Oral history interview of Mortimer Augustus Cox, tape 2 of 2

Veterans History Project: Oral History Interviews
Oral history interview of Mortimer Augustus Cox, tape 2 of 2
Brown, Myers; Johnson, Ahnekii
Cox, Mortimer Augustus, 1919-2001
Date of Original:
Race relations--Georgia--Atlanta
African Americans--Employment--Georgia--Atlanta
College integration--Georgia--Atlanta
Woods, Samuel A., Jr., 1893-1968
Rich's (Retail store)
United States. Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944
United States, Georgia, Atlanta Metropolitan Area, 33.8498, 84.4383
United States, Georgia, 32.75042, -83.50018
video recordings (physical artifacts)
In part two of this two-part interview, Mortimer Cox describes his post-war years in Atlanta, Georgia, including his education and work experience.
Mortimer Cox was a Marine in the Pacific during World War II.
MORTIMER COX VETERANS HISTORY INTERVIEW Atlanta History Center July 26, 1999 Interviewer: Myers Brown Transcriber: Stephanie McKinnell TAPE 1 of 2 Myers Brown: . . . full name, and date of birth, and place of birth, just some general information now. Mortimer Cox: All right, I'm Mortimer Augustus Cox. Why they named me that, I'll never know. I was born April 15,1919, in Birmingham, Alabama. MB: When did you first move here to the Atlanta area? MC: I moved to Atlanta June of 1946, September of 1946. I had decided to use my GI Bill for college education. It's interesting how I selected—everybody asks me why did you select Atlanta and why did you select Morris Brown College as school. I'm a son of a coal miner in the steel mills of Birmingham. Returning from the war and my experience in the Marine Corps said to me that—while my parents could not afford me the privilege of college, I graduated from high school in 1937. Knowing that I had the opportunity to utilize the GI Bill of Rights, I decided I would do that. I didn't see a future in the steel mill. On the basis of my experience in the Marine Corps, I wrote every black, historically black college in this country in a large city. I was concerned that I needed a large city in order to supplement my income because I was married at that time. Most of them in '46 was overfilled with the returning World War II veterans and I began to get , “We're full.” Finally I received a letter from Morris Brown in Atlanta, Georgia, and they said they had an opening and they would accept me. They wanted a $5 deposit on my room, incidentally. And I could afford that, so I took that. That's why I chose Atlanta. MB: When did you first hear of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and America's involvement? Do you know where you were when that happened? MC: Exactly. I'll never forget it. I was at a Sunday afternoon tea, that was what we had in my community, teas on Sunday. They were church related activities, and of course you would always go and do such exciting things as dance, maybe, but spin the bottle and kiss the girl, yes!, and we would always attend those. That was late Sunday afternoon that year, and we were there, and someone happened to turn on the radio, and we heard it on the radio, and the President was speaking, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and, of course, all of us had registered for the draft, but we were just waiting on our number to go up. All of the teenage boys were there, and the girls, and we listened for the rest of the afternoon. I don't think we spinned the bottle at all that day because we were concerned. But I can remember, I can remember the house, and quite often, if I'm in Birmingham, I'll drive past. And the lady's name was Mrs. Pittman, and as I said there's where I was December 7, 1941. But it's very clear in my mind because it changed my life. Int: When did you get drafted or enlisted? MC: In 1942, I began to think seriously, and the draft was on all young men. And, of course, I was thinking I did not want the Army because blacks were limited in the Army. I had a brother who had volunteered several years earlier and what he was doing did not impress me. Of course, the travel was always intriguing, but just the activity did not impress me. The Navy from what I had seen, I had seen blacks who were in uniform but most of them were either butlers or waited tables aboard ship. That did not appeal to me. There was a paper which was printed, a black newspaper, the Birmingham Daily World, it was a branch of the Atlanta Daily World. It was printed in Atlanta but it was primarily news about blacks in there. I saw the announcement that the Marine Corps was accepting blacks, and of course I thought this was a challenge. I realized they didn't have the kind of segregation that existed in the other major services. So I thought I would go down just to get some more information, and I went to the post office, and I found myself taking the test, and I passed the test and I was sworn in that day. I guess if I'd had to think about it, I don't know what I would have done, but when I found myself being given the oath of office and then told I was a Marine, and I was no longer subject to the draft, that of course gave me some relief. Now I did not immediately go in. I didn't know why. I went back home and from, that was June, I guess about June 12, I believe it was, and I went back home. All my friends were being drafted and were going in the service. I was home, I had heard nothing from the Marine Corps at all, and it was only in late August of '42 I received my orders. “You will report to Camp Montford Point, New River, North Carolina,” on such and such a date with a ticket aboard the train to North Carolina, and that was the first [notice] I had. When I got there, there were very few blacks. I believe I only saw about five or six blacks. That was September 1. And, of course, over the next several days they were bringing more in, so I ended up being in what we call the First Platoon of blacks, the first 40 men who began training. I was in that outfit and I began, I found myself in boot camp at that time becoming a Marine. It was very traumatic. We had a situation where there were no blacks to provide the initial training so these were all whites who were to give us the boot training, and if you know anything about what boot training incurred, it was traumatic. Those of us from the south did not have as much of a culture shock as those young men who were coming out of Chicago, out of New York, and out of the Midwest, who came and found themselves in Washington, D.C., and they'd have to move in the back of the train, so they came onboard in the camp angry. . . . Interestingly enough, most of that