Bobby Plair Sr., Rock Hill’s Montford Point Marine, to be honored

dworthintgon@heraldonline.comJuly 6, 2013 

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    The Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3746 post will honor one its members, Bobby Plair, Sr., with a replica of a Congressional Gold Medal, recognizing his service as an original Montford Marine.

    The ceremony will be 11 a.m. Tuesday at VFW Post 2889 at 732 West Main Street, Rock Hill, South Carolina. Military and civilian dignitaries will be on hand to participate in the activities.

The words tumble from Bobby Plair Sr.’s mouth in a slow, soft, staccato monotone. It’s quite a contrast for those who know Plair for the lively, lyrical jazz music that effortlessly flows from his clarinet and saxophones.

The words come slowly because Plair, 86, is recalling memories more than 65 years old. Simply, he says, he did his duty, didn’t get into trouble and came home. That’s his service story.

But the simple story belies the facts.

Plair was one of the estimated 2.5 million blacks who served their country in World War II. He received his draft notice shortly after completing high school studies at Friendship Junior College in Rock Hill in 1945. While war’s end would come in just months, it did not change Plair’s military obligation.

He traveled to the Fort Jackson induction center, where a black recruiter asked him what branch of service Plair liked. He responded, “the Navy.”

The recruiter sized up the lanky 18-year-old and said, “I believe you would make a good Marine.”

With that assertion, Plair became forever linked with the Montford Point Marines. About 20,000 black recruits endured segregation and racism at the Montford, North Carolina base to become Marines, some of them fighting in the bloodiest battles of the Pacific. Some fought in three wars. Less than 500 are still alive today.

Congress awarded the Montford Point Marines a Congressional Gold Medal, its highest civilian honor, in 2011. On Tuesday, Plair will receive a replica of the medal during ceremonies at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2889 at 732 W. Main St. The ceremony is being coordinated by VFW Post 3746, Rock Hill’s largely minority, veterans post, where Plair served as quartermaster for more than 25 years.

Plair, with the humble nature that served him well in the service and beyond, said of his Marine experience, “I was so busy I didn’t have time to think about things” such as discrimination and segregation.

He said it was the result of the time, and that the Marine Corps “didn’t know better. It was not in them. They didn’t know that things get better through God’s life.”

While harboring no ill will, “I feel like the honor is due. We didn’t get the recognition we should have.”

Segregated training

In June 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order saying that employment in the defense industry and the military could not be based on race, creed, color or national origin.

A reluctant Marine Corps complied. Maj. Gen. Thomas Holcomb, then the Marine Corps commandant, said, “given the choice of 5,000 white Marines and 250,000 Negro Marines, I would rather have whites.”

Instead of sending its black recruits to South Carolina’s Parris Island or San Diego where whites trained, the Marines created Montford Point, near Camp Lejeune, N.C. From 1942 to 1949, the Marine Corps trained all of its black recruits there. Private Howard Perry of Charlotte was the first black recruit to report there in 1942.

The Montford Point Marines endured substandard barracks, out-of-date equipment and food that sometimes was so bad it would give everyone indigestion, overwhelming the base’s meager sanitary system, Plair said.

Plair arrived at Montford Point a scared 18-year-old, not knowing what to expect. The Marine Corps immediately let him know. After receiving the Marine-issue socks, shoes, skivvies, uniforms and a Garand rifle, Plair began learning the Marine way.

Reveille was at 5:15 a.m. Lights out was at 10 p.m. In between recruits drilled, exercised, ran the obstacle course, learned marksmanship, ate and studied the Marine Corps manual.

“It was kind of rough,” Plair said. “My attitude was different than most. I was easy to get along with and didn’t have problems, like some fellas who wanted to be tough.”

To stay on the drill instructors’ good side, Plair often shined their shoes.

The drill instructions had ways of breaking the tough – and the meek – down and rebuilding them.

To break down the tough guys, Plair remembers the drill instructors practicing judo on them.

