Milwaukee veteran receives Congressional Gold Medal for being one of the first African American Marines


Milwaukee Marine veteran William Coffer Jr., seated, applauds before being awarded the Congressional Gold Medal from Sharon Stokes, USMC retired, at the Greater Galilee Baptist Church on North Teutonia Avenue in Milwaukee Sunday. Coffer was awarded the medal for being among the first African Americans to enlist in the Marine Corps and attend training at the Montford Point Camp in North Carolina. Photo credit: Mike De Sisti/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

When William Coffer completed his basic training at Montford Point Camp in 1948, he became one of the first African Americans to join the U.S. Marine Corps.

Coffer went on to serve two years in Korea, “fighting for the right to fight,” and rose to the rank of staff sergeant. On Sunday, he was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal for his service as a Montford Point Marine.

“This ceremony has been a long time coming,” said Sharon Stokes-Parry, the president of the Chicago chapter of the Montford Point Marine Association.

Stokes-Parry explained that while African Americans had been allowed to enlist in the Corps since 1942, Coffer joined at a time when the Marines were still heavily divided racially.  All 20,000 African  American Marines who were recruited from 1942 to 1949 received boot camp training at the segregated Montford Point Camp in North Carolina.

Milwaukee Marine veteran William Coffer Jr. gets a kiss on the cheek from longtime friend and Greater Galilee Missionary Baptist Church member Vicki Butler after receiving the Congressional Gold Medal. (Photo: Mike De Sisti/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

“They served at a time, in the military, where African Americans were often left to doing the jobs of cooks and stewards,” she said. “We had one of our generals say that he would rather have 5,000 white Marines than 20,000 African Americans.”

For Coffer, 89, “fighting for the right to fight”, the motto of the Montford Pointers, meant “fighting for the right to die for what you believe,” he said Sunday. Yet, despite the segregation he faced in the Corps, he remained upbeat.

Milwaukee Marine veteran William Coffer Jr. is pictured with the Company F of 2nd Battalion, 24th Marines, as he adjusts his Congressional Gold Medal. (Photo: Mike De Sisti/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

“The father of the universe smiles on the United States of America,” he said. “Don’t let anyone take away your joy.”

Following his service, Coffer received a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Marquette University and an associate degree in accounting from Milwaukee Area Technical College. In 1957, he married his wife, Yvonne, with whom he would share 55 years of marriage. In 1971, he became a manager at the Milwaukee Housing Authority, where he eventually oversaw 2,500 units.

William Coffer Jr., at age 18 in the Marines. (Photo: handout)

Even as he approaches his 90s, Coffer has remained active in the community, teaching Sunday school and Bible study and serving as the treasurer at the Greater Galilee Missionary Baptist Church.

“All of this energy this man has had, all of the history, all of this pain, all of the sacrifices boils down to him being here today,” said Johnny White, pastor of the church at 2432 N. Teutonia Ave., site of Sunday’s ceremony.

Since 2011, when President Barack Obama awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to 365 Montford Pointers, the Montford Point Marine Association has been seeking out the remaining recruits, like Coffer, who were unable to attend the ceremony.

The Congressional Gold Medal has been awarded by Congress since the American Revolution as its “highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievement and contributions.”

Stokes-Parry asked anyone who knows or knew a Montford Point Marine to reach out to the association. Ceremonies are offered for both living and deceased Marines.

“It’s not just African American History, it’s not just military history,” said Stokes-Parry. “This is the history of America.”

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