group of 40 men had some college, some were graduates out of college. It was a ______, why I don't know, maybe they were the ones who could pass the initial test, but they were angry and very, very hostile, so it was [difficult], because that special service group that was assigned to give us our training did it with the enthusiasm that I guess the Marines have had for 200 years prior to that, so it was an experience. It was hard to differentiate what was racial and what was required of training. The rigors of training is to get you to think as a group, so those of us who had never been into it, I had never been to a camp. Years later as I got older and began to broaden my experience, I could see that in day camp. Youngsters are taught to think as a group and be responsible for the group, so I could understand it. But I had never had that experience, and I suppose most of the youngsters who were there had not had that kind of experience so we did not know what was racial and what was training, so it was very, very difficult. Int: Did you all talk about it? MC: Very traumatic. Int: Did the southerners talk to the northerners? MC: Uh-huh. We almost took a kind of attitude that we were responsible for the group. So first of all, we felt a closeness to those black leaders who were pushing for equal opportunity for blacks, like A. Phillip Randolph and the guy who was head of the National Urban League and NAACP, who were actually talking to the President looking for opportunities for young people in service. And we felt obligations, especially those from the south. You had youngsters out of Talladega, in Talladega, Alabama, Alabama A&M in Montgomery, Morehouse College and Clark [Atlanta University] here, so those educated blacks began to take an attitude that we can't let the race down. They don't want us in the Marine Corps, but we cannot fail. If we fail it will be because they just made the decision, not that we could not do it. So we began to form what we did not know were support groups at night. We would rehash those traumatic experiences that an individual had had and try to put it in perspective. And looking back during the earlier years when students began to integrate white institutions, that was one thing that I tried to get our organization, the Montford Point Marines, that's a national group of black Marines, to form those kinds of groups in the black community, to get young people to realize and see the big picture, as we would always say. You know, do your task and do it well. But it never really happened. But it was very difficult to go through that training and keep everybody concerned. MB: Now how old were you when you went to . . . MC: I tell you, I had been out of high school since 1937, so I was what, '42, 18, I was 23. MB: Were you older or younger or about the same age as most? MC: About the same age. As soon as the Marine Corps had to accept, later on in '43, the Marine Corps had to accept selective service, which was a body of men that selective service, a local selective service [office] would refer to the service, and they would be assigned out. When they began to get that kind of person, you began to get younger, more hostile blacks who didn't understand, didn't want to be in the war anyway, but they realized they had to. But that was my age. Jacksonville [North Carolina] was an experience. It was a small town that depended on the Marine barracks for its existence. But they didn't take kindly to black Marines, and the black Marines were really the ones closest to them. The Marine barracks was farther out across the railroad tracks so they viewed us as outsiders, and they felt we weren't going to be there long. I guess maybe it was assumed that “This is a trial and if they fail, it will close.” So that was our first impression. But it was, truly there were some experiences that even I remember. And being raised all my life in the south other than just going to New York or Washington to visit relatives or something, it was traumatic to me. Because there was always—in Birmingham where I was born and reared, there was always even downtown, theaters and cafés, you had all of your social organizations and your churches and school groups. But here in Jacksonville, it was a country town with very few blacks and no “black society” so it was traumatic. The bus drivers had never had to adjust to black troops. And if we wanted—the closest liberty places were either in Wilmington, New Bern or Lamar, where they had black populations, so most was ready to take a bus. But the bus drivers would always enforce segregation. You had to be in the back seat. So you formed two lines, which was unusual, you know, hard to accept because I had on the uniform just like you. But usually about four or five blacks would get on the back seat and he would fill up the bus with the white troops. So that got to be a problem, especially with those of us who were then moved up where we began to replace the special service troops and we were becoming NCO's ourselves. We had to deal with the fact that here's a youngster on leave, then he comes back AWOL and it's not his fault, because we had experienced first hand that you just couldn't get the bus. You know when only five of you can get out on that bus, you know what I mean, so they were more likely to be absent without leave. So, we increasingly began to press the commanding officer. Now it's to his credit that the person who was selected as commanding officer, Colonel Samuel Woods, accepted the position because he wanted to do it. He actually asked for the assignment, and I've heard him tell me a million times why he had, the name of the group of 51st Defense Battalion, and his pride and joy was that he, how he selected 51st. He said he selected the “5” and the “1” because of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. The two persons that appear on the five and one dollar bills were most liked by blacks, and that was how he got it. But he was very, very, very fair and the only thing that really bothered me, as a colonel with the long tenure in the Marine Corps, he could look you in the eye and tell you, I can't control this, and he couldn't. But he would come up with a point with buses, he would assign the troop trucks to go to cities like New Bern and carry them on liberty. So we had our own trucks. Interestingly enough, whites who were running late and missed the last bus would be begging and pleading “let us on your bus,” because we could stay a little later, we didn't have to abide by the bus schedule. And you always assigned noncommissioned officers, so that the MPs which