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ORVIA COTMAN

May 25th, 2004


Orvia Cotman from Carrington, Pennsylvania, was drafted into the Marines in 1944. During World War II he served as a typist with a white Marine unit stationed in Hawaii. Cotman also served in a non-combat position in Korea and at Da Nang during the Vietnam War. After retiring from the Corps, he worked for twenty years at a hospital in Jacksonville, North Carolina, where he now resides.


INTERVIEWER: Mr. Cotman, uh, I'd like you to begin this process by just telling me your full name, and, uh, today's date, and of course, it's the 25th of May, so just repeat that back to me.

ORVIA COTMAN: Orvia Cotman, 25th of May, 2004.

INTERVIEWER: Okay. I want to thank you for being here, and, begin by asking you, uh, some questions about your background. What I'd like you to do is tell us just a little bit, just enough to give us a sense of, of your background, um, about where you were from, uh, your family, this is, what your parents did for a living, and where you were raised, and did you have brothers and sisters. And, uh, what your, what level of education you had when you went into the Marines.

ORVIA COTMAN: I was born in Carrington, Pennsylvania. I had two brothers, one sister. My father worked in the steel mill, and my mother was of, why, homemaker.

INTERVIEWER: And what about your educational?

ORVIA COTMAN: I had two years of high school, before entering the service.

INTERVIEWER: And I'd like you to tell me about the process of joining the Marines, why you decided to go into the Marines. Were you drafted in, did you volunteer, what was the process that led you into the Marine Corps?

ORVIA COTMAN: Well, I tell you, the Marine Corps through selective service. And when I was inducted, I was taken to come in the Marine Corps.

INTERVIEWER: What year was that?

ORVIA COTMAN: 1944.

INTERVIEWER: Okay, did you have any feelings about the Marine Corps one way or the other at that point? And if so, could you tell me a little bit about them?

ORVIA COTMAN: No, I, I had friends that had been in the Marine Corps, so I was aware that there were Blacks in the Marine Corps.

INTERVIEWER: Did you know that Blacks had not been in the Marine Corps until 1942?

ORVIA COTMAN: Well, I hadn't, hadn't crossed my mind.

INTERVIEWER: And tell me what hadn't crossed your mind?

ORVIA COTMAN: Well, that was, (STAMMERS) that Blacks was not in the Marine Corps. I wasn't thinking of, today, (STAMMERS) what, when I went in, and so I didn't know that much about the Marine Corps.

INTERVIEWER: Okay. So you didn't go in to get dress blues.

ORVIA COTMAN: No.

INTERVIEWER: Okay. Some people did. You'd be surprised how many people mention those dress blues when we talk about that. Tell me a little bit about your trip to Montford Point, and, I, I, I'd like as much detail, uh, especially (STAMMERS) as I can get, because you were coming out of the North, where segregation was not (STAMMERS) the standard practice, or the legal practice. And I'd like you to tell me a bit about your trip down to Montford Point, what you remember about it.

ORVIA COTMAN: Well, (CLEARS THROAT) I was inducted from Baltimore, Maryland, and, I think I left from, got on a train at D.C., and, to Rocky Mountain, North Carolina. I did have a little problem on the train. Because I was the only one, during that day, that came in the Marine Corps. The only problem I did have was, I did not eat food from the time I left D.C., until I got to Montford Point.

INTERVIEWER: Why was that? Tell me a little bit about that.

ORVIA COTMAN: Well, I guess they said they had to feed all the White draftees, the ones that were gonna get in the Marine Corps first, and it was just something they and put off, and put off, until we got to our destination.

INTERVIEWER: Okay. Um, tell me a little bit about your arrival at Montford Point, and your first impressions of the first two or three weeks there.

ORVIA COTMAN: Well, when I was at Montford Point, I guess probably, in the late evening, and...

INTERVIEWER: How'd you go, tell me how you went.

ORVIA COTMAN: Well, from (UNINTELLIGIBLE) from the bus station I, we caught a bus. I caught a bus.

INTERVIEWER: Okay, and go ahead and just tell me what happened, when you got there.

ORVIA COTMAN: Well, when I got to the base, I was assigned to one of the huts, and, carried through the mess hall, and was fed.

