World War II was in the beginning stages, and any young men signing on the dotted line knew what the consequences could be. The young black men who signed up with the Marines knew of these consequences and also knew they would have to deal with the unknown ahead because they would be the “first” allowed in.
Beginning in 1942, these recruits got their first taste of being the same but different when they were assigned to Camp Montford Point, North Carolina, for their basic training. It was thought that this segregation during training would prevent racial problems in the ranks, and allow for the emphasis to be on learning combat skills. Up to a point, this did work, at least on the grounds of the camp.
The recruits found the outside world was not quite ready for the sudden and unexpected arrival of young black men walking around wearing Marine uniforms in town. Some were even picked up by local police and charged with impersonating Marines.
There were also problems finding transportation during the short weekend pass. Buses would refuse seating and taxis would not pick them up. Getting back to Montford Point became such a problem that special transportation was worked out by Col. Samuel Woods Jr. which allowed the Montford Point Marines to be picked up by a transport in Jacksonville, N.C., and returned to camp. Spending the week end in town was not a guaranteed to be any better because many restaurants refused to serve these Marines.
Initially, all drill instructors and non-commissioned officers at Montford Point had been white. As time passed more of the graduates returned to replace and fill these positions.
By the middle of 1943, the staff of drill instructors and non-commissioned officers for the camp was all black. Eventually 20,000 would be trained at this facility and a high number would see combat before the war ended.
Many of these Marines went on to see action and service on numerous islands in the Pacific. On these battlefields, the color of the Marine was not black or white, all were green and all fought together. The commandant of the Marine Corps at the time, Lt. Gen. Alexander A. Vandegrift, made the following announcement: “The Negro Marines are no longer on trial. They are Marines, period.”
More than 13,000 of the Marines trained at Montford Point served overseas in World War II. Some of these remained in the Corps and went on to serve in Korea and Vietnam.
The Congressional Gold Medal was awarded to the Montford Point Marines by legislation signed into law by President Barack Obama on Nov. 23, 2011, in recognition of their valor and devotion to their country.
If you would like to hear the story of these men from one who was there, your chance is almost here. Mr. Pack will be telling his story Tuesday, Feb. 26, at the Campus Center Ballroom 108.2 at 7 p.m. His program will be “The Story behind the Montford Point Marines: A Personal Account.” It will be informative, interesting and admission is free.
Robinson, a Vietnam veteran and member of American Legion Post 143, writes a weekly column on veterans issues for the Times-Georgian.