were old Marines that resented the blacks did not have to interface with us. So that they would always say, “Where is your NCO?” and turn them over. “I caught him doing such and such a thing.” And of course we would handle it. But it was interesting enough, I can remember one night, they found me in 1953 [43?], and I just happened to remember that because I can remember when my wife and I got our first house and quit rooming and got an apartment. They built apartments on the base for black non-coms who had a family, so the family's there. When I married, my wife and I had an apartment there. And we were laughing. In December of that year, out in Jacksonville on that coast, it was very cold. The wind is awful. Easily on a cold day you can feel little flakes of ice in the wind. But the deal is when it's cold, coal is limited. They would not let the troops, and we had to buy coal to heat the apartment, would not sell us any coal. Coal would come in and we'd go down to pick up some coal and they'd say, “No, all of this is promised.” So finally we convinced Colonel Woods, the commanding officer, we have a problem. He said what, we told him, and immediately we had a mountain of coal for the steam boiler to do the heating on the base. And he says, “That's our coal. Get you some trucks and back up the pile and get all the coal you need.” So we never bought no more coal, it was that kind of thing. But he was a thoughtful caring person. The camp was not all bad, we had some plusses. There was a young lieutenant who was assigned, he was a radical they said. I guess he was a forerunner of the so-called hippies. Robert Troop, and I had seen some movies, he was out of Hollywood, but he knew all the band leaders, the actors who were black and everything. We had a movie, but by the time we got the movies from the main base, they would be old. He had a contact in Hollywood he could call, and of course they would send movies in. Most of the band leaders then, Count Basie and Lionel Hampton, he knew them, and he would have them on the base. One of the most interesting articles, I mean incidents, on the base, is that the commanding officer of the total camp, Camp Lejeune, heard that we had a black boxer who was very good. I can't think of his name, but he was coming to give us an exhibition as the result of Lt. Troop's invitation, and everybody wanted to see it. He wanted to see the bout. He came down, and the guys, like most youngsters, are noisy. And you know how you are at a boxing gig. That bothered that CO and he issued an order for all of the troops to be quiet, and of course we said you're on our turf, you know, and this is for us and you're just a guest here. He had really turned them off because at the time he came over to see the troops, we really trained the troops to be very precise in drilling and to do it exact, and it was a thing of beauty to watch those young fellows drill. And he had, in talking to them, said—he was just returning from the Pacific. And he says, “You know, I'm just back from the Pacific. I've seen women Marines, I've seen dog Marines, and now I see you people.” And I guess he was trying to make a point, I believe in my heart, now that I reflect on it, he was trying to make a point. “Now when I see you people, I know we are at war.” And, of course, the guys are afraid to boo a general, but the next time, he was coming this particular night, and the guys say, he's going to see it by himself, we're not going, and we'll just pass over the camp. And we knew, to Colonel Woods, that was going to put him in a pretty bad light to be a camp commander and be told, the commander of the total camp is coming and none of your troops will be there, so we didn't know what to do. So we decided we would declare what we called a punishment, that you will do a camp cleaning, nobody would say anything. Well, the troops go on punishment and that was going to be our way of doing it. But the colonel came in, he sent for his non-coms then and asked them, fellows, I can't let this, guys got to be there, he's going to know something, you know. But we did relent and the troops did go, but it's that kind of thing that you had openly. Int: Where was your first assignment? MC: My first assignment as I told you, I came in to be assigned to the 51st Defense Battalion. About [1943] when the war had changed, I suppose troops were addressed [?] then. Interestingly enough the whites were gone. They kept the 51st Defense Battalion, but they realized they would have to have a cadre of troops to continue training those blacks who had come in there out of the selective service, so they set up what they called recruit depot training, and Colonel Woods took that camp, and another colonel took over the 51st Defense Battalion, and he asked me if I would be one of those who would stay. He said they like my style, they like my leadership qualities, will you stay. And, of course at that time, I had—it's interesting, the story goes back to the six blacks who made PFCs. That was the first time in the history of the Marine Corps blacks ever made it. I was one of those. And I had, by this time I think I was a buck sergeant. They had to pull the whites out and they had to put us on fast track for promotion, so we were about every three months getting a promotion, and that's unheard of in the Marine Corps. But he had asked me to stay and to serve as first sergeant of “A” company, which was the first recruit training company we were going to have, and, of course, that's when I decided to get married. I says, I'm going to be here, and he told me all about the plans for apartments, and “you'll be here for the rest of the war just training troops.” Gee, that was nice. So I accepted. It was at that point that I began to get over ___. But in 1944, the commanding officer of Camp Lejeune then returned from the Pacific to do duty back in the states, he had been out long enough, and he came over, and he had seen black troops overseas. But always under the supervision of white non-coms, and he came over and saw first sergeant, black sergeant, he was amazed. He had been on Saipan incidentally, the first activity of blacks in the Pacific, but the Japanese, they didn't know that the troops had been trained. They thought all they could do was handle supplies, but when the troops came through, they laid down, grabbed weapons and began to stop the Japanese. And, of course, at that point, there was an article in Time magazine, it was right after, it was a sailor aboard the ship who grabbed the gun and actually to, began to do like at Pearl Harbor, and all of that came back, so