SAN FRANCISCO -- There's been a major shakeup at the national nonprofit founded to honor the Montford Point Marines. Three top officials were caught exaggerating their own military records and awards.
Stolen valor is when a person pretends to be someone they're not, often by exaggerating military service or wearing medals and ribbons they never earned. Sometimes it's done so the person can get respect or bragging rights. Other times, it's for money.
An ABC investigation has uncovered that, for years, key figures in the Montford Point Marine Association have been lying about their records and awards.
Montford Point's Western Region Vice President L.E. Michael Johnson is one of those key figures. He told stories of serving in Vietnam during appearances for the nonprofit group.
"I was 19 years old around that particular time and frame of place," Johnson said previously. "I saved a lot of people, I evacuated a lot of people aboard that ship. When I came home in Norfolk, Virginia, I was called a baby killer."
ABC7 News San Francisco's Chief Investigative Reporter Dan Noyes used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain Johnson's official military records. He then confronted Johnson with the records, which showed he never served in Vietnam.
Johnson: "I misspoke. I was wrong for saying that, sir."
Noyes: "You understand that to people who served and the families of those who actually served in Vietnam and died, this is a great insult to them? You get that, right?"
Johnson: "Yes, I do, sir."
But there's more.
Johnson was seen telling a group, "When I was 39 years old, I went to Desert Storm."
He also claimed to have served in the Gulf War and sometimes wore a Vietnam/Gulf War veteran's hat.
"I commanded 18 year olds and 14,000 Marines out of California," Johnson said. "We went there and we accomplished; we came back and we survived."
He wore medals and ribbons reflecting he was "boots on the ground" in the Middle East. But in reality, he remained in California.
Noyes: "How did you get the ribbon actually? Did you purchase it online?"
Johnson: "The ribbons were done online. Yes, at a shop in San Diego."
Noyes: "Your unit gives you the ribbon for your service, correct? Isn't that the way it normally works? You don't buy it online. Your superiors give it to you at the end of your service."
Johnson: "That would be correct. So yes, I was wrong for that."
After confronting Johnson, Noyes began looking into the Montford Point Marine Association at the urging of James Brown, a veterans advocate out of San Carlos, California.
"You got these World War II Marines that are dying at 1,500 a day," Brown said. "And some of those are Montford Point Marines. And it took them years to have the country, you know, recognize their service and recognize their fight and their struggle. And now you get this guy, puts all of it at risk. That's why it's important."
Brown himself confronted Billy Ray Zinnerman, the Western Region Public Relations Officer and Chairman of the Scholarship Committee with the Montford Point Marine Association, about stolen valor.
In public appearances, including one in Inglewood on Memorial Day, Zinnerman claimed to have had a 25-year career in the Corps as a drill instructor and sergeant major, with a rack of medals he wore even while meeting the Commandant of the Marine Corps, including one for being injured in combat and another for valor in Desert Storm.
Brown: "So that's your Purple Heart there. What about the Bronze Star?"
Zinnerman: "The radio man got hit. I went back to get him. That's when I got hit. Even with that injury, got back to our LZ, call for the extraction, thereby saving my unit."
Even after Brown repeatedly pressed Zinnerman, he stuck to his story.
"So, all of my career, yep, it's verifiable," Zinnerman said. "So you need to go and do your research again."
Zinnerman provided military records to several veterans groups when he sought admission, but those records were fraught with red flags -- including different type face on his name and many awards apparently cut and pasted together.
Noyes again used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain official transcripts. They show the Marines discharged Zinnerman after only three years because of "misconduct - frequent." He was a private first class, not a drill instructor or sergeant major, and did not earn any of those medals he wore.
After Noyes's research and persistent questions, the National Office of the Montford Point Marine Association expelled Zinnerman and allowed Johnson to resign.
Noyes: "Why is it important to expose these cases of stolen valor, do you think?"
Joe Geeter with the Montford Point Marines: "Oh, it's important on many levels, Dan. One of the most important is for the people who actually earned those medals. Every time somebody perpetrates a fraud, it kind of diminishes or allows Americans to question when they see somebody else wearing medals, like, 'Oh, is this another fraud?'"
Noyes later learned Sergeant Major Charles Cook, the president of Montford Point's Western Region, also wore medals he did not earn. Cook wore three Presidential Unit Citations meant "for extraordinary heroism in action against an armed enemy," two Combat Action Ribbons and a Vietnam Gallantry Medal.
Noyes: "Did you ever serve in combat actually?"
In an interview, Cook admitted he never saw combat and claimed it was a mistake by the company where he buys his medals -- a mistake he didn't catch.
Cook: "I did, I made, it was a, it wasn't a mistake. I just didn't verify my ribbons when I got them in from the organization that put them together for me."
Noyes: "I don't think that people are going to buy that you didn't know what you're wearing on your chest."
Cook: "Oh, I didn't say I didn't know. I said that I didn't check it, and I concur with you."
Noyes confirmed that the FBI has now assigned two agents to investigate the seemingly rampant disregard for the Stolen Valor Act, which makes it a federal crime to fraudulently claim to be a recipient of military honors.
The Real Deal
Wortham Fears, a 97-year-old Oakland resident, is the real deal. He's an original Montford Point Marine. Those Marines were the first African Americans to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps, fighting valiantly during World War II.
The Marines was the last branch of the U.S. military to integrate. Fears and the other 20,000 African Americans that joined up trained at Montford Point, a swampy section of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. With the United States fully fighting a war in Europe and the South Pacific, the decision eventually came down for the Montford Point Marines to be deployed overseas.
An ABC Owned Television Stations documentary in 2022 spotlighted the contributions of these Montford Point Marines to the advancement of civil rights and Allied victory in World War II.
"We served our country knowing that we would possibly make the ultimate sacrifice," Fears said. "For those of us who lived through it, thank God, thank God for it."
Fears is proud of the single stripe he received as Private First Class, and wouldn't think to exaggerate his record or wear medals he did not earn.
"These ribbons, I can't pretend," he said. "One represents the American theater, the South Pacific, and there's the Victory Medal. Those are the ones I'm entitled to wear."