Cpl. Holsey Gillis Sr., 94, one of the first black members of the Marine Corps and a founding member of the Philadelphia Chapter of the National Montford Point Marine Association, died last month of dementia.
At the time of his death, Cpl. Gillis was living in the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Washington.
Cpl. Gillis was part of the first group of black men allowed to join the Marine Corps following a directive by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1942. The men trained at the segregated Camp Montford Point in Jacksonville, N.C., which had substandard housing and training conditions compared with all-white camps.
Cpl. Gillis along with 400 surviving Montford Point Marines were honored with the Congressional Gold Medal in 2012 for their service during World War II.
"He was very excited and had a sense of relief that someone knew what they did," Joseph Geeter, spokesperson for the Montford Point Marine Association, said, adding that at the time most people only knew of the Tuskegee Airmen and Buffalo Soldiers but not so much the story of the first black Marines.
Cpl. Gillis was born and raised in Fitzgerald, Ga., as the second youngest of seven children. After high school a friend suggested they both try out for the Marines and so the two young men joined in the summer of 1943.
"They were in a gnat-ridden, swampy camp," said his son, who goes by his middle name, Kevin. "When they got to Southeast Asia they were used to the rough tropical conditions. In a way, it got them prepared for conflict."
Cpl. Gillis fought in the battle of Okinawa, Japan.
He would later tell stories of the racism he faced while in the service. After Cpl. Gillis returned home from the war, he was wearing his uniform on a date and some young men were about to jump him when the sheriff intervened, his son said.
"They were appreciated more in Europe," Kevin Gillis said. When they got home, they "can't even sit in the front of the bus. It had to be hard."
Those experiences shaped his view of the world as being black or white with little gray area, his son said. Cpl. Gillis was not shy about expressing his strong opinions on just about every subject.
After the war, Cpl. Gillis moved to Philadelphia, where he had some family in the area. A few years after his arrival, he was set up on a date with Eddie Mary Newsone and the two married in 1950. They had their only son seven years later.
In 1966, Cpl. Gillis helped start the first chapter of the Montford Point Marine Association in Philadelphia. Since then, the association has expanded to 36 chapters throughout the country. Cpl. Gillis remained an active member in Philadelphia through 2011, when he moved to the Washington area to be closer to his son.
Cpl. Gillis, who lived in West Philadelphia, held many jobs throughout the decades, working well into his 80s. He owned a gas station at one point. He was also the manager of the tire center at the Lit Bros. department store. He also owned two taverns (one in West Philadelphia, the other in South Philadelphia) where anyone who cursed would be asked to leave. His son said he never heard his father say one curse word in his life.
The crack epidemic, however, hurt the taverns in town as people didn't want to be out late for fear of being mugged, Cpl. Gillis' son said. Cpl. Gillis closed his bars in the early 1990s and went on to have other jobs, including transporting cars and working as a driver for Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown.
When he was in his 80s, his son said, Cpl. Gillis worked as a security guard at the Art Museum.
When he wasn't working, he sang in the Pinn Memorial Baptist Church choir for 60 years. He also liked mentoring young men and was active politically in the city's Democratic Committee, his son said.
And he remained committed to the Montford Point Marine Association. When the clubhouse at 54th and Market Streets fell to such disrepair that it was no longer safe to hold meetings, Cpl. Gillis opened his home to the members to hold monthly meetings.
"He always made sure the table and chairs were ready and snacks were set out," Geeter said.
Cpl. Gillis was known for his impeccable attire. He always wore dress shirts and pants. Even when he was in the retirement home and nearing death, he would ask his son to fetch him his dry cleaning every day so he could have starched and neatly pressed clothes on.
"He liked looking good and putting on a nice presentation," Kevin Gillis said. "He never wavered from that."
Cpl. Gillis was predeceased by his wife and six siblings. He is survived by his son and two granddaughters.