it began to take an attitude. His feeling was the troops would be better off, he looked around and saw a whole cadre of black non-coms that he didn't know existed. So he then said that he was going to begin to send black non-coms out. That must have been midsummer '44. And with my seniority and my connections with Colonel Woods, I would always miss it, [they'd take] somebody else, and finally Colonel Woods said, “Sergeant, they're going to get you, you're going to have to go, you've got to be selective.” And, of course, there was a company with a friend of his who was going over with the 36th, and he wanted me, and Colonel Woods wanted me to go because he felt that he could do a good deed through a friend of his. And of course I had to go, and that was traumatic, but I went and got in Pearl Harbor December 15, five days before Christmas, lonely, mad, and deserted, and not knowing what I was going to do. But it was Pearl Harbor and Honolulu at Christmas time, I guess it was nice. But we did, and of course, the rest is history, because in '44 we began doing immediately maneuvers and training immediately after Christmas and that led right up to February of '44 or '45 then isn't it?, yeah, '45. MB: Now which unit were you assigned to when you went to Pearl Harbor? MC: We were assigned with a unit of what they call a depot company, a battalion I guess it was, something new for the Marine Corps, which handled all the supplies. See, the Marine Corps prior to that had had encounters in which it would go ashore and was able to supply itself [by] scrimmages. But for the first time, the Marine Corps found itself out at Saipan which would need reinforcements, medical personnel, would be the only thing the same as the Army, because they were fighting the war just like an Army, but it was not equipped to handle that, so they began to come up with depot companies with full detail, armaments, you know, armaments and the whole ammunition supply. We had to supply all the troops as you went, remember, because they could only carry so much during initial action. So we were assigned to one of those companies, and we began to maneuver loading and reloading. We wore out the equipment during January and the first of February prior to Iwo Jima just training, so that by the time we got to Iwo Jima, we were just like the Army going aboard with the artillery, coming on in phases with the supplies, and that's what the company and I did. We handled more ammunition, we handled clothing, water, and all the wonderful brandy that they gave you, and that's another whole story, but that was nice. MB: But you were there training until February, and then in February? MC: Yes, we actually went to Iwo Jima and was there when the flag, every time you see that flag, it brought on a different kind of meaning, because I had no idea, I had . . . [TAPE changed] . . . I had nothing to compare it with. I thought it was difficult but I just thought that was war and it was only on reflection that it really, really . . . and the deaths, I had never seen that much death before in my life, and that of course bothered me, and I was certain that I was not going to get off. But— MB: When did you actually go ashore on Iwo Jima? Did ya'll go? MC: Yes. We went, it went by D-plus D-Day, D-Day is D and the day after is D-1. We went D-5 and that was because you just couldn't get ashore because everything just logged up and the what it was about D-5 when you actually see the flag raising on Iwo Jima, which the Japanese could actually pinpoint any island. They could look and see a group of men, they'd know exactly how to set their weapons and hit it, so that just naturally tied the troops up on the beaches, and you couldn't until . . . that's the importance of Mount Suribache and the flag raising. So, yes, when you saw the flag up, you knew that they had conquered the island where they could actually, it's a mountain, it's a top of the mountain, and they had pinpointed and all of our control so that once they put the flag up, that was a symbol to the troops that that was secure, then you no longer had to fear the being attacked with emplaced guns from their mountain. But we went in and they, we were, there was no place for you to hide with Marine Corps at invasions, whether you're going in D- or D-10, they needed you. But it was nasty black sand, just as black as that chair, and by the first full day with the body parts and the bodies, flies were big and it was a stink that you never would forget. MB: When you were on shore, how close did you guys deploy to the front, I mean, did you have people taking supplies up to the front or were they coming back to you? MC: No, you carried the supplies. The only man I lost in my company, I had 160 men in my company, and course I was first sergeant, I laugh about it now. First sergeants do nothing but receive the reports and hand it out, that's his responsibility. But it, there's no background. Iwo Jima's not large enough, very small island, not any larger I would say than what you call Buckhead, so that you're on the front line when you're there. So it is, it was an experience. Int: Did the company you were in, were they all black? MC: All black, yes. The officers were white. That's a whole different story. After the war, after Iwo Jima, we returned to Hawaii for rest and well, what they call R&R. Rest and recreation. That was very good duty. We were stationed on the big island of Hilo, that's the big island of Hawaii, Hawaii itself . . . Honolulu is on Oahu . . . but it's the largest island, primarily sugarcane, pineapple, and bananas. We were assigned a camp for black troops. They had some trouble. Most of the Hawaiian, true Hawaiians, were at that time, back in the ‘40s, were on the big island and living in small cities around Hilo. Hilo was where most of the tourists would come in, that was a city like Honolulu is, but in the camp which is out in the suburbs, that was a Dole pineapple camp and they decided to put us in this camp as black troops, thought we'd get along with the natives better, which we did, it was just like being in Paradise, having been on Iwo Jima, that black sand, with no food, to be able to reach out of your window and pick a ripe banana, you know, for breakfast, eat all the pineapple you want, you know, it was quite well. But even that did not last because after about, I guess about two months after that, everybody said, well, we got the, right after Easter when Iwo Jima was secured, and let's see, the European war was over around August I believe it was of '45. Do I remember my history correct, I'm thinking about