INTERVIEWER: What did that, tell me a little bit about the huts, what did the huts look like?

ORVIA COTMAN: Just a plain hut, with 16 bunks in there.

INTERVIEWER: What were they made of?

ORVIA COTMAN: Fiberboard. As far as I know. (TECHNICAL)

INTERVIEWER: What were your impressions of those first two or three weeks at Montford Point? What do you remember about the training, about the people who were training you, about (STAMMERS) anything about the camp?

ORVIA COTMAN: Well, I guess myself, I knew the reason I was there, and, the most important thing I thought of was doing what I could to get the training over with, with the less problem.

INTERVIEWER: And what about, what did you find the spirit of the men in the camp like? What sort of feel did it have to it?

ORVIA COTMAN: We all was there for the same reason, and just try to make the best of it, the boot camp, and, and, get to be a Marine.

INTERVIEWER: Did you make friends with people? I mean, was there, was there sort of a camaraderie there, or was it just all business, uh, trying to get through?

ORVIA COTMAN: Well, all my life, I've been a very private person, so I wasn't one of these outspoken guys, so. But I had friends.

INTERVIEWER: Okay. Um, did you how, how did you perceive the racial division of command there? Tell me a little bit, I'm, I'm assuming that you have an all-Black D. I.'s at this time, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) ...

ORVIA COTMAN: (OVERLAPPING) True, true, right.

INTERVIEWER: So I just want you to tell me a little bit about this, and also, if you encountered White officers, and what circumstances and so forth. So I'm gonna like back out, and you just tell me whatever you remember.

ORVIA COTMAN: Well, I didn't have any White officers. The only thing we had was, uh, Black D. I.'s.

INTERVIEWER: Okay, so you didn't see White officers (STAMMERS) at Montford Point?

ORVIA COTMAN: No.

INTERVIEWER: Okay. Um...

ORVIA COTMAN: (OVERLAPPING) (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Unless, it, the training officer was White, I mean, but we as recruits didn't, actually didn't come in contact with one, unless there was a question.

INTERVIEWER: So your contact was up close and personal with the DI?

ORVIA COTMAN: DI.

INTERVIEWER: Okay. Um. So you go through your training at Montford Point, you get your first liberty, when you get out, did you go into places like Wilmington, Jacksonville, any place like that? Or what did you do, when you got, got through with your training.

ORVIA COTMAN: Well, (CLEARS THROAT) when I got finished with my training, uh, there (UNINTELLIGIBLE) I did, was to find the first church I could find.

INTERVIEWER: And tell me about that.

ORVIA COTMAN: Well, after a couple of weeks, or a month or so, I had, (STAMMERS) met a good family, and I was associating with them most of all, and, and the town life.

INTERVIEWER: Well, I, I'd very much like to hear about that. Where, what kind of family was it, where'd it live, uh...

ORVIA COTMAN: They lived in Jacksonville, North Carolina. And, I met, they had a daughter, and I met her, and, she was my wife today, of 52 years.

INTERVIEWER: Wow. And what did the family do for a living? Tell me a little bit about that.

ORVIA COTMAN: Well, her father ran a grocery store.

INTERVIEWER: And was that in the African American section of Jacksonville, or was it out from the town?

ORVIA COTMAN: (OVERLAPPING) It was out from the town of Jacksonville.

INTERVIEWER: Um, so you spent most of your time then, with this family, when you were not on base?

ORVIA COTMAN: Yeah, I didn't spend all of the time, I went to movies and I went on liberty to other places.

INTERVIEWER: And, what kind of reception did you receive from the town. Did you notice any difference in the way you were treated as a Marine, compared to, uh, other African Americans were not in the service, uh, among Whites? Or did you run into Whites in these towns? Can you tell me little bit about that?

ORVIA COTMAN: I don't really don't think I was, because, like I said, I, I was in the mix of people, I wasn't about with that many people.

INTERVIEWER: Okay. Um, what do you remember most about your off base experiences, besides, I assume, meeting your wife?

ORVIA COTMAN: Well, we had certain places to eat. And we went, when, when I was, we went to Wilmington, and different, and Goldsboro, different places like that. Just a normal routine living. Nothing special, nothing, I didn't get into any trouble or anything like that. I wasn't looking for trouble.

