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Shunned black veterans broke racial barriers

World War II Veterans (from left) LeArthur Dunlap Chicago Frank Wortham North Chicago LeRoy ColstChicago Tom Woodley Park City stVeterans

World War II Veterans (from left) LeArthur Dunlap of Chicago, Frank Wortham of North Chicago, LeRoy Colston of Chicago and Tom Woodley of Park City stand at the Veterans Memorial Park in North Chicago with Korean Veteran Ted Hudson (back left) of Zion and Vietnam Veteran Raymond Scott (back right) of Waukegan. The World War II Black Navy Veterans of Great Lakes Memorial Foundation created the memorial in 2006. | Ryan Pagelow~Sun-Times Media

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Members of the World War II Black Navy Veterans of Great Lakes Memorial Foundation, LLC welcome contributions to the maintenance and upkeep of the memorial in North Chicago. Metal fencing around the memorial is in need of repair. For more information or to make a donation, contact board members Thomas Woodley at (847) 249-5510 or Frank Wortham at (847) 689-0262.

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The World War II Black Navy Veterans of Great Lakes worked for more than six years to erect their monument, the only one of its kind in the U.S. that honors the steely resolve of men who broke racial barriers for the opportunity to serve their country.

“We’re all proud,” said Tom Woodley, 85, of Park City, who served in the Navy through three wars: World War II, Korea and Vietnam. “This is my country — our country — right or wrong.”

Woodley and thousands of other young men who took the oath to serve in the Navy arrived on buses and trains at Great Lakes Navy Base between June 1942 and August 1945.

“We came out of the recruiting office black and white, together,” recalled Leroy Colston, of Chicago. “We come off the train at Great Lakes and walked to the gate. White boys went straight. Black boys to the right.”

While the memorial park, on Sheridan Road between 18th and Broadway just west of Naval Station Great Lakes, honors all men and women who served in the U.S. Armed Forces, its centerpiece 25-foot-tall black granite monument is dedicated “to the 100,000 or more Afro-American sailors” who trained at three 12-week segregated boot camps: Robert Smalls, Lawrence and Moffett.

LeArthur Dunlap, 89, of Chicago, arrived at Camp Robert Smalls on July 15, 1942. He was inspired by the heroism of Dorie Miller, a Navy cook and first African American to be awarded the Navy Cross for the defense of his ship during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Dunlap, who excelled in math and graduated from DuSable High School in Chicago, along with the late Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, earned a promotion to petty officer receiving earning top scores in all classes, including electrician’s school.

He arrived at Camp May in New Jersey, along with other black engineers and seamen, to take a job as an electrician’s mate on a minesweeper. It was January 1943. But the ship’s crew gave the new sailors the cold shoulder.

“We slept on cement in an airplane hangar,” Dunlap recalled. “They wouldn’t let us eat in the mess hall. We spent our own money on food at the PX.”

Dunlap, then 19, organized a strike of the black sailors and soon found himself in a meeting with Navy captains. “They issued orders that we could eat in the mess and they gave us a barracks,” he said. “Suddenly, we were integrated.”

Seven years after Dunlap enlisted, Theodore Hudson, a North Chicago native, was rejected on his first attempt to join a Marine Reserve unit at Glenview Naval Air Station.

“We don’t have facilities for Negroes,” Hudson, 82, of Zion, said he was told. But he persisted, applying to enlist at a unit at Navy Pier in Chicago, where he was informed he would have to take a test.

“I was a college student, tests didn’t frighten me,” Hudson said. “It was the physical I was worried about. I had poor eyesight.”

He arrived early for the physical and memorized the eye chart. He became the first black Marine to serve in the Headquarters Unit, 9th Marine Infantry Battalion.

“It was hell,” Hudson said. “Nobody ever said anything derogatory to me. They just ignored me.”

In 1950, he was sent to Korea where, again the only black in his company, he helped rescue trapped Marines during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir; fought through major Chinese offensives, and marched miles through arctic cold.

He was airlifted stateside, where he was treated for severe frostbite to his hands and feet, injuries that still plague him.

Hudson used the GI Bill to earn a degree in electronics from the University of California. He worked for the aerospace manufacturer McDonell Douglas, then moved home to teach at North Chicago High School and the College of Lake County. He and his late wife adopted four children from Korea.

What does the memorial mean to him? “I think of combat and extreme cold,” Hudson said. “I think of the Chinese and the North Koreans. I think of the segregation and all the bad stuff I experienced.

“But that’s not what I dwell on. I dwell on the fact that I live in a country that has opportunity and that this is the greatest country on earth, despite its shortcomings.”

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