Milwaukee Veteran William Coffer, One of the First African-American U.S. Marines, Awarded Congressional Gold Medal

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An 18-year-old William Coffer Jr. spent his days “fighting for the right to fight” after enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps back in 1948. Now, more than 70 years later, he is being honored for his service as one of the first African-Americans to join the Corps.

Coffer, 89, received the Congressional Gold Medal at a special ceremony on Sunday, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The coveted honor has been awarded by Congress since the American Revolution and is considered the “highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievement and contributions.”

William Coffer Jr.
U.S. Marine veteran William Coffer Jr., 89, received the Congressional Gold Medal, one of the two highest civilian honors issued by the United States, at a special ceremony on Sunday. (FOX 6 / video screenshot)

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

Coffer completed his basic training at the segregated Montford Point Camp in North Carolina, where all 20,000 Black Marines recruited between 1942 and 1949 also underwent boot camp training, according to the newspaper. Stokes-Parry noted that while African-Americans were allowed to enlist in the Marines beginning in 1942, Coffer joined at a time when the Corps was still very heavily segregated.

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

Despite the rampant racism, Coffer remained undeterred and held fast to the Montford Pointers motto of  “fighting for the right to fight,” which, for him, meant “fighting for the right to die for what you believe in.”

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

Coffer would go on to serve two years in Korea and eventually rose to the rank of staff sergeant.

Fellow veteran Larry Jones hailed Coffer as a pioneer, and said the gold medal reflects his great service and heroism.

“I think it was a great victory for African-Americans,” Jones said of the honoree being among the first Black men to enlist. “It’s a proud day, not just for him, but for all of us who have served in the Marine Corps as African-Americans.”

Coffer’s daughter, Cassandra Coffer, couldn’t agree more, telling FOX 6 just how happy she was for her dear dad.

“I was overwhelmed,” she said. “He’s well respected, even though he’s not well known to everyone.”

After his time in the service, Coffer earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Marquette University in Milwaukee and then an associate degree in accounting from Milwaukee Area Technical College. He jumped the broom with his wife, Yvonne Coffer, in 1957, and the couple would enjoy 55 years of marriage.

By 1971, the Wisconsin native was a manager at the Milwaukee Housing Authority, where he oversaw some 2,500 units, the Journal Sentinel reported.

Now in his golden years, Coffer remains active in his church community, where he leads weekly Bible study and serves as the treasurer of Greater Galilee Missionary Baptist Church.

Montford Point Marine Association, the organization tasked with awarding the coveted medal, is now working to locate other Black U.S. Marines who served during that time so they may be recognized. In 2011, then-President Barack Obama awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to 365 Montford Pointers. However, several of the recruits, including Coffer, were unable to attend the ceremony. Moreover, records for those first African-Americans who served have been lost, according to FOX 6.

Stokes-Parry has turned to the public for help and is asking anyone who may know a Montford Pointer to please contact the association.

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

Watch more in the video below.

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