Bucket-list item fulfilled for Iwo Jima survivor

— Photo by JM Farron

Iwo Jima survivors Nils Mockler, left, formerly of Altamont, and Montford Point Marine Ambrose “Cowboy” Anderson were separated by the racist policies of the United States military, but today they consider each other one of their “remaining brothers.” Despite the treatment he received as one of the first African Americans to serve in the Marines, Anderson says he is proud to call himself a Marine and, without hesitation, says he “would do it again in a heartbeat.”

To the Editor:

Ambrose “Cowboy” Anderson was a latecomer to the monthly Iwo Jima survivors brunches at the Home Front Café in Altamont. We met Ambrose through Don Tallman, a Marine from Glenville who hosts the United States Marine Corps Birthday Bash every year. For the past five years, he has graciously invited the Iwo Marines to be special guests at the party, something the “Iwo Boys” thoroughly enjoy! 

In 2018, I Googled Ambrose and discovered that he is a Montford Point Marine. Don’t know what that means? I didn’t either, nor did most people I’ve spoken to.

The Montford Point Marines were the Marine Corps equivalent to the Air Force’s Tuskegee Airmen. Like the Airmen, they also had to “fight for the right to fight.” Between 1942 and 1949, twenty thousand Montford Point Marines became the first African Americans “allowed” to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps.

Between 700 and 900 fought on Iwo Jima. Today, an estimated 300 are still living.

The U.S. armed services were “technically” integrated in 1941 as a result of FDR’s Executive Order 8802, which was designed to prohibit ethnic or racial discrimination in the nation’s defense industry. What Executive Order 8802 failed to eliminate was racism, prejudice, and segregation. 

Ambrose received his draft notice in 1943. When he arrived to register, he had intended to join the Navy. However, the Marines were looking for “a few good men” that day, and they claimed all the draftees that were there, including Ambrose.

The new Black recruits were not allowed to train at Camp Lejeune with their white counterparts. Instead, they were relegated to a godforsaken, undeveloped, mosquito-infested outlying piece of land adjacent to the main camp.

Facilities were spartan, at best, with little more than cardboard and tar-paper shacks serving as barracks. This was their new home. This was Camp Montford Point.

Ambrose had not been unaware nor unaffected by racial discrimination, but his life in Gloversville had been good. What he encountered beyond his home town was a shock, especially in the South.

At the camp, training was brutal and his commanding officer was a racist. Their drill instructor told the new recruits, if they didn’t toe the line, he could do whatever he wanted to them, and all he had to do was send a letter to their next of kin, saying they had been killed in action. No questions asked.

After training, Ambrose found himself in Hawaii preparing to head into combat somewhere in the Pacific. That “somewhere” turned out to be Iwo Jima.

On the way there, Ambrose had his introduction to combat when Japanese Zeros attacked the convoy. There was chaos aboard Ambrose’s transport ship.

Ambrose saw a lone white sailor manning his 20mm anti-aircraft gun. Without hesitation, Ambrose jumped into action and began feeding ammunition into the gun.

The irony was, the pairing of a Black marine with a white sailor, or even with a white Marine, was something the rules and regulations were designed to prevent. But in a life-or-death situation, skin color suddenly wasn’t a factor anymore.

Ambrose, known as Cowboy, went ashore at Green Beach, closest to Mount Suribachi, on D+ 1. He was assigned to the 5th Marine Division’s 8th Ammunition Company.

Green Beach was so close, in fact, that when the flags went up on the summit, the steep angle of view prevented the 8th Ammo Company from seeing them. From the beach, they made their way to a semi-protected area at the base of a small cliff.

This area would become the ammunition dump for the entire battle, a fact that made the 8th Ammo Company a prime target for the Japanese. Somehow they survived without sustaining a direct hit, but did suffer casualties.

After the surrender of Japan, Cowboy was part of the occupation forces in Sasebo, Japan. When the war ended, he returned to Gloversville, went to work, raised a family, and put the nightmares behind him as best he could.

Cowboy is one of only three Iwo Jima survivors remaining from our groups that met monthly at the Home Front Café. In September, I contacted Spectrum News, thinking I might be able to get an on-air “Happy Birthday” shout-out for Cowboy’s 96th birthday. Instead, reporter Josh Conner met and interviewed Cowboy, and that interview became so much more.

After the interview, Cowboy’s daughter Darlene said she hoped its airing might lead to her dad being able to connect with other surviving Montford Point Marines, as he hasn’t spoken to one for 76 years. She said that was something on his bucket list, as was having his picture taken in the Marine dress blues uniform.

As soon as I got home, I posted the story to Facebook, hoping someone had a uniform we could borrow for Ambrose. Within minutes, people were responding and sharing the post.

One of those people was David J. Prescott of the Prescott Foundation. He wanted to help. He offered to provide a brand new complete uniform, arrange for necessary alterations, and even provide transportation.

When Dave learned there were two other Iwo Jima survivors involved in my plan, he said he would get uniforms for them too! As it turned out, Dave’s venue, The Hangar at 743, located at the Albany Airport, was going to be the site of a Marine Corps birthday celebration on the morning of Nov. 10, hosted by Marine Gunnery Sergeant Albert “Vinny” Roman and Dave.

Dave and Gunny Roman invited the Iwo Jima survivors. Unfortunately, due to health issues, one was not able to attend, but the other was. He was none other than former Lincoln Avenue Altamont resident Nils Mockler.

Nils was a Combat Intelligence Scout with the HQ Company of the 4th Marine Division’s Tank Battalion. Nils, 95 years old, now lives in Westchester, but distance was no deterrent.

When Nils’s uniform, which Gunny Roman paid for, arrived in Albany, I picked it up and drove it to Westchester, picked up Nils, and took him to a local tailor. On the day before the birthday party, Dave sent a limo to bring Nils and his wife, Mary, up to the Desmond Hotel in Colonie.

Wednesday, Nov. 10, was a beautiful morning with clear sunny skies. Ambrose and Nils arrived at the hangar to a wonderful reception by everyone present. The two old warriors enjoyed every minute of the experience.

They met many new friends and posed for spectacular photos, with Dave’s vintage airplanes and a World War II Ford Jeep as a backdrop. Ambrose was the oldest Marine present, and had the honor of serving the first piece of birthday cake to the youngest Marine, 22-year-old Heather Dilcher. This is symbolic of the passing of the core values of the Marine Corps to the next generation.

As exciting and exhausting as this experience could have been for men in their mid-nineties, Nils and Ambrose took a few hours to recharge, and then attended Don Tallman’s USMC Birthday Bash in Glenville. The “Iwo Boys” have become well known there and they couldn’t wait to see the friends they’ve made over the past few years.

All in all, this was another very memorable day for our friends, well deserved, well earned. Much thanks to everyone involved in making this possible, especially Dave Prescott and Vinny Roman.

Mark Yingling

Clifton Park

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