The extremely badass story of the most decorated Montford Point Marine

February 14, 2019

Earning a Silver Star--the military's third highest award for valor in combat--is no easy task. But what about doing it twice in two different wars? It's damn near unheard of, but that's precisely what Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Louis Roundtree did--the most decorated of any Montford Point Marine.

More than 20,000 African-American Marine recruits were trained at Montford Point in North Carolina, between 1942 and 1948. African-Americans were historically barred from joining the Corps until the pressures of World War II forced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to open the ranks to black recruits for the service's first time.

Montford Point Marines deserve as many tributes and attention as the revered U.S. Army's Tuskegee Airmen or Buffalo Soldiers. And the story of Louis Roundtree could easily be spoken in the same breath as other heroes, like Audie Murphy, Alvin York or John Basilone.

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Roundtree began his 22-year military career in 1948 when he shipped off to Montford Point looking for the chance to earn the coveted title of United States Marine. On July 26 of that year, President Harry Truman took another bold step in American and military history--integrating a racially segregated force.

Integrating the military wasn't as easy putting pen to paper, the order was met with stiff resistance, and full integration of the American armed forces would not happen until the Korean War, where Roundtree first saw combat.

Under the commanded of then-Colonel Lewis Burwell "Chesty" Puller, Roundtree landed in September 1950 at Incheon on the Korean peninsula.

During the Battle of Incheon, Roundtree's company single-handedly destroyed three enemy tanks and decimated a reinforced North Korean battalion. As the division moved north into the Chosin Reservoir, he and his fellow Marines found themselves surrounded by an estimated six to eight enemy divisions.

With his weapon riddled with enemy bullet holes, and his hands wounded, Roundtree picked up a rifle of a wounded American Marine and charged up a hill to assault an enemy bunker.

"Upon nearing the bunker, he was literally swept from his feet by a hostile satchel charge and, although rolled back down the steep slope, bruised and bleeding, refused medical attention, rendering assistance to other casualties until the serious nature of his wounds compelled his evacuation," his Silver Star citation reads.

It's hard to know what drives ordinary people to do extraordinary things in combat. Love for the people on to their left and right undoubtedly comes into play, as do memories of family and one's country back home. But what about a nation that discriminates against someone based solely on the color of their skin?

"It is still hard for many to understand today why my father and his brave colleagues would choose to join a segregated military and fight overseas for a country that treated them as less than second class citizens at home," says Lashelle Roundtree, his only living daughter.

"I am extremely proud of the determination, valor, and heroism they exhibited."

That was the end of the Korean War for Roundtree, but he was just getting started. Earning one Silver Star is impressive enough, but Roundtree proved his combat abilities weren't a one-time fluke when he went to Vietnam.

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In Vietnam, Roundtree experienced an absurd amount of combat as an advisor to the South Vietnamese Army. His first seven months in the jungles of South Vietnam Roundtree's position was overrun on several occasions against Viet Cong soldiers, a formidable enemy.

One especially bloody battle came on May 29 and 30, 1965, when, as the American battalion was preparing to launch an attack, an enemy force hit first with heavy weapons and small arms.
Roundtree acted quickly moving toward a barrage of bullets and opening fire as he directed friendly forces to do the same.

"Even though the position was untenable, subjected to heavy weapons and small arms fire, and in imminent danger of being over-run, he continued to emplace weapons and aid the wounded," according to his second Silver Star citation.

His position was again overrun and initially, he was listed as killed in action (KIA). But that changed when they didn't find his body or dog tags. His uniform was ripped to shreds when a helicopter flew him to in Da Nang for treatment.

A humble man, Roundtree rarely spoke about his time in combat, eventually telling his wife evaded capture by floating down a river breathing through a bamboo branch until it was safe to surface. When he did, he spent the night in a tree securing himself by tying his belt around one of its limbs.

The account is one of intense survival and is taught as an example of what is possible under the stressors of fierce combat.

"Some of the military guys that I work with said they learned about my father because the story of his escape during the Vietnam War was taught in the Department of Defense's (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) training," adds Lashelle Roundtree, who works in the Middle East.

As one of her colleagues puts it, "his story of escape is taught as a lesson to each of us because it truly is a story of survival under extreme conditions--conditions that are not seen in modern warfare."

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Roundtree retired from the Marines in 1970. In addition to his Silver Stars, he earned four Bronze Stars and was awarded the Purple Heart three times.

He had another 30-year career with Allstate Insurance retiring in 1996. He died July 8, 2004, at the Department of Veterans Affairs nursing home in Washington, D.C. after suffering a stroke. He was 73 years old.

Perhaps retired Marine Lt. Col. James Zumwalt put it best when he wrote, "as one reads through the list of combat wonders how a single Marine could have seen so much action and managed to survive."

"But through two wars in Korea and Vietnam, Sergeant Major Louis Roundtree has proven to be a survivor."

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