One of the first Black Marine recruits turns 100 in Detroit

During World War II, Lee Newby Jr. sustained burns on over 60% of his body.

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Detroit’s Lee Newby Jr. is one of the city’s first African American Marines and state lawmakers honored him on Saturday for his 100th birthday.

A tree planting was held at the Warren Community Center on April 28 in honor of Newby Jr., the Macomb Daily reports. The following day, the family hosted a party for the beloved war hero at the Detroit Marriott Renaissance Center. A motorcade of veterans, police officers and Buffalo Soldiers motorcyclists brought Newby to the event.

World War II veteran from Metro Detroit celebrates as he turns 100
Lee Newby, a World War II veteran from Metro Detroit, celebrated his 100th birthday in style on April 29, 2023. (Credit: Click On Detroit/YouTube)

The Detroit News reports that State Rep. Donavan McKinney (D-Detroit) and former NFL player, Joe Tate, attended the celebration.

Former Marines, Dave Schoenherr and Ben Elwartowski, presented Newby with a chapter medal as part of the celebration. In 2022, Tate, a Detroit native and former Marine, became the first African American elected as Michigan’s House Speaker, according to The Detroit News. In a statement, he called Newby “a true hero and trailblazer.”

McKinney also noted in a statement that the ceremony honored all Black Marines and “their dedication through World War II and all their service to this country.”

The U.S. Marine Corps welcomed its first African American recruits in 1942. Newby Jr. was drafted at age 19 and served as a Montford Point Marine until 1946. During World War II, he sustained burns on over 60% of his body, the Macomb Daily reports.

“My understanding of it is that he was on a ship and there was a large kerosene container that was burning. It hit him and knocked him to the deck,” said Newby Jr.’s eldest son, physician John E. Newby, who also served in the Marine Corps.

Newby, 60, said his father’s fellow Marines used blankets to roll him in to extinguish the flames. According to Newby, his father has “vivid memories” being “wrapped like a mummy” and his skin “soughing off from his neck down.” 

Despite it all, Newby Jr. returned to the front lines, where several of his fellow Marines died in action. He believes “getting burned probably saved his life,” Newby said of his father.

During WWII, Newby Jr. was stationed on Guadalcanal-Solomon Islands with others who trained at Camp Montford Point, North Carolina, according to his daughter Lena Bennette of Eastpointe, Michigan, the Macomb Daily reports. 

The Battle of Guadalcanal lasted from August 1942 to February 1943. It was the first major allied land offensive led by American troops against Japan on three major Solomon Islands. The goal was to control Henderson Field airstrip. The United States successfully thwarted a Japanese attempt to disrupt Australia and New Zealand’s supply routes.

Newby Jr.’s family says he never received a Purple Heart medal for his war injuries or any other individual medal. Newby is not certain whether his father’s lack of medals is due to discrimination or an accidental fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1973.

According to the Macomb Daily, 16 to 18 million Official Military Personnel Files containing the service histories of former military members between 1912 and 1964 were damaged or destroyed. 

After WWII, Newby Jr. took business courses and worked at Northville State Hospital. According to his son, the veteran served as a City of Detroit employee when Motown formed, so he met Berry Gordy and several of the record label’s music legends. The Macomb Daily reports that Stevie Wonder, The Jackson Five, Diana Ross and The Supremes, and Smokey Robinson often visited the city-county building.

Newby Jr. wed wife Lula in 1960 and had two sons and two daughters. She died in 1992. Their legacy includes nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, the Macomb Daily reports.

“We are just grateful that we are able to have him as long as we have. We are grateful that, at 100, he is being recognized for some of his contributions before he goes on, and we are truly pushing this issue for him,” Newby said.

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