CAMP JOHNSON, N.C — “If it were a question on having a Marine Corps of 5,000 Whites or 250,000 Negroes, I would rather have the Whites.”
So said the U.S. Marine Corps’ 17th commandant, Gen. Thomas Holcomb, in May 1941 and then again in January 1942, one month after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
There would be “a definite loss of efficiency in the Marine Corps if we have to take Negroes.”
At the time, Holcomb and many senior officers at Headquarters Marine Corps stood in strong opposition to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 executive order that established the Fair Employment Practices Commission, which opened the door to “full participation in the defense program by all persons regardless of color, race, creed or national origin.” Additionally, the order directed, “all departments of the government, including the Armed Forces,” to “lead the way in erasing discrimination over color or race.”
The Marine Corps would eventually succumb to political pressure from the White House and finally adhere to Roosevelt’s demands to start enlisting African Americans in June 1942.
For the first time since the Revolutionary War, the Marine Corps would put out a call to enlist 900 African American recruits between the ages of 19 and 29. Upon entering the military, “Colored” would be stamped upon their service record book and their enlistment contract, according to the History and Museums Division of the Marine Corps.
The Marine Corps would keep them segregated and establish a training base at Montford Point in North Carolina, today named Camp Johnson, after Marine Sgt. Maj. Gilbert “Hashmark” Johnson, so named for having more service stripes than rank stripes.
They would come to be known as the Montford Point Marines. Camp Johnson remains the only military base named after an African American.
Former Sgt. Leroy Pittman, 85, still remembers when he arrived at Montford Point in 1948 after dropping out of high school in Hartford, Conn. “It was tough. We had to build our own huts to live in. We spent weeks chopping down trees and dodging rattlesnakes. It wasn’t a joke.” Pittman said they were not allowed to ride in cars or go into town to eat. Harassment or arrest without cause was frequent from the Jacksonville Police Department, with locals threatening the black Marines to “not cross the railroad tracks in Jacksonville.”
Some 45 of the original “Montford Pointers” came together Friday for the unveiling of the first phase of the National Montford Point Marine Memorial in a ceremony at Lejeune Memorial Gardens, located just outside Marine Corps base Camp Lejeune.
The men sat in silence on the hot concrete, beneath barbershop-striped tents to shield them from the blistering Carolina sun, among the Chinese Pistache trees and 20,000 gold stars — each symbolizing a brother-in-arms.
The plastic water bottles went quickly as sweat seeped through the wool, cotton and polyester suits, dresses and military uniforms.
The men had traveled from all across the country, undeterred by age, faltering health and, for some, the inability to move under their own strength. But still, they came — just as they did seven decades ago.
At a time when the United States seems to be divided along racial, political and religious lines, these men of valor, once looked upon with disdain and hatred — found themselves being honored by four-star generals, officials from all levels of government and ordinary citizens gathered together to remember the sacrifices of the first African Americans admitted to a still-segregated Marine Corps during World War II.
There, the Marines, some donning their Congressional Gold Medals — the highest civilian award bestowed by Congress, awarded to them in 2012 — were hailed as heroes and recognized for their service on the battlefields of World War II, Korea and Vietnam, as well as their courage in fighting bigotry and exclusion.
John White, 92, a former Marine corporal and the last of nine original black police officers hired by the Savannah Police Department in 1947, who would later guard a young Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement, remembers Holcomb’s Marine Corps.
“General Thomas Holcomb, the 17th commandant of the Marine Corps, didn’t want us in the Marine Corps,” White told The Washington Post. “I still remember what he stated about us, that when he returned to this country and found ‘you people’ wearing our cherished globe and anchor [the Marine Corps emblem], I knew there was a war going on.”
For these men, the greatest challenge to overcome may not have been a Japanese bunker in the Pacific or, for others, a near-ambush from the People’s Army of Vietnam, but a Marine Corps that did not want them to serve at all.
Johnson would become one of the first African Americans to enlist in the Marine Corps and one of the first black drill instructors. He would retire in 1959 after 32 years of service in the Army, Navy and Marine Corps, according to the Montford Point Marine Museum.
Gen. James F. Amos, a former Marine Corps commandant who retired from active duty in 2014 after 44 years of service, said in an interview after the dedication ceremony: “This is a prime example of the goodness of the United States of America. … There’s a part of our history, for our country and for the Marine Corps, that’s not so glorious. But you think about the 20,000 men who became Marines at Montford Point, of their willingness to sacrifice for our country — a country that’s still struggling with race today — these 20,000 men came forward despite the Marine Corps and a commandant not wanting them to come in.”
Amos said that despite the struggles of the Montford Point Marines, he has never met any of them who are resentful. “I look at [their struggles] and I have not met a single bitter one, not one. It’s just the opposite.”
“The lesson here, if we turn the clock forward to 2016, is that they’re a shining example for our nation on how things ought to be done and how people ought to be treated, from everything to equality of jobs to equality of treatment. … Just listen to the rhetoric from both political parties. [They] can learn a very powerful lesson from the Montford Point Marines.”
The “lesson” comes from men like retired first sergeant Barnett Person, a 1946 graduate of Montford Point. “We wanted to be the best. … We didn’t see color. … We just wanted to be Marines, to serve our country and our fellow brothers during a time of war, [regardless] if those Marines were white or black.”
Person would serve through Korea and in Vietnam, where he would save the life of retired first sergeant Jack McDowell, a 1946 Montford Point graduate who received the Purple Heart after being wounded by a 50-caliber round, resulting in the loss of his left leg.
“We lost seven Marines that day. We had many wounded,” McDowell said. As the senior enlisted Marine for Company G, Second Battalion, Ninth Marine Regiment out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., it was his job to account for the Marines killed or wounded in action. Between July 18 and 19 of 1967, his company came under heavy small arms fire and mortar and artillery bombardment.
Just as his unit was about to be overrun by forces from a North Vietnamese army regiment, Person, a tank commander, would come to McDowell’s rescue, according to documents released by the Marine Corps History Division. He would later receive the Silver Star and two Purple Hearts for actions in combat.
“I wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for Person,” McDowell said.
The 900 pound bronze statue that honors them stands 15 feet tall. Behind it sits a rare 90 mm M1A1 anti-aircraft gun, the primary weapon used by the 51st and 52nd Defense Battalions to which most Montford Point Marines were assigned after boot camp, according to retired Master Gunnery Sgt. James H. Carr, who serves as the national fundraising director for the Montford Point Marine Association.
“I’m grateful for the country and all the people for remembering us,” 1943 Montford Point graduate and former corporal Richard C. Davis said, “For honoring our sacrifices. It’s one of the proudest moments of my life,”
Now, for them, Montford Point is just a place — where training was tough and standards were high. And they’re not much for labels like the first black this or the first African American that.
For these war veterans — the old breed — if asked, they have but one preferred label: the title of Marine.
James LaPorta is a freelance journalist in North Carolina and a former U.S. Marine infantryman and intelligence cell chief. Follow him on Twitter @JimLaPorta