Montford Point Marines: A Precedent for Courage
It is always important to know and to learn from history. It is important because, in the largest sense of history, it reveals the universal human story. That story is complex, and it is a mix of the glorious and the infamous. The irony is that we learn most from our failures, that is, if we have the courage to look at them and to address them with confidence and courage.
This story is just one chapter in the larger story of our country. It is a story that is, like many human stories, about struggle and success. It is set in a particular moment in time, but is shaped by a reality that has loomed large over the length of our national story, that is, the issue of racism and its fellow traveler, prejudice. It is also about brave men, an “experiment,” and the beginning of a lesson still being learned.
In June of 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, which declared fair employment for all in the American military. Though this Executive Order opened the military and its positions to all Americans, the reality was that the military was still a segregated reality and would be so until 1948, when President Harry S. Truman wrote an Executive Order to desegregate the Armed Forces. That would still take time, and the last to integrate its force would be the United States Marine Corps.
I wrote yesterday about the “Red Tails” or the Tuskegee Airmen, who were the first all-Black unit to be formed after Executive Order 8802 was signed. That was the U.S. Army Air Corps. The Marine Corps’ all-Black segregated unit would become known as the Montford Point Marines. This is their story.
From 1942 to 1949, Black people who joined the Marine Corps went to boot camp at Montford Point on the sprawling Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base near Jacksonville, N.C. It was a mosquito-infested, swampy part of the base. The first boot camp companies of Montford Point Marines were forced to build their own wooden huts for barracks in that rugged landscape on that part of Camp Lejeune.
As you may already know, Marine Corps boot camp has a reputation for being tough, a real test physically and mentally, where the young men and now young women arrive to the in-your-face, shouted orders of drill instructors and are unceremoniously herded together to stand in strict order on yellow footprints painted on the pavement. At that point, they are a pack of individuals, with no more connection to one another than the fact that they are all aware that they are “not in Kansas anymore.” By the end of boot camp, they are Marines, a brotherhood/sisterhood that works together with a hard-won unit coherence, a sense of unity and oneness that is like no other.
It was the same for those first Montford Point Marines, but there was a difference too. They were to be segregated, trained in the same manner as their white counterparts but not with them. This, of course, was not new to many of them, who had grown up their entire lives in segregated communities. But each and every one of them was glad that they were going to have an opportunity to serve their country in the troubling times of WWII.
Those Montford Point Marines would serve their country with distinction and pride. You will meet three of the original Montford Point Marines in this video. Each has his own unique story to tell about his experiences at Montford Point and his service in WWII and afterward. Each is proud to call himself a Marine. Their pride is evident, and their attitudes are universally positive and optimistic. They knew that they were the first, that they were being looked at as an “experiment,” and, as such, they knew they had to work harder, that they had to be better than anyone else, that what they did and accomplished would have an effect on the futures of those who would follow.
I have a very “distant” relationship with the Montford Point Marines, though I did not know it until decades later. As a Navy Hospital Corpsman, I was transferred to the Fleet Marine Force in 1967 and went to Camp Lejeune to train as a Fleet Marine Corpsman for duty in Vietnam. The area of Camp Lejeune that we trained in was Montford Point. By my time in the military, all of the military had been integrated for about 25 years. There was no longer even a memory of those times in the men of my age group. Our experience of the Navy or the Marine Corps was completely integrated, from boot camp to the jungles of Vietnam. But that was made possible because of the service, the courage, and the success of those men who were Montford Point Marines back in the days of WWII. And we are all the better for it.
Enjoy meeting the three Montford Point Marines in this video. They are men of integrity, confidence, and dignity who are very proud of their Marine Corps and their service in it. Those who serve in the Marine Corps today can be proud of them, as they have made the Corps a brotherhood/sisterhood that reflects the whole of America. Semper Fidelis to all who have served and who are currently serving in the United States Marine Corps. And Thank You to all who were part of the Montford Point Marines. OoRah!Whizzco