INTERVIEWER: I understand. But you were raised in, uh, Pennsylvania?

ORVIA COTMAN: Yes. And, Delaware ...

INTERVIEWER: (OVERLAPPING) Had you been in the American South much prior to coming to Camp Lejeune?

ORVIA COTMAN: No.

INTERVIEWER: Then obviously, this was very different from what you were accustomed to in, in, uh, Pennsylvania.

ORVIA COTMAN: Well, you know, like I say, it might be different, but I think as, all others, regardless of where we came from, we knew there was a situation in a different state, so when I came from North Carolina I, I knew, the condition.

INTERVIEWER: And you understood that you had to obey the, the segregation customs.

ORVIA COTMAN: Right, right.

INTERVIEWER: Um, after you left Montford Point, and you're assigned to a unit, tell me a little bit about that. What happened then, after you, after you got out of boot camp, and you got your, your, your first duty assignments. Tell me something about that.

ORVIA COTMAN: Well, my first duty assignment was in Hawaii, and I went, I think I spent 18 months in Hawaii.

INTERVIEWER: And what sort of unit were you in?

ORVIA COTMAN: Well, I was in, when I was in Hawaii, I was in a mixed unit. With White troops, and whatever.

INTERVIEWER: And what year was this?

ORVIA COTMAN: That was, that was in, '45.

INTERVIEWER: You were in a White unit in 1945?

ORVIA COTMAN: (OVERLAPPING) Well, right, we all lived together.

INTERVIEWER: Uh, that, that tell me how that came to be, because that's not the experience of most people who went through Montford.

ORVIA COTMAN: Well, see most of them, (CLEARS THROAT) the thing with most of the Black Marines, I guess, (STAMMERS) well, you know, as a unit, like in the ammunition depot, but, (STAMMERS) when I was assigned to Hawaii, we just, I was just assigned to general duty, and it just happened that we didn't have a separate outfit there, during that time.

INTERVIEWER: What sort of duties were you assigned to perform?

ORVIA COTMAN: Whatever would need to be done.

INTERVIEWER: And you were assigned directly into a White unit?

ORVIA COTMAN: Yes.

INTERVIEWER: So you were, (STAMMERS) would you tell me that? Uh, rather than just saying yes, just tell me, you know, that, that, where, where you were assigned to. Because your story is really very unusual. (TECHNICAL)

ORVIA COTMAN: We were integrated barracks.

INTERVIEWER: Okay. And, um, what kind of command structure was there? I mean, what kind of, of unit was this? You'd say it was general duty, I'm, I'm trying to understand what, what you were doing.

ORVIA COTMAN: Well, it was, fully accurate to call it now, it was one of the headquarters battalion, at, at Pearl Harbor, at Marine barracks.

INTERVIEWER: Okay.

ORVIA COTMAN: See, they didn't have what you'd call a whole Black unit there, it was just probably maybe four or five that was assigned to these units, and we, we was integrated with everybody else.

INTERVIEWER: Very good, that's what I want you to tell me. Now how, how long were you at that duty station?

ORVIA COTMAN: Well, I, if I recall, sometime in '46, I think, they, uh, Marine order came out that, the Blacks could enlist in the regular Marine Corps. And I enlisted in the regular Marine Corps, in 1946.

INTERVIEWER: Okay, so you, you were, uh, you were at Hawaii for the duration of the war.

ORVIA COTMAN: Right.

INTERVIEWER: Okay. Now, um, let's see, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) I want you to tell me how you related to your fellow White Marines in the unit, during the period that you were in Hawaii, as much as you can remember. Uh, however you want to talk about that, in, in '45 and '46.

ORVIA COTMAN: (CLEARS THROAT) As far as I was concerned, they were the same as any other, I mean, I was treated well, I didn't have no problem.

INTERVIEWER: So you were just accepted as a, as another Marine who was assigned to the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) ...

ORVIA COTMAN: As far as I could see.

INTERVIEWER: Okay, could you repeat that to me, and let me know that?

ORVIA COTMAN: As, as far as I could see, I was treated like any other Marine.