how I lived it. I can remember that, I can remember hearing, on that island, that Franklin Roosevelt died down in Warm Springs, that Truman became president and that we were gearing up at that time again to do the maneuvers again for another march. We did not know it at that time what it was going, or where it was going to be, but we were doing about the same thing we had done back in September, and after you've done it once, you did this before, you know what happened. But then in September the first bomb was dropped on Nagasaki [Hiroshima]. We did not know it, only then we had put together that we were getting, preparing to invade Japan. Because we began to do certain things. You would not have the sand beaches, which told us that we were going into a port. So we did some, we were praying for the second bomb, you know, and I still do not blame . . . . Historians now second-guess Truman about that second bomb but I thank him for it because we didn't, so that when they finally surrendered, we actually covered the territory that we were preparing to invade. And we went in the naval base on the southern island of Japan, Sasabo, the naval base in Japan. We actually made the occupation for that section of the island that we were going to, I imagine everybody took what they were supposed to do. But there is where the end, the war ended. I had been in now four years. I'd been overseas, I had rank, and they began to let you out based on the points system. And then December of '45 I had the points, and I applied at that point to be released. And of course I had an opportunity and I knew most of the people who were in charge, and they kept saying, you're going to go back on a nice liberty ship, you're not going to go. And finally I said I'll take anything. It was after Christmas and I told my wife I was coming home and I didn't. And I waited, I waited all of January of '46 and nothing good came through. Finally about the end of January, I said, I'll take whatever it is. And I got an LST, an LST is a flat bottomed ship that can pull up on the beach, and I came back from Japan on an LST. That was a trip that all I wanted was the United States, and I wanted to get back home again, I was ready for the war . . . . I am not a soldier, I would get the orders for the company _______. And the thing that bothered me, and I hear it now, on September, I mean on July 26, 1999, at 0100 you will . . . you know, move to such and such and report to so and so. That bothers me, you know, you have nobody enters into . . . I remember telling Colonel Woods the day I got my orders to report to the company that I had, and that was away. And my wife was there, alone, didn't know anyone there on the base, but I had not had chance enough to get the furniture and get everything moved, you know. And I was just about ready to tell him I'm not going to do it, they're going to have to shoot me or something, I'm not going to leave my wife here, you know, alone. She's never been away from home. But he said, “Sergeant, we're going to tell your wife, we're going to pack the furniture, we're going to see that she gets on a train, see that she gets home, you've got nothing to worry about.” I said, “Colonel, I believe you but I don't believe them other folks out there.” MB: Did, can you describe for me when you landed at Guadalcanal, what you were wearing, what you were carrying, uniform, equipage, head to toe? If you can. MC: Fatigues, I had fatigues, just straight fatigues. MB: Chamois or… MC: What we called the olive green, twill like, like this. It's about this color, maybe like these trousers. It was olive green. You had a helmet, a steel helmet, that was it. We left Norfolk, it was a wonderful trip for a country boy to leave Norfolk go down the Pacific and take about three or four days through the Panama Canal. Didn't even feel like it was cold, it was in October, and once you got down to Hilton Head, the sun was out, you pull off your clothes and lay on the beach on a nice new USS named after a county in New York, see they were having these liberty ships. And we just thought we were going to heaven, you know what I mean. And then load up in Panama, we had to wait because the ships went through the canal based on priority, and I guess our priority wasn't high enough. So we just sit there and you'd go on liberty one day and every other day you'd go on liberty and see the nice girls out there, I guess we had more money because we didn't have anything to do with the money we had, we were going overseas. But it was wonderful, and to experience the Panama Canal. That I really appreciated. It was only when we got to the west coast and we joined then the armada with the battleships, the destroyers, the other troop ships, and we went from Northern Japan because we went in the water then, no smoking at night, you know, no lights on the deck, always with your gear if you were on the topside. You could never go topside with the, not full gear and prepared to evacuate because you never knew when you were going to be struck with a torpedo or something. MB: Were you carrying weapons at Iwo Jima or were you wearing a sidearm? MC: I wore a sidearm, which didn't seem to be accurate enough, a .45. That wasn't enough. I finally took on a carbine which was a rifle and could be accurate up to about 200 yards, and I had fired it so I knew I could do it, and I wanted to be able to shoot. A .45 is alright for hand to hand combat, when you're close up on you, but you could miss, I could miss you firing if I wasn't very careful, this distance, with a .45. But carbines or something like that, but most troops carried that. The first sergeant was required with a sidearm. That looks good in the states, you want something maybe more effective. MB: Were the rest of the men in your company also carrying carbines? MC: All of them. You were issued a carbine in boot camp, that was yours. That was your baby, you kept it, you never let a piece of rust show on it, and you carried it with you. And the only time you could _____ that was when it wouldn't fire. MB: Everybody tells stories about the famous Marine Kbar knife, did you guys carry those Kbars? MC: No, no. We did not. See really and truly most of the weapons where Marines had been fighting hand to hand in World War II, they began to change. We began to see a change for that because that was a different kind of war, you began to go like down in the Pacific, you remember Haiti and all of that, well the Marines, the “halls of Montezuma” you know down in Mexico, all of that stuff, that was when they had the hand to hand combat. We did, when I first