I didn’t get to wear fancy hairstyles, I had to wear braids.”
Matthews said her father’s influence remains with her to this day. “I’ve got a little bit of sergeant in me. Some people call me little Sarge,” she said.
Shaw was originally a high school teacher from Elgin, Texas. He was among 20,000 African Americans sent to Montford Point between 1942 and 1949, following the 1941 ban on racial discrimination in military recruiting issued in an executive order by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In 1948, President Harry Truman desegregated the military. The next year, Camp Montford Point was renamed Camp Johnson as part of the process.
Meanwhile, Shaw was transferred to Parris Island, South Carolina, to serve as the first black drill instructor of an integrated platoon. He retired from active duty in 1963 and remained in the Marine Reserves until 1973.
While still a reservist, Shaw and his friend, Jim Jones, opened a barbecue restaurant, Shaw’s Texas Style BBQ, in Santa Ana.