INTERVIEWER: Then, then your, your experience of the, almost 30 people I've interviewed now is unique. It, it really is unique. So I, I, that's the reason I'm probing, to try to get, get your response. So okay, in '46 you're given the opportunity to reenlist in the Marines that you wish, in the regular Marines.

ORVIA COTMAN: (OVERLAPPING) Right, regular Marines, right.

INTERVIEWER: And would you explain what that means to a civilian audience?

ORVIA COTMAN: Well, what we call (STAMMERS) were saying in a regular Marine Corps, that means, (STAMMERS) that, that, um, I guess it would put it in old plain language, you, once you, once you before you became a regular Marine, you're just temporary. But once you became a regular Marine, you were in a regular Marine Corps, like I guess, before the war, that's all they had, was the regular Marine Corps.

ORVIA COTMAN: (CONTINUED)mThey didn't have any selective service. They didn't have no draft team. They were just regular, regular, regular Marines. And they (STAMMERS) I guess they're mostly all voluntary.

INTERVIEWER: So you joined the Marines in 1946.

ORVIA COTMAN: 'Four. Oh, I mean, regular.

INTERVIEWER: (OVERLAPPING) Yeah, the, the regular Marines, in '46, not as a draftee.

ORVIA COTMAN: (OVERLAPPING) Right.

INTERVIEWER: You signed up, reenlisted, in 1946.

ORVIA COTMAN: Right.

INTERVIEWER: Were you a career military, and if you were, please tell me.

ORVIA COTMAN: Yes. (TECHNICAL)

ORVIA COTMAN: (CONTINUED) Yes, I was a career Marine Corps, when I came into the Marine Corps, that was my intention, to make, make a career. (TECHNICAL)

INTERVIEWER: But what I'd like you to do now is sort of walk me through some of your major assignments, as a career person. After you left Hawaii, for example, where, what unit were you assigned to, what did you do?

ORVIA COTMAN: Well, I flew out of Hawaii, I came back to, uh, Montford Point, and I was in the First Provisional Company, uh, and then I was in a triple A with a, in a, (STAMMERS) anti-aircraft organization.

INTERVIEWER: Now those units, as I understand it...

ORVIA COTMAN: (OVERLAPPING) Were Black. (TECHNICAL)

ORVIA COTMAN: (CONTINUED) Those units was all Black, at Montford Point, when I was, got back there.

INTERVIEWER: And, how did the juxtaposition of, could you tell me something about how you felt about having served in an integrated unit, and then being in a segregated unit? Did that make, how did that resonate with you? What was your reaction to that? A personal, did you think about that at all? Tell me a little bit about that.

ORVIA COTMAN: Well, I guess one thing, anyway, you was just like you leave home, and then you come back, you have friends on this side, when you come back home, you, (STAMMERS) your friends are separated. You see what I mean? So when we had a whole black unit, year, but soon as I was back in the United States. I had to come to an all-Black unit again.

INTERVIEWER: So basically what you're saying is, you could serve in an integrated unit in Hawaii.

ORVIA COTMAN: Right.

INTERVIEWER: But not in the United States.

ORVIA COTMAN: Right, right.

INTERVIEWER: Could you tell me that.

ORVIA COTMAN: Yes, well, I think that was my feeling, that being in a integrated unit in Hawaii and coming back to the states at Montford Point, where we had to serve separately.

INTERVIEWER: Now tell me how long you served in, in that unit.

ORVIA COTMAN: Which unit?

INTERVIEWER: You said you were in the Triple A?

ORVIA COTMAN: Oh, yeah, I had...

INTERVIEWER: And, and name the unit for me.

ORVIA COTMAN: It was Third Antiaircraft Unit. I was in (WORD?) battery. And, I think it, it last, I was there for about six months before they disbanded or broke it up.

INTERVIEWER: So that unit was broken up, and then where did you go?

ORVIA COTMAN: In 19, I think, in 1950, I went back to Hawaii again. This time, I was in a segregated unit.

INTERVIEWER: You were in a segregated unit in Hawaii.

ORVIA COTMAN: Right.

INTERVIEWER: In 1950.

ORVIA COTMAN: Right.

INTERVIEWER: Um, what was that unit?

ORVIA COTMAN: I was, uh, a guard detachment.

INTERVIEWER: And what did you do?