went in, jujitsu and all of that was in for hand to hand combat. But increasingly the Pacific did away from that, Japanese say they'll shoot you down, no hand to hand . . . MB: What kind of food did they give you? MC: Food was always good at installations like camp, good cooks, always. Yeah, I can remember I was telling you about Hilo on the big island of Hawaii there on the top of what is the mountain name, I've forgotten, it looked like Texas, and they have beef cows. We would send up every day and get steaks, steaks that were about that thick and about that big. And I had a mess sergeant who could really cook a steak, you know. And, well, that was it, they'd really be a roast and not a steak. But the food at all the installations is as nice as, I was reading either this year or last year, about the Marine Corps birthday, there's always a good meal. And I was thinking about it and how wonderful it was, but now in combat, you're going to have K rations, and all K rations taste alike. But Marine Corps, the only outfit I imagine attached to the Navy would be aboard ship because you've got an installation for cooking. MB: As far as your equipment, uniform, anything like that, was there any piece of equipment you thought was really useful, a real good thing to have, or was there stuff that you thought why on earth did they ever issue me this, this is a piece of garbage? MC: Marines always had good equipment, course you didn't put up with a rifle. See you were talking about weaponry. When I went in, we learned to fire the Thompson submachine gun. You see because it was hand to hand, you could move in a group of people. That was the kind of activity the Marine Corps had up until World War II. But in World War II and the type of activity that we had, we began to shift. I did fire, I fired the Thompson sub for, just for qualification. What else did I fire? We had the BAR, it was an automatic weapon, and of course every Marine up until the time I went through boot training had to fire the '03, that's the old rifle that you had to cock, and you had to fire and qualify with it before you got with the new rifle that had the, you know, you could fire, what, eight rounds? And with the, with the . . . MB: The M-1. MC: Right, right. The M-1 was relatively new to World War II, but you had to qualify. I qualified as a sharpshooter. Qualified as a sharpshooter on the BAR and the Thompson sub, and the '45, yeah. MB: Now after you were discharged and you took your GI Bill and you came here to Atlanta, went to school, what did you do after you got out of school? MC: After I finished school? I took all of my GI Bill, what, 48 months, I took every penny. The government does not now owe me anything, and I went four years through college. I really had the plan of being a lawyer. My plans were to finish Morris Brown and I took what they called the pre-law which was heavily history and government. And in the second year I joined my fraternity and one of my assignments as joining that fraternity, this Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, was to identify, you know . . . was to meet a person in the profession I intended to go into. I met a young attorney who had just finished Howard University and he gave me some advice and I kidded him about it. He died a couple of years ago, but I never let him forget it, he gave me a rude awakening. He said to me he wouldn't advise it. I really wanted some support and I asked him why. And he told me, unless you have a family who can buy you a law library and support your office for two years with at least a secretary, if you don't have that, I wouldn't advise you to suffer through law school. And I was angry when I left him, I was foaming, why would he talk to me like, why would he bust my dream. And I went back, but the more I began to think about it, that with my total investment, I had gone to college against my father's advice. His advice was . . .U.S. Steel had saved me, see during the war if you were drafted and you had a job, that company had to promise you a job when you returned. And they had given me that job and I think I worked about three months and finally I said I can't do this, this is too hard. And he said I was crazy, “you're married, you ought to be buying a home. Take the GI Bill and buy you a house,” you see, which is his right, eh, I can't do that. And I guess his wish is, then the last thing he told me and my wife, one more year, she was in junior college, she had been teaching with a certificate for two years college and while overseas I convinced her, you go ahead to college and finish college while you're, I'm overseas, that will give you something to do. Because she's going to go back to teach. “No, I don't want you to teach, you go back and finish college and stay with my daddy.” And she had another year, and he says if you go don't come back here. And I guess he still, I think he still viewed me as a child and I realized I wasn't ever going back and I felt if I went and went through Howard and got a law degree and had to go back home, I would have failed. So I made up my mind, I had changed my major. Well, I couldn't change it because I had a subject. I began to take courses in business administration. I never will forget, I went in a bookkeeping course and I think why am I doing this, I'm almost a junior and I'm going here taking a freshman course but I did. I took as many courses as I could and by that time my advisor said if I was going, I would decide to go the school of business at Atlanta University that I would not have to have, I could still get the courses, but I went through and did my two years for the master's at AU. And the last semester and my thesis, I did not have enough time but my counselor with the Veterans Administration said he wouldn't give me a check which I did not need, I had full time employment there, but he would pay the tuition and give me the supplies, so I was able to finish it, all of it under the GI Bill. Immediately after that, I had been selling home appliances. You couldn't buy refrigerators, washing machines, and all that right after the war and they were just coming. And I was very creative, did quite well, I think I made more money there than I ever did, you know just commission. But in conjunction with that, I had specialized—they didn't have a specialty in the school of business at Atlanta University then—but I leaned towards marketing and that's where my interest was. Well, connected with my selling, I knew every professor on the campus, knew every professional in the city, including Maynard Jackson's father, because I was