Melvin Shoats, an original Montford Point Marine, received the Congressional Gold Medal in June.
By Mea Watkins
When the news arrived that Melvin Shoats and more than 400 other surviving African-American veterans, known as the Montford Point Marines, would be honored with the Congressional Gold Medal for distinguished achievement, his wife of 56 years wasn’t sure whether he would be fit to travel.
“I just prayed and took the chance,” Dorothy Shoats said. “He was ecstatic.”
Despite declining health, Melvin Shoats made the trip in June to the Marine Corps Barracks in Washington, D.C., to receive the highest civilian award bestowed by Congress. In the midst of a historic heat wave, Shoats patiently waited to hear his name announced during the outdoor ceremony.
“When they called his name, I just hollered,” his wife said.
She said her husband was “quite thrilled” and that he regularly looked with admiration at the medal “up until the time he died.”
Melvin Shoats of Tucker died Nov. 3 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. He was 86. A memorial service is planned for 1 p.m. Saturday at Haugabrooks Funeral Home in Atlanta, which is also in charge of arrangements.
The Montford Point Marines had received little recognition over the years for their contributions. “A lot of them had put it out of their minds … but they were thrilled to know that they would be recognized for their efforts during World War II and beyond,” said Fred Codes, president of the Atlanta Chapter of the Montford Point Marine Association, of which Shoats was a member.
Shoats was among the first blacks to enter the Marine Corps after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an order prohibiting racial discrimination in the national defense industry. But the recruits were subjected to injustice when they arrived for basic training at the segregated Montford Point Camp in Jacksonville, N.C. Codes said the men realized they weren’t wanted in the Marine Corps and “surmised that in order to make it through the arduous training, they would have to rely on each other.” He said they “knew they were fighting for a bigger cause.”
“Through their training, they were able to influence many of the civil rights positions that we enjoy today,” Codes said.
After serving in the Korean War, Shoats was honorably discharged and awarded the World War II Victory Medal, the Korean Service Medal and the United National Medal.
Dorothy Shoats said her husband planned to retire from the Marine Corps but decided to end his career after a roadside explosive took the life of his best friend. “He was driving with his buddy sitting on the passenger side,” she said. “I think he felt he was the cause of it.” Melvin Shoats never drove again.
The couple moved to Georgia in 1984 after Shoats retired from Orbis Chemical in Newark, N.J., where he was dubbed “Never-Miss-a-Day Shoats.” He was also active with the U.S. merchant marine.
His wife said he was a dependable, honest, straightforward person.
“If he said he was going to do something,” she said, “he would do it.”
In addition to his wife, survivors include three sons, Kevin Shoats of Mechanicsville, Pa., and Jeffrey Shoats and Kenneth Shoats, both of Atlanta; a daughter, Pamela Browne of Atlanta; two grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.