Tough or meek, “you are going to make mistakes,” Plair said. His mistake came while standing in formation. Instead of looking straight ahead as required, the marching of another unit caught his attention. Plair’s drill instructor asked him what he was looking at and then told him to go over and tell the other drill instructor he didn’t like the way he was doing his job.

Plair did, and the other drill instructor made him crawl back to his unit – through the mud.

Plair remembers another occasion when a fellow recruit failed to snap to attention fast enough. The drill instructors made the recruit stand on the rim of a barrel filled with water. They then ordered him to snap to attention, clicking his heels. The recruit dropped him into the barrel of water over and over again.

Plair said the physical training didn’t bother him because he had played football and basketball at Friendship. He was exempted from swimming lessons because he already knew how to swim. While growing up in Rock Hill, Plair became obsessed with swimming, riding his bike to Fort Mill to swim at the Avery swimming pool.

He learned how to shoot the Garand, how to keep his uniforms and gear neat and orderly, and even learned to like broccoli, Brussels sprouts and asparagus. It was a major dietary change for Plair, who had been raised on collard greens, cabbage, cornbread and almost everything else cooked with fatback.

“I just followed the instruction, I went with the flow,” he said.

Through his 14 months in the corps, Plair never forgot the teaching of his grandmothers to be humble and save money. “Success comes through saving,” he said.

Each month he sent home between $25 to $30. Sometime he sent more, supplementing his pay by placing side bets on payday evening. No one slept those nights because there was so much gambling, he said. He often made the rounds with Rudy Caldwell, a Marine Corps cook from Rock Hill. Caldwell was one of the bigger bettors, Plair said.

His lucky streak stayed with him for 13 of his 14 months. Returning to the states from Saipan, his gambling luck ran out and he ended up with $5 to travel from San Diego to Montford Point.

Overseas duty

After basic training, Plair trained as an antiaircraft gunner. But there was no war. When he shipped out, they gave him a carbine and sent him to Saipan to guard Japanese prisoners.

Saipan had been the site of some of the bloodiest fighting in the Pacific. The Marine Corps and Army lost 3,426 men and 10,364 were wounded. More than 24,000 Japanese soldiers were killed and 22,000 Japanese civilians were killed or committed suicide there. About 900 Japanese surrendered.

There were reminders of the fight, including bones bleached white by the sun that would wash up on the beach, he said.

In addition to prisoners, he guarded the supply warehouses. During one three-hour tour, someone broke into the liquor warehouse he was guarding. It was the only time Plair was assigned to KP, kitchen patrol, during his time in the Marines.

In his off hours, Plair borrowed a Marine-issued saxophone and taught himself to play the instrument.

When given the choice to re-enlist for a year or return home, Plair told the Marines, “see ya!”

Returning to Rock Hill, Plair put on his best uniform to attend church at Hermon Presbyterian then on Trade Street (now Dave Lyle Boulevard). It was his family’s church, the church where he had played clarinet for his mother and grandmother.

“I kept that uniform for a long time,” he said.

He says his time in the Marines didn’t change him much. But one of things he did after returning was to fly the American flag almost religiously at the family grocery store on West Main Street and later on Simril Road.

After getting his college degree, he joined the Veterans of Foreign War post. He continued to make music and taught music at schools in Fort Mill, Chester and Great Falls for more than 50 years.

With his focus on family, faith, music and work, his time as a Montford Marine didn’t come up much in conversations, said his son, Bobby Plair Jr.

The son said he heard a few stories, enough to wonder how men like his father who had been sent to preserve freedom for others came back to a country where they were second-class citizens. “He let us know about those difficulties, but he didn’t harp on it,” Bobby Plair Jr. said.

The senior Plair continues to honor veterans, playing Taps at the annual Veterans Day services in York in November. As the haunting sounds of Taps echo, Plair said he can see the faces of the Montford Marines he served with. He plays to honor them too.

On Tuesday, the honor goes to Plair.

It is richly deserved, said Johnie Roseborough, his buddy since high school and a World War II Army veteran, driving on the Red Ball supply express through Europe.

“He’s a good man,” Roseborough said. “He always reached out to people when they needed it and he doesn’t boast about what he does.”

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