Congressional Gold Medal recipient living up old age

Thursday, August 2, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:45 p.m. CDT, Thursday, August 2, 2012
Lawrence Diggs received the Congressional Gold Medal received last month for his service in one of the nation's first predominantly African-American Marine units.

COLUMBIA — Lawrence “Larry” Diggs gets up before the sun nearly every day to go fishing, exercises regularly and is always looking forward to his next trip.

But during World War II, life wasn’t always so simple.

Only six days after his 18th birthday, Diggs became one of the first African-Americans to be drafted into the Marine Corps.

His hard work and will to survive paid off.

At the end of June, Diggs, 88, drove — he loves to drive — to Washington D.C. to receive a Congressional Gold Medal along with 400 others from Montford Point, a facility at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Nearly 20,000 African-American Marines began training in 1942 until the camp was desegregated in 1949, according to the Montford Point Marines website.

Members of the Montford Point chapters began meeting with members of Congress three years ago, trying to gain recognition for the group, Diggs said.

“But that’s been 70 years ago,” he said, and chuckled. “So I wasn’t expectin’ nothin’. I don’t think any one of the others was expectin’ anything, you know. It’s been long past that time.”

Once the decision was made to honor the first African-American Marines, a Marine lieutenant contacted Diggs and asked him to register to be eligible for the gold medal.

His wife, Margie Diggs, accompanied him to the ceremony.

“They were back and forth in meetings for so long," she said. "I’m just glad they finally did it.”

Islands of crabs and rattlesnakes

Diggs served from 1943 to 1946. During that era, the Montford Point Marines faced many challenges from segregation, he said. With the intense training and harsh conditions in some cases, it felt like the camp staff didn’t want them there.

“The people that was training you wasn’t appreciative of you trying to integrate,” he said.

They retaliated by treating the troops harshly, to “punish you for being there, really.”

He recalled the instructors trying to “over train” the troops, making it as difficult as possible, hoping they would fail.

“But,” he said shrugging his shoulders, slightly hunched from age and years of hard work. “Some of us — and there’s quite a few of us — survived, and finally got it done.”

In total, he spent three months in boot camp and an additional seven months training.

After basic training, he was sent to Guadalcanal, where he trained in jungle warfare. Squinting as if he were trying to see the past, he talked about marching 25 to 30 miles and back to camp at night and encounters with rattlesnakes in the jungle.

After receiving extensive training, Diggs was sent to the Marines first division, where his tour of duty took him to the islands of Guam, his home base, Peleliu and Okinawa.

“After we got overseas, this is the way I describe it: We (blacks and whites) were like enemies in the States," he said. "Over there, you got live ammunition, so it was the band of brothers.”

“You’d be sitting in a foxhole, back to back," he said. "You don’t care who was at your back. He had to take care of your back, and you had to take care of his back.”

Thinking, his face lit up with the faint recognition of one frightening and funny moment as it began to stand out clearly.

Marines were required to dress in the same uniforms, right down to their camouflage undergarments. One night, a scout in his division was supposed to go up to the Japanese lines but had not followed the dress code.

“They had land crabs big as your hand. Land crabs just crawl around on the sand,” he said. “You dug a hole and the land crabs drop in that hole on you, you know …”

The scout, startled by the crabs dropping in on top of him, jumped out of his hole. Tickled by the memory, he laughed as he tried to continue.

“He started to jump up and his underwear was white," he said.

Japanese troops opened fire on the camp. He can laugh about it all these years later.

“Didn’t nobody get killed, though," he said.

Country roots, city grown

Born in Mississippi near his grandfather’s farm, Diggs was raised with eight siblings.

“Growing up, we learned how to share, that’s for sure,” he said

It's a rule he said he still lives by.

“When taking your plate, my father said take all you want, but eat all you take,” he said with a sly smile. “Don’t leave nothin’ on your plate.”

Before World War II began, his father decided to move the family to Chicago. Diggs spent most of his teen years there until he was drafted in 1942. Once his service was complete, he went back to the city and began working for the post office, where he eventually met his wife.

She was walking across a bridge to the post office, and he was down below training a young man, he said.

“I said, who was that young lady goin’ cross there? Ohhh those pretty legs.”

It turned out, the young man knew her well. “That’s my sister,” he told Diggs.

“I said, 'You gotta be kidding me',” Diggs said, breaking into a deep laugh.

The couple married in 1968 and raised five children in Chicago — four from Margie’s previous marriage.

When it was time to retire, the couple checked out seven places. Lake of the Ozarks was on the list,  but then they ended up spending the night in Columbia at the Eastwood Motel on a return trip from Colorado. They stayed an extra two or three days looking at small farms in the area because they thought they wanted to be away from the city.

Somehow, they ended up buying a house in north Columbia, but Diggs said he vividly remembers thinking later at the motel, “What the world did we buy a house down here for?”

Later, they sold the house and bought 36 acres in south Columbia, where they currently live in a house they built in 1980.

Life at 88

Larry Diggs said he's not done yet.

He exercises at the Columbia Activity and Recreation Center every other day and spends as much time as possible fishing.

Around 4:30 most mornings, he heads out to his favorite fishing holes because the fish bite best when the sun’s first rays hit the water.

Every year, he looks forward to fishing trips to Lake Erie in June and Florida the day after the Super Bowl.

“I love to eat fish,” he said in an excited whisper. “I like those striped bass.”

Upon further reflection he adds crappie to the list. "I like walleye, too. I always got 10 to 15 pounds of fish in the freezer.”

Sometimes he travels with Margie. The couple has taken seven cruises and traveled all across the United States and through Canada.

“They call him the battery that keeps on going,” Margie said with a smile.

Spending time with family whenever possible is one of the things he cherishes most. Pointing to framed pictures of his children on the dining room buffet and on the wall above it, he counts 13 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. He talks about how his life has been blessed.

Diggs never lets the little things get him down, or even the big things, like two hip replacements. He said that's why he's a survivor; he has a positive outlook on life.

“He’s an optimist, that’s for sure,” Margie said. “He always thinks most things are possible if you work hard enough.”

During much of his retirement in Columbia, he spent many volunteer hours at Columbia Regional Hospital  and also stayed involved in the community, keeping an eye out and looking after everyone — something he's done since his days in the foxholes.

Although his mind is still etched with memories from the war — many he doesn't care to remember or talk about — Diggs simply allows the past to inform his choices, while he defines his life.

"I mean, in the war, you're a trained killer. I suppose you do that to survive," he said.

"But, I love life now."

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Delcia Crockett August 2, 2012 | 7:49 a.m.

Thank you for your service, Sir!

Appreciated, when we consider the outcome of what could have happened if men of valor had not stepped up to serve in World War II.

You are a hero!

Thank you.

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