selling them what they needed. So that, Johnson Publishing Company, at that time, Ebony and Jet, Johnny Johnson had, most of his advertisements in his magazines were cigarettes, beer, and maybe cold drinks, no hard advertising, automobiles and clothing and that kind of thing. And he in his wisdom decided that he wanted to go into that area, and he came looking for someone in Atlanta [to represent the magazines]. And he said everywhere he went and explained what he wanted, even on the campus, they'd tell him, “You need to see Mortimer Cox, he's just your person.” And I did, and I did quite well. I went with Johnson Publishing Company, and I enjoyed the work. It was travel. Johnny Johnson was a peculiar person, had a mind for it. For the first time in my life, you know, I traveled first class, because he said the people you need to meet are never in coach, you know. And I kind of like that. In the best hotels, I would go down and eat in the finest dining rooms, you know, and you would meet people. But it was an exciting thing. I was very instrumental in getting the Chrysler Corporation, advertising cars. Then clothing, Eagle suits, I remember that. And food, you know Chase & Sanborn Coffee, that kind of thing, just what the marketing gave me, that I would come out. Atlanta would always show, I remember distinctly in '52, Rich's downtown [store], and we ran a half-page ad with Eagle clothes, which was a good line of suits at that time. I wanted to set the same ad up into Rich's store for men on Forsyth Street and the buyer looked at me like “You're crazy, what, put an ad with a black magazine with the Rich's downtown?” Yes, what's wrong with it? I wanted to put my Ebony sign in the store. “Let me think about it.” So I went back and got all my friends and said, “You go to Rich's and ask for this outfit.” Now I knew all of them were not going to buy, but by the time I did it, the guy said he'd never seen an ad generate that kind of activity. And all these guys, they were college professors, businessmen, you know, ministers and that kind of thing, they could afford it. So then he said to me, “I've never had that.” He said “That's unusual and I sold some outfits.” He said, “I've got to do something nice with that ad, I don't know.” I said, “All I want to do is to get that ad, get a photographer and shoot it. And then you do whatever you want.” I didn't say it had to be up there for two weeks. He said, that's all you want, he said he can do that. So he sent the decorator and all, they set the window just like it. I shot it. Eagle has never figured out to this day how they couldn't get it done in New York, Los Angeles or anywhere else but here in Rich's in Atlanta. But they were impressed with that. I would have stayed with him but after I stayed with him almost two years, he wanted me to move to Detroit. I'd been to Detroit because I had a brother there, and Detroit had begun to deteriorate in terms of crime downtown in the city. I just didn't want to go. My wife had begun to teach, she had come over and gotten her masters and she was teaching in the public school system. I was doing quite well myself and I saw no reason. I finally told him, and he did terminate me right on the spot, sent me home. But my concern, he was rich, and as I looked back over, I'm in a position in a career that I could do, I knew I could do it, I knew I could be successful, but Johnson and Johnson had their own little magazine and the publisher couldn't afford me. So I had to make a choice. I can't afford the risk because I had put all my investment into having that kind of life. I left that company. He didn't fire me, he told me if I needed a recommendation, you know, and now that I'm old and I look back, I would have done the same thing. “And I'm going to pay you a good salary and I need to do what's best for the company. If you don't want to take it, I'll let you go.” Now that is just common good sense to me, as I age, of course I was angry at the time because I felt the man did me an injustice. That was the best he had, you know. But I left. On my way—I was in Chicago and he had given me two weeks termination pay and my vacation—and on my way, I bumped into a guy I knew who told me about a company in Owatana who was looking for a guy in sales, and it was Josten, in Owatana, Minnesota, just south of Milwaukee. He called a guy from Chicago, the guy says, “Hey, I'll come to Atlanta and see you.” I came back, he came and within two days I was headed back to Josten to learn their business of selling high school rings and supplies to high school students. I took that job, did well. I made more in that year than I'd ever made because I was, I could sell to schools, I could sell to high school girls. You had to do it on competition, and I was competing with white salesmen in the south. None of them could offer what I was. I was a black professional going into black high schools, and I could make a speech to some high school students that would make a principal of a white school say I was the best thing that had ever been in there, because they did not see black professionals. I was driving a new car, dressed nice, and that was it, so I had the edge on them. They were saying I wasn't a good salesman, you know what they was saying, you're not a good salesman, you've just got the edge on, you're a black salesman. And most of the other companies at that time were getting into looking for black salesmen to do that. Now I could begin to see some ripples. I could begin to see integration coming, and I said if I make this investment and establish it, if the schools integrate and you've still got white superintendents who control the schools, where would I be? Because this has never happened in this country before, so I had to make a decision. I'd better get into something a little bit moving. By this time, my wife was doing alright teaching, you know, working, and I began to say, you know, I'm getting older, I'd better start looking for a career. At this time, I guess, the housing authority was looking for a person, and they wanted a housing manager, and that was a pretty good salary at that time. My wife didn't like to travel either, so I left that job and went with the housing authority. And I guess the old sociology that I had, and I've always had an interest in people, I've always worked in my church, began to make a difference in the housing. I kept saying that these people, even though they're poor, want the same thing that you and I want where we live. They can't do it without a job, and how can they get a job, and I would ____ a guy who couldn't pay his