A World War II white officer who trained the country’s first black Marines was laid to rest Monday at the Roseburg National Cemetery Annex. Maj. Joseph Giesel, 94, of Dorena died June 20 of age-related causes.
Giesel was in his fourth year of service when President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942 directed that blacks have an opportunity to join the Marine Corps. Giesel became an officer at the all-black boot camp at Montford Point in North Carolina. He later received a Congressional Gold Medal for his involvement at Montford Point.
“He always thought he was equal to everybody and said, ‘I’m just a man, and I treat everyone else equally,’” said eldest son Gerald Giesel.
More than 20 relatives, friends and veterans gathered at the cemetery to honor Joseph Giesel. The Honor Guard was composed of active-duty Marines from the Engineer Services Company in Springfield.
“It’s rare for active Marines to be doing it,” said Marine veteran David Schubert of Roseburg.
The Honor Guard presented American flags to Gerald Giesel and his two brothers, Ronald and Mike. Also, Jonathan Giesel shared a few words about his “Grandpa Joe” during the 20-minute ceremony.
Joseph Giesel’s military service spanned 21 years and included serving in the Pacific Theater at Okinawa in 1945 and in the Korean War in 1953, where he was awarded the Purple Heart. He spent the last 30 years in Dorena and wished to be buried at the Roseburg cemetery, Gerald Giesel said.
“He was so proud of being a Marine and of being in the Marine Corps. It’s an honor and a privilege to be buried at a national cemetery,” Gerald Giesel said. “This meant everything to him. He’d have a smile on his face a mile long.”
Joseph Raymond Giesel was born on Feb. 26, 1920, to John and Angela Giesel in Ocheyedan, Iowa. He enlisted in the Marines on Aug. 24, 1938, and was sent to San Diego for basic training. He spent two years aboard the USS Indianapolis obtaining the rank of corporal and then transferred to Washington, where he was a drill instructor and promoted to sergeant.
He married Mary Martin on June 19, 1942, in Seattle.
In the midst of World War II, President Roosevelt opened the Marine Corps to blacks. Instead of being sent to boot camps at Parris Island, South Carolina, and San Diego, with their white counterparts, black recruits went through basic training at Camp Montford Point in North Carolina.
“They became known as the Montford Point Marines,” said Jim Barnett, a Marine veteran in Roseburg.
Nearly 20,000 Marines received basic training at Montford Point between 1942 and 1949, when the camp was deactivated as President Harry Truman moved to integrate the military.
More than 60 years later, Giesel and the Montford Point Marines were honored on June 28, 2012, with a Congressional Gold Medal for their patriotism and distinguished achievement.
“It put him in hog heaven,” Gerald Giesel recalled. “He was so proud of his accomplishments.”
According to a certificate that accompanied the medal, Joseph Giesel and the other recipients were recognized as “legends in the rich history of the Marine Corps,” and for serving at a time of “harsh contradictions between fighting for democracy overseas and the denial of civil rights at home.”
When Joseph Giesel was awarded the medal, he told the Cottage Grove Sentinel that at Montford Point Marine Camp, he joined the Fifth Ammunition Company and taught ordnance to fellow Marines.
Giesel and the others arrived in Hawaii in May 1944 and were given orders to clean up an ammunition dump. He told the Sentinel he thought he taught about 60 blacks and remembers only one other white officer with him.
Barnett enlisted in the Marines a year after integration.
“I had African-Americans in my recruit platoon that I went through with, and then, as I rose in the ranks, I served with a number of them and they did great work just like all Marines did,” he said. “I had them as leaders, I had them as regular troops, I had them as sergeants, corporals.
“The military is not like most places,” Barnett continued. “In fact, you become sort of like a brother in a family with everybody in an organization, so that had no bearing on anything in the military.”
Among the attendees at Monday’s ceremony was Roseburg resident Fred Rhodes, who knew Joseph Giesel for 25 years. Both belonged to the Cottage Grove Masons. Rhodes said his friend, whom he called “Major,” was proud of those serving with him.
“He would say, ‘When my platoons got out of basic training, they were the meanest b-- on earth, and they would follow me to hell,’” Rhodes said. “He said they never gave up.”
Rhodes said being a Marine “meant everything” to Giesel.
“He was a Marine’s Marine. He believed it, lived it and never forgot it,” Rhodes said. “He was just the kind of guy if you didn’t know him, you missed a lot.”
•You can reach reporter Christina George at 541-957-4202 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.