ORVIA COTMAN: I was a movie operator at, uh, at (UNINTELLIGIBLE) .

INTERVIEWER: At where?

ORVIA COTMAN: Lulu Air, Hawaii.

INTERVIEWER: Okay, now, did you serve in Korea, since we're into the 1950s?

ORVIA COTMAN: Yes.

INTERVIEWER: And would you tell me about that service?

ORVIA COTMAN: I, I served with, uh, the Headquarters Battalion, Eight Quarter Battalion, Ist Marine Division, and, and in Korea.

INTERVIEWER: And tell me what you did there. What rank did you hold at that time?

ORVIA COTMAN: I was a staff sergeant.

INTERVIEWER: And tell me what you did in Korea.

ORVIA COTMAN: I was a projector repairman.

INTERVIEWER: Okay. Were these integrated units when you were in Korea?

ORVIA COTMAN: Yes.

INTERVIEWER: Do you recall when you first went into an integrated unit in Korea?

ORVIA COTMAN: Well, when I went into the unit, it was integrated. Headquarters Battalion, Ist Marine Division.

INTERVIEWER: It was already integrated.

ORVIA COTMAN: It was already integrated.

INTERVIEWER: Okay, uh, and how long were you in Korea?

ORVIA COTMAN: I think I stayed there nine months, I think. Nine months.

INTERVIEWER: Okay, and, after that, you came back Stateside. Tell me a little bit about your assignments there.

ORVIA COTMAN: Let me see, after I got back, stayed at Camp Pendleton five years. I worked in supplies. On Camp Pendleton, I went to San Diego, in supply. From San Diego, I went to Barstow, California, from Barstow, California. From Barstow, California, I went to El Toro. From the El Toro, I went to Vietnam.

INTERVIEWER: All right, uh, so you were one of those Marines who, who made a, a career out of the military. Tell me, uh, uh, about what you did in Vietnam.

ORVIA COTMAN: Well, I was in the First Land Battalion. I was supply.

INTERVIEWER: And where were you stationed in Vietnam?

ORVIA COTMAN: Danang.

INTERVIEWER: Okay, and can you tell me a little bit about Danang?

ORVIA COTMAN: Not too much, other than, it was Danang, (STAMMERS) I, I (STAMMERS) have little remembrance, maybe that's of interest.

INTERVIEWER: It's a huge base.

ORVIA COTMAN: Right, right.

INTERVIEWER: Um, by this time of course, the Marine Corps has been fully integrated for a number of years.

ORVIA COTMAN: Truly.

INTERVIEWER: Um, (STAMMERS) did you, did, did you ever reflect on your experiences at Danang, because this is one of the things that I think is a major story, of the Montford Point Marines, not just that they were the first African American Marines, since the American Revolution, which is a big story in itself. But, your experience as Montford Point Marines, mirrors what happens to the larger societies, in the period that you were career Marines. You understand what I'm saying?

ORVIA COTMAN: Right, right.

INTERVIEWER: You went into, you didn't, but, well, you did, you went into a segregated training unit.

ORVIA COTMAN: Right.

INTERVIEWER: And then you went through a very unusual experience, of going directly into an integrated unit, in 1944, '45. But it took the Marine Corps until 1950s, really, to get to a, a point where it was fully integrated at the unit level. And it took the society until, the larger society, until the 1960s, the mid 1960s to, 'til, 'til segregation was done away with, as an institution in this larger society. And by that time, (STAMMERS) in Vietnam, and I want you to tell me what years you were in Vietnam.

INTERVIEWER: (CONTINUED) Fighting in the, or, or working in a fully integrated Marine Corps. Had you ever thought about that? How that reflects what happened in the larger society?

ORVIA COTMAN: You mean, working in an integrated Marine?

INTERVIEWER: About the difference between going into the Marine Corps, in a segregated training unit, coming down, I assume in a segregated train, from Washington, D.C., to the point that you were in Vietnam, where you have total and complete integration. Did you ever think about that in any way? Or, what do you think about that. Let me ask you that. Just respond, any way you'd like.