rent. I had developed a plan where employers who were looking, and these were the people who were first line supervisors, I got to know them, and I could pick up the phone, I got this kind of guy, he'll come out and give you a good job, and I'd tell him it was a good job, it's got tenure, you can keep it and take care of your family. So increasingly, first line supervisors began to tell others, “I can get good people who want to work, call Cox out at Bowen Homes and see.” So, increasingly, one day the guy with the Urban League came to me and said, “You know, you're doing what we do anyway, and I can give you a better salary.” So I took it, and I went. So I enjoyed it, it was very rewarding. That's about it. MB: Thank you very much. MC: That's a picture of the first platoon of blacks being trained at Montford Point. MB: Are you in this picture? MC: Uh-huh, I can't find me. MB: You can't find you? MC: No, I've looked and looked. Now you can see the white training officers. These are the first black . . . MB: Now you're wearing? MC: Those pith helmets. Now in this book, yes, this is the first six PFCs who were promoted, the black marines who were promoted at Camp Lejeune. I was the first person, that's Bostick [?], Davis, Hashmon [?] and Johnson. He actually stayed in and upon retirement was a sergeant major. He stayed in. These two stayed in after the war. That's Huff, and that's Allen. [All talking at once.] MC: That's Cox, Bostick, Davis, Johnson, Huff, and Allen. God, I haven't done that in years. It's just deteriorating after 50 some years, and I would hate for that to happen. Fifty-six years ago today, let me tell my wife I did that. MB: So when was this photograph taken? MC: 1943. There's a picture in my dress blues. MB: And what is this rank you've got here? MC: I was a platoon sergeant. My rank, I always acted ahead of my rank, I was acting first sergeant there. They couldn't promote you fast enough. The white troops would get so angry, boy, when I made corporal. See you made corporal, in those dress blues, you would get that blue stripe and that it, that was it. Their prime hope was to make corporal so you got a blue stripe. You came in and in a short time you had it. I remember, it was in '43. My wife and I was waiting a train to Washington, where were we, Raleigh?, and I was out and two Marines came out and said, “You haven't been in service, do you know we'll make you prove that you could wear those chevrons.” You know, that red stripe down there. My wife was standing up there, and they were ready to fight, so all you got to do is just prove it, if you can handle yourself that was it. Boy, I says, “OK, I'll take you one at a time.” One came up, he gave me his best blow, I gave him my best blow, and he went sailing back. I was in good shape. I hit the other one, he went sailing back. Both of them started getting up to come again, you know my wife's standing there, she's scared to death. Two MPs turned the corner, I was never so happy to see two MPs because I'd given my best shot and they were getting up, I guess they'd been in the Marine Corps for 15, 20 years. But “prove that you can wear those stripes.” MB: [looking at photos] Tell us when and where. MC: That's December 1944 in Pearl Harbor, Honolulu. MB: Who is that with you? MC: That is my gunnery sergeant, that's the mess sergeant. McCord. That's McCord, the gunnery sergeant, and that's Sergeant Wingate, the mess sergeant. Good cook, too, good cook. MB: And the other person is you? MC: It's me. MB: And that is in? MC: Hawaii, in Honolulu. MB: Honolulu… MC: Honolulu, 1944. MB: Tell us what this is. MC: That is a diary, and it seemed to me at one of the Marine parties, someone gave me that book, and I said I was going to keep it. I did keep it completely until January of '44, I got married and quit writing in it. I did write one entry upon discharge. But the interesting thing, the interesting thing that I see in that, and I didn't know it at the time, there is no bitterness and that is amazing to me. I interpreted everything that was happening to me without the bitterness. You know, I was frustrated quite often, I could tell every time I was frustrated with troops when they misunderstood because they would usually, during boot camp, they get so angry with you, they swear that “I ever see you, you will not live,” you know. And I know that that didn't happen, because the moment they completed, they are like, what can I give you. All my life I have traveled and I would never—I was in San Francisco one year, and, why was I there? It was a police gathering in a hotel downtown and, unbelievable, this guy came over and started talking, “I know you from somewhere, I know you from somewhere,” and was pleasant. He just kept talking, he had been a Marine. And I don't even remember his name, he remembered just my features and he was pleasant, and we started talking, “How have you been” and all of this and finally he said, “Were you in service?” I said I was in the Marine Corps, and when I said Marine Corps, he said, “Sergeant Cox,” just like that, and he carried me all over the city, introduced me, “This man made a man out of me, you know.” He was either chief of detectives or something like that of San Francisco police. But it's that kind of thing that made such an impact. My brother was, worked at Chrysler in Detroit, and one day a guy said to him, you know, “The only guy I know named Cox was Sergeant Cox in the Marine Corps, if I ever see him, I'm going to kill that SOB.” You know, that kind of thing. My brother didn't say, “That is my brother.” I was visiting one day, and all it was, we were walking somewhere, and he tried to change direction. Pretty soon that guy looked and spotted me and he said, “Sergeant Cox,” hugged me. He [my brother] said, “I don't understand that, you said you were going to kill my brother.” He said, “Man, that's the way you feel, but this man made a man out of me.” And it goes across the board like that, a guy gets through. Because you do, you see a child who is brilliant, bitter, and mean turn out to be a lovely person who can do anything, and we all do, so it makes a difference.
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This material is protected by copyright law. (Title 17, U.S. Code) Permission for use must be cleared through the Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center. Licensing agreement may be required.
Original Collection:
Veterans History Project oral history recordings
Veterans History Project collection, MSS 1010, Kenan Research Center, Atlanta History Center
Holding Institution:
Atlanta History Center