By Joe Holley Washington Post Staff Writer Thursday, July 15, 2004; Page B07
Louis Roundtree, 73, a retired Marine Corps sergeant major who was a decorated veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars, died July 8 at the Department of Veterans Affairs nursing home in Washington after a stroke.
In the Korean War, Sgt. Roundtree was an automatic rifleman in the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines. The regiment got to the war zone only days after the daring amphibious landing at Inchon, the port city of Seoul, on Sept. 15, 1950. It took part in the capture of Seoul and numerous subsequent operations.
In December 1950, the 1st Marines, under the command of Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller, formed part of the rearguard during the retreat from the Chosin Reservoir on the border of North Korea and China. The movement was carried out in subzero cold against overwhelming numbers of communist Chinese soldiers, who had just entered the war. It is regarded as one of the great epics in Marine Corps history.
In 1951, Sgt. Roundtree was wounded and returned to the United States.
In the late 1950s, he was a member of the Marine guard at the U.S. Embassy in Rome. He escorted the voluptuous Swedish movie star Anita Ekberg to the annual Marine Corps Ball and had a picture to prove it.
Other peacetime assignments included the Marine Corps School at Quantico as a candidate gunnery sergeant and attendance at the Army's Special Warfare School at Fort Bragg, N.C., which trains special forces.
During the Vietnam War, Sgt. Roundtree was an adviser to the South Vietnamese army. During one engagement, his unit was overrun, and he was listed as killed in action. When his body and dog tags were not found, his status was changed to missing in action.
Sgt. Roundtree had, in fact, escaped into the jungle, evading enemy forces until he stumbled upon a South Vietnamese unit. Although he rarely talked about his exploits, he told his wife that he floated down a river breathing through a bamboo stick until he felt he was out of danger. He also slept in a tree, with his belt tied around a limb so he wouldn't fall out.
Severely injured, wearing only scraps of clothing when he was rescued, he was transported by helicopter to Da Nang and, when he was able to travel, back to Saigon, where he was interviewed by NBC's "Today" show. After recuperating, he rejoined his unit in the field.
Sgt. Roundtree was born in Greenville, S.C. After joining the Marines at 18, in 1948, he trained at Montford Point Camp in New River, N.C., as did all black Marines who enlisted between 1942, when blacks were first allowed to become Marines, and 1949, after President Harry S. Truman's executive order integrating the armed forces.
Sgt. Roundtree retired in 1970. His military decorations included the Silver Star, four awards of the Bronze Star, three awards of the Purple Heart and two awards of the Navy Commendation Medal. He is recognized as the most decorated Montford Point Marine.
"As one reads through the list of combat medals . . . one wonders how a single marine could have seen so much action and managed to survive," retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. James Zumwalt once wrote after meeting Sgt. Roundtree at the nursing home.
Sgt. Roundtree occasionally mentioned escorting Ekberg. "He had a picture on the wall in his office," said his wife, Famie Roundtree, "and I told him to get rid of it, but after a while I didn't mind. He said she was a very nice lady."
After his military service, Sgt. Roundtree worked for Allstate Insurance. He was a manager in the claims department at the Clarksburg office when he retired a second time in 1996. He also was active in the Montford Point Marines Association, a veterans organization that commemorates the first black Marines.
Sgt. Roundtree, a resident of Silver Spring, moved to the nursing home after a series of strokes in 1997.
Survivors include his wife of 35 years, of Silver Spring; three children, Alethea Roundtree Handy of Stevensville, Md., and Lashelle Roundtree and Logan Roundtree, both of Silver Spring; and a granddaughter.