ORVIA COTMAN: Well, I guess like, (CLEARS THROAT) I guess like anything else, some points in life, after you travel so far, and, and you look, you look ahead, and you always think that things are going to get better, or will get better because the, (STAMMERS) you can't, you should not go back where you started from. So, you have to move forward. And, once the Marine Corps were completely integrated, and, I think, one of the most achievements.

ORVIA COTMAN: (CONTINUED) But I have, (STAMMERS) looked beyond as, when some of the advancement that, (STAMMERS) the Blacks had made in the Marine Corps. Like we had the first Black sergeant major, in the Marine Corps. We have, so many generals. And, you take what, from 1949 up to the 1960 something, when General Peterson, I guess he, uh, three star general. That's quite a, an accomplishment, I think.

INTERVIEWER: Okay, um, now you are a career military so, what do you think are the most important influences in your life, that came out of your military background in the services.

ORVIA COTMAN: Influence on myself?

INTERVIEWER: On yourself.

ORVIA COTMAN: Well, I guess most of the important things, sometimes we think back to the life that you, when you started something, you only think where, where are you going from beginning to the end. And when I entered the Marine Corps, uh, that was my goal, to be a (STAMMERS) career Marine. I did not know that, that was going to happen, because, it seemed when I first came in the Marine Corps that we was just there, on what you'd call a temporary basis.

ORVIA COTMAN: (CONTINUED) You know, but I think that's one of the achievements that I had, to, to spend the 26 years I did, in the Marine Corps, and see others, that had gained rank and, recognition. (TECHNICAL)

INTERVIEWER: But you said that in 1946, you had the opportunity to join the regular corps, as a volunteer. And, but you also had mentioned an all Marine order.

ORVIA COTMAN: Right, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) right. (TECHNICAL)

INTERVIEWER: I've interviewed a lot of guys, and that seemed to be a very important order, in '46. And some guys felt like there was pressure not to reenlist, that, there was pressure that if you reenlisted, you were going to go into steward service, or you would, you were gonna be a cook, and you didn't' have choices. Um, I'd like to know, just what your perceptions were, about that all Marine order of, of 1946.

INTERVIEWER: (CONTINUED) And did you hear any conversation, about the role that African Americans would be allowed to play in the Marine Corps after the Second World War, at that time? Could you just, (STAMMERS) tell me whatever you remember, or whatever you think about that.

ORVIA COTMAN: (CLEARS THROAT) The way I understood the all, all Marine order was that, you had to have a certain IQ, first, to be eligible to get into the regular Marine Corps. I mean, lots of the Marines that came in when I did, didn't have an IQ that (STAMMERS) qualify, to reenlist in the, in the regular Marine Corps. And, uh, I, (STAMMERS) I wasn't approached by no steward branch.

ORVIA COTMAN: (CONTINUED) I, I mean, when I reenlist, I did the same duties that I had before. So, I was never in the steward branch, was never asked to go in the steward branch, and never were presented to me in that way.

INTERVIEWER: Did you hear of African American Marines talking about that order?

ORVIA COTMAN: No.

INTERVIEWER: Okay. Um, then what I'd like you to do is to tell me, (STAMMERS) when did you retire? When did you leave the Marine Corps.

ORVIA COTMAN: I retired in, in December 31st, 1970.

INTERVIEWER: Okay, so the final question is, you've been out of the Corps for...

ORVIA COTMAN: (OVERLAPPING) Thirty-four years.

INTERVIEWER: (OVERLAPPING) Thirty-four years. A long while. Uh, tell me, (STAMMERS) did you work after leaving the Corps?

ORVIA COTMAN: I worked at (SOUNDS LIKE) Onsemore Hospital in Jacksonville for 20 years.

INTERVIEWER: Okay. And then retired from that?

ORVIA COTMAN: Retired from that.

INTERVIEWER: Okay, so you've been out of the corps for (STAMMERS) 34 years. You had, uh, a career after that, in, in the hospital in Jacksonville. What did you do there?

ORVIA COTMAN: I worked in supply in Huntsville.

INTERVIEWER: Okay, um, what are your feelings now about having been a Montford Point Marine? How do you, how do you feel about that right now?

ORVIA COTMAN: Well, I can't feel nothing but proud, being proud. Because, when you, when you look around, and, and see the Marine Corps today, and what it was then, we can't, the world came through Montford Point can't be anything other than proud.


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