World War II’s Montford Point Marines
Since the first meeting at Tun Tavern in 1775, the Marine Corps has been there to serve the United States in both peacetime and war. In 1941, a new group joined the Marine Corps family. Executive Order #8802, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on June 25, 1941, aimed to erase discrimination in the Armed Forces. This paved the way for black Americans to finally enlist in the Marines – the last branch of the US military to allow them to do so.
In the beginning, approximately 20,000 black Americans were selected to receive training. Plans were for these troops to serve throughout the course of World War II, then resume civilian life at war’s end; thus returning the Marine Corps to an all-white organization. Before the war was over, however, attitudes changed. The new breed of Marine proved to be just a capable of serving his country as any other.
General James Amos, the Marine Commandant who was later responsible for seeing to it the first black Marines received the honor rightfully due them; insisted Marine history be rewritten to include these brave Americans and how they held up, despite discrimination, to serve their country.
“Once you crossed the Mason Dixon line, they were put back, or actually put up, in a coal car, which was right behind the locomotive and that’s where they stayed until they arrived in Jacksonville, North Carolina.”
When the recruits disembarked the train in the Southern state, they met a rude awakening. The larger portion of these enlistees had traveled from the north and now encountered the horrid bird named Jim Crow face-to-face. Their training would take place in a segregated area known as Camp Montford Point, situated on land which was part of Camp LeJeune.
As the first Marines arrived, they immediately had their work cut out for them. The 5.5 acres of land set aside for their camp had to be cleared and the camp established. The first enemies these new Marines would do battle with were encountered while erecting the camp - bears, alligators, mosquitoes and rattlesnakes.
One of the Marines to train at Montford Point was Charles Manuel, Jr. Fresh out of high school in 1942; Charles was 19 years old when he enlisted. Manuel stated the training was rough under the command of white drill instructors. He said the recruits were continually told, “You people want to be Marines? I’m going to make Marines out of you, dead or alive!”
Former Montford Point Marine Ambassador, Theodore Britton, Jr., shared: "Only when we left the camp did we feel the sting of discrimination. When the white drivers in Jacksonville refused to take us back to camp, it was white Marines who commandeered the buses [at gunpoint] and drove us back to camp."
Following World War II, Executive Order #9981 was signed by President Harry S. Truman in July 1948. This did away with segregation all together in the military. Montford Point Marine Camp was then closed in September 1949, having begun operations in 1942.
April 19, 1974, Montford Point Camp was reopened and given a new name - Camp Johnson. The new name was in honor of Sergeant Major Gilbert H. "Hashmark" Johnson; one of the first black Marines and a veteran of both World War II and Korea. He was also a distinguished drill instructor at Montford Point. Today, the camp remains the only Marine location named for a black Marine.
Seventy years would pass before these brave Marines were recognized for their contribution to the United States military. On Wednesday, June 27, 2012, the Montford Point Marines were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, following in the footsteps of the US Army Buffalo Soldiers and US Army Air Corps Tuskegee Airmen (Red Tails). This award is the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Though a large number of the 20,000 Marines had already died, in attendance were 400 of those patriotic veterans, several of them 100+ years old. Receipt of the medal brought recognition of the fact this group of patriots, once considered to be unequal, were instead beyond equal.
First Sergeant William McDowell acted as spokesman for the recipients. Tears fell from his eyes as the event brought to mind the faces of many who had served, but not lived to see this day occur. He then pulled himself together and chuckled as he told the audience, “My commander would have said, ‘Suck it up, Marine!’”
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"Allowing blacks to serve the Marine Corps was seen as an experiment. If it was an experiment, it didn't last long. Before the end of the war, the Marine commandant at the time said the experiment was over. The men trained at Montford were Marines, period."
House Speaker John Boehner