Marines receiving instruction in the Demolition Course at Montford Point Camp, NC, during intensive combat training in preparation for action in the Pacific in February 1945. Photo Credit: National Archives.
The story of the Tuskegee Airmen has been told countless times through movies, books and even museums. But another group of African-American men also served during World War II, but their story might be unfamiliar to you. They are known as the Montford Point Marines.
The Montford Point Marines—named after the camp in North Carolina where they trained—were drafted into the armed forces in the 1940s and fought for their country despite discrimination within the Marine C0rps.
They broke the color barrier within the Marine Corps; however, there contributions to World War II are virtually unknown. And unlike their white counterparts, they were not sent to traditional boot camps in places like Parris Island, SC or San Diego, CA. Instead, they were segregated and sent to Montford Point at Camp Lejeune in NC where all African-American marines received their basic training. There were almost 20,000 African-American men who went through basic training at the camps set up for blacks only. These men received training just as the whites did, but their time at boot camp and war was very different because of the color of their skin.
“We were well trained but were not allowed to fight,” said retired Gunnery Sergeant Reuben J. McNair, 86, who fought in both WWII and the Korean War.
Although the African-American Marines had completed all the required training in boot camp, they were not allowed to be on the front lines. That was reserved for whites.
“They didn’t want us to receive credit for anything,” said McNair, who was drafted into the Marines in 1944 and served his country for 20 years. “The jobs for African-American marines were to bring ammunition and supplies up the beach; white Marines were at the front line.” They had other random duties that ranged from running the projectors in the theater, working in the motor pool, to cleaning.
Nearly 70 years later, the African American marines who served their country during World War II finally received their overdue recognition. Last month, approximately 400 Montford Point Marines and their surviving relatives were presented with the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor.
“It was a long time coming,” said 85-year-old Willie James McDonald, who served as a Montford Point Marine, “but later is better than never.”
The Congressional Gold Medal of Honor is the country’s highest civilian honor. The U.S. Congress recognizes individuals with this award for serving the United States by performing exceptional deeds of services to the security, prosperity and national interest of the country.
“Receiving the medal was humbling, I’m very thankful,” said Montford Point Marine Joseph Carpenter, 88, who was discharged after the war but later rejoined as an officer, eventually serving for 21 years. “What I’ve been through wasn’t taken for granted.”
“To receive it was one of the greatest honors I have ever witnessed and ever seen,” said McNair, who was originally drafted into the Navy but decided to join the Marines to be with people that looked more like him and because he “didn’t like the Navy uniforms.”
There has been no war fought by the United States without the participation of African-Americans, whether voluntary or involuntary. During World War II, African-American Marines faced two different enemies, those that were overseas and then the battle against segregation and prejudices on their home soil. There was a high enlistment rate of African-Americans, but they were not treated as equals. Segregation was evident in all that they did, from parades to transportation to eating dinner in the dining halls. However, racial segregation was not a new idea when these men were drafted into the Marines. They had been facing racial discrimination since they were born. It occurred in their everyday activities such riding a bus, drinking from a water fountain, eating in a restaurant and attending school. The separation in the Marines might not have been expected but it was not a surprise.
“Being from North Carolina, I was used to segregation,” McDonald said. “The drill instructors were much more demanding than others to make sure that we were good Marines. They made that certain they made us proper Marines. It was tough but we survived.”
The Marines initially intended on discharging all of the black troops after WWII ended, sending them back to their civilian lives and keeping the Marine Corps an all-white organization. Once the troops were given the chance to prove themselves, they showed everyone that they were just as capable of fighting as their white counterparts.
On July 26, 1948, President Harry S Truman issued Executive Order to end racial discrimination within the armed forces. This executive order eventually led to the end of segregation in the services. The Executive Order No. 9981 read that “there shall be equality for treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin.”
Today, African-Americans make up more than 10 percent of enlisted Marines, while 5.6 of blacks are officers.
To learn more about the Montford Point Marines, visit: http://www.montfordpointmarines.com.