BEECH ISLAND — Aiken County has a new centenarian today: Freddie Bush, a World War II Marine veteran with a claim to fame in military desegregation.
The Barnwell native, who moved to Aiken and then Augusta as a child and spent most of his working years as a trucker and railroad employee in the Miami area, was the guest of honor at a Thursday gathering at Clearwater Village Apartments near Bi-Lo.
His status is not only unusual in terms of longevity and physical health (he is still driving), but also through his status as a "Montford Point Marine." He was among the first black Marines in history. He and thousands of his cohorts came on board following President Franklin Roosevelt's executive order in 1941 establishing the Fair Employment Practices Commission. In Bush's case, that meant serving as an ironworker, being in the Marines from April 12, 1944 until Oct. 4, 1945.
The Montford group's name comes from the recruits' training site: Camp Montford Point (a sub-camp of Camp Lejeune) in Jacksonville, North Carolina, which was in business from August 1942 until September 1949.
"They were the first black Marines to integrate the system, like the Buffalo Soldiers," said son William Bush, a retired sergeant first class who served at Fort Gordon in the Army and now lives in Hephzibah, Georgia, having wrapped up his military career in 2005.
"The Army had the Buffalo Soldiers, and the Air Force had the Tuskegee Airmen … and the Marines had the one that wasn't talked about a lot, and that was the Montford Pointers."
Thursday's activities included the reading of a proclamation from the state legislature, "honoring and congratulating this beloved gentleman."
The Montford Point Marines also received as a group a Congressional Gold Medal in 2012, and those in attendance or represented by family members received bronze duplicates. The medal, which can be bestowed on individuals or groups, has been described as the nation's highest civilian honor and has gone to such individuals as George Washington, Sir Winston Churchill, Bob Hope, Robert Frost, Joe Louis and Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
The centenarian was married three times and has 13 children and "many grandchildren and great-grandchildren."
The younger Bush recalled some of the basics from Marine life in the Pacific Theater from 75 years ago. Referring to the black Marines, he said, "They were segregated from the white Marines, but they were still in Camp Lejeune, but they had to make their own facilities as far as … job training.
"Black Marines did not fight at that time, so … he was like a mechanic," he said, noting that the work usually involved trucks, tractors and armored vehicles, in preparation for war.
He said the senior Bush, who went on to deal successfully with prostate cancer, visited the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as ordered, to see the damages and assess the overall situation in the wake of the world's only two wartime applications of atomic weapons.
He grew up with five brothers and two sisters and may now be one of the area's oldest drivers. "I've got my car in the shop, but they're supposed to have it ready tonight … I can go anywhere I want to go," he said, during the Thursday gathering at his apartment complex's office.
"I walk a little bit. I'm doing pretty good. I go over here and walk around the store and back to the house," he said. "I fish all the time."