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One of 1st Black Marines to serve in combat honored for 100th birthday

A World War II veteran who was part of the first cohort of Black Marines received letters of appreciation from top military and government officials in honor of his 100th birthday.

Former Cpl. Lawrence “Larry” Diggs received early birthday wishes on May 4 from President Joe Biden, Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough, Marine Commandant Gen. Eric Smith and Commander of Africa Command Gen. Michael Langley — the Corps’ first Black four-star general.

“All Marines — myself included — are better for having such fine examples of selflessness to learn from and emulate,” Langley wrote in his letter. “We are a better Corps for everything you’ve done.”

Diggs was one of the more than 19,000 Black Marines who trained at Montford Point, North Carolina, between 1942 and 1949. Although the Montford Point Marines in recent years have received recognition from Congress and the Marine Corps for their trailblazing service, it was a different story during their time in the then-segregated Marine Corps.

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For example: Although Diggs served honorably with 1st Marine Division during World War II and participated in the Battle of Peleliu, he left the Marine Corps in 1946 without any awards on his record, according to his friend, Marine veteran Keith Widaman.

After his service in the Corps, Larry Diggs worked for the United States Steel Corporation and then for the U.S. Post Office, according to Widaman.

His son David Diggs, 54, knew since childhood that his father had been in the Marines in World War II. But Larry Diggs didn’t provide many details about his service.

He would share occasional anecdotes about encountering wildlife like crabs or spiders in his foxholes on Pacific Islands, and having to remain quiet as they crawled around, but not about the fighting itself, David Diggs said.

Larry Diggs always was the peacemaker of the household, his son said. He taught David Diggs discipline, such as the importance of wiping the sink after you brush your teeth so you leave it clean for others. He expounded a philosophy of enjoying life’s journeys rather than getting wrapped up in the destination.

But there is one destination Larry Diggs has been excited about for a long time.

“My dad has been talking about looking forward to turning 100 since he turned 80,” David Diggs said.

Widaman, 40, got to know Diggs while a member of the Mizzou Student Veterans Association at the University of Missouri in Columbia. Diggs, who lived nearby, was a fixture at local veterans’ events, Widaman said, and student veterans would help him with his lawn and shrubs.

The first time Widaman, who left the Marine Corps in 2009, came to Diggs’ house, the older veteran looked out at the sky nervously, Widaman recalled. When it began to rain, Diggs excused himself and went outside to take the American flag down from his flagpole.

“You just don’t see that sort of respect for the flag and that level of patriotism anymore,” Widaman said.

In 2019, Widaman reached out to Marine Corps officials to get Diggs, then 95, invited to the commandant’s Marine Corps birthday ball in Washington, D.C.

Widaman said he raised approximately $9,000 online for plane tickets, a hotel, dress blues (Diggs’ own pair was stolen in the 1940s), a noncommissioned officer sword and a tuxedo. The next step was figuring out which medals Diggs had received as a Marine, so the older veteran could wear them to the birthday event, where he was honored as the oldest Marine in attendance.

But the only award Diggs had was the Congressional Gold Medal replica he and other Montford Point Marines had received in 2012.

Widaman told Marine Corps Times he worked with the Marine Corps to secure the awards Diggs’ service merited: the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with 1 bronze star, the World War II Victory Medal, the Navy Occupation Service Medal and a Combat Action Ribbon. None of these were listed on his service record.

Widaman presented the medals to Diggs at the African American History and Culture Museum in Washington, D.C., before the Marine Corps birthday festivities.

“How many men of Montford Point have lived their whole lives and passed away and they never knew that they earned medals from their actions or service in World War II, and their families still don’t know?” Widaman said.

In 2022, when Larry Diggs and his wife, Margie, were staying with David Diggs in Tacoma, Washington, the family read an article about Gen. Michael Langley becoming the first Black four-star general in the Marine Corps.

Margie Diggs suggested to David Diggs, “Wouldn’t it be great if we were able to get a letter from Gen. Langley to recognize your father at his 100th birthday?”

David Diggs decided he would try, but wasn’t sure how, he said. Then he had the idea of getting Widaman involved.

Widaman — a Defense Department civilian who emphasized he acted entirely in a personal capacity — reached out on LinkedIn to retired Gen. Gary Thomas, the former assistant Marine commandant, who pointed him in the right direction. One of Widaman’s friends, who worked in the Pentagon, helped too.

Other people chipped in. Marines from the recruiting station in Chicago volunteered to present the letters from Smith and Langley. The Bolingbrook Golf Club, in the Chicago suburb where Larry and Margie Diggs are living, agreed to host the Diggs family in its event space for free, Widaman said.

In addition to the official letter from Langley was a photo of the general with handwritten birthday wishes.

“You and the rest of the Montford Point Marines plowed the way,” Langley wrote. “Thank you for your service to God, Corps, and Country.”

The letters came as a surprise to Larry Diggs, David Diggs said.

“The combination of hearing it and then being presented with the letter and being able to actually see it and see who it was from was really quite a moment for him,” David Diggs said. “I think he was like, ‘Wow, I never thought or dreamed or even considered that I would be recognized for my 100th birthday by these people.’”

Since the May 4 event, Air Force Gen. CQ Brown, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has sent a letter of his own to honor the Marine veteran’s milestone birthday, which is on Saturday.

Handwritten at the bottom of Brown’s typed letter are five words: “Thanks for paving a way.”

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