Montford Point, North Carolina August 26, 1942

On this date in 1942, 12 miles upriver from the new whites-only amphib­ious training camp at Camp Lejeune, the first set of black Marine Corps recruits set up a segre­gated recruit depot of their own. The training camp, named Mont­ford Point, was a satel­lite camp of Camp Lejeune near Jackson­ville, North Caro­lina. The segre­gated camp was located on an iso­lated, fes­tering, marshy patch of ground poking into the state’s New River. The first task their white offi­cers gave the Marine recruits was to clear the trees, level the ground, and erect wooden barracks. By Octo­ber only 600 black recruits had begun basic training, although the call was for 1,000 blacks to fill the ranks of the 51st and, from Decem­ber 1943 on, the 52nd Com­pos­ite Defense Bat­talions every month. Defense bat­talion enlistees focused on defending advanced naval bases using coastal gun bat­teries, anti­aircraft batteries, machine gun units, and infantry.

Recruitment of black volunteers for the U.S. Marine Corps started on June 1, 1942. The Comman­dant of the Marine Corps, Maj. Gen. Thomas Hal­comb was none too pleased. “If there were a ques­tion of having a Marine Corps of 5,000 whites or 250,000 Negroes,” he once told a Washing­ton, D.C., audi­ence, “I would rather have the whites.” But fighting over Presi­dent Frank­lin D. Roose­velt’s 1941 Exe­cu­tive Order 8802, which prohib­ited racial discrim­i­na­tion in govern­ment and the defense indus­try, was not worth the cost of quarreling with his boss.

Small changes were underway nevertheless. By May 1943 all training at Montford Point was done by black ser­geants and drill instruc­tors (DIs). Blacks turned out to be harder on their recruits than the former white instruc­tors. It was said that the goal of black instruct­ors was to make their “boot recruits” better than those just down the road (i.e., at Camp Lejuene).

Ironically, the Montford Point 51st and 52nd com­bat defense battalions, deployed to the Pacific Theater in the last 12 months of the war, saw only a few months of action patrolling the recap­tured island of Guam. Con­versely, Montf­ord Point’s logis­tics ser­vice units, the depot com­panies (of which there were 51) and the ammu­ni­tion com­panies (of which there were 12), saw savage fighting on the battle­fields of Saipan (D‑Day June 5, 1944), Tinian, and Guam in the Mari­anas, Peleliu in the Palau group, Iwo Jima, and Oki­nawa, where 2,000 Mond­fort Pointers set up supply and ammo dumps. Men from the two ser­vice com­panies and the Steward’s Branch (cooks and mess atten­dants)—men who had received the fewest weeks of basic training back in the States—were often inserted into the front lines as rifle­men. These enlistees suffered most of the casual­ties among black Marines, losing seven killed in action, two who died of wounds, and 78 who survived their wounds. Lt. Gen. Alex­an­der Van­de­grift, Hol­comb’s replace­ment as head of the Marine Corps on Janu­ary 1, 1944, was impressed with the stellar per­for­mance of Mont­ford men who had joined Marine assault troops under fire on Saipan. He declared: “The Negro Marines are no longer on trial. They are Marines, period.”

The last Montford Point unit to be deactivated after the Pacific War—the 49th Marine Depot Com­pany—occurred on Guam on Septem­ber 30, 1947. The Montford Point Marine training facil­ity was closed in 1949 after Presi­dent Harry S. Tru­man issued Exec­u­tive Order 9981, which fully deseg­re­gated the U.S. Armed Forces. Until the end of the Korean War the number of black Marines hovered between 1 and 3 percent. In 2019, self-identifying black enlisted service­members and offi­cers made up just 11 per­cent and 5.7 per­cent of the Corps, respec­tively, the lowest percent­ages of black service­members in the four service branches. On June 27, 2012, the U.S. Congress honored the Mont­ford Point Marines with the Con­gres­sional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award the legislature confers.

Pioneer Montfort Point Marines During World War II

Montford Point Marines: Drill instructor Sgt. Gilbert "Hashmark" JohnsonMontford Point Marines: Recruit inspection

Left: A platoon of “boot recruits” listen to their drill instructor, 37-year-old Sgt. Gilbert “Hash­mark” John­son. (John­son was known as “Hash­mark” because he had more dia­gonal service stripes—one each for the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps—than rank stripes.) In 1943, John­son was among the first black men to be trained as Marine drill instruc­tors. More than 1 million African Amer­i­cans were called up for ser­vice, and of these 835,000 went into the U.S. Army. By 1944, 18,000 black Marines had passed through Mont­ford Point. Of those, 12,738 were deployed over­seas in the Pacif­ic Thea­ter, mostly in com­bat sup­port com­panies. Unlike the Army, the Marine Corps did not allow blacks to become offi­cers during the war. Not until Novem­ber 1945 did an African Amer­i­can, a vet­er­an of the 51st Defense Bat­talion, earn a com­mis­sion in the Marine Corps, which allowed the newly minted second lieutenant to give orders to white enlisted Marines.

Right: Cpl. Mortimer Cox of Birmingham, Alabama, inspects his platoon of recruits at Mont­ford Point. Immed­i­ately following the Japa­nese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Decem­ber 7, 1941, the autho­rized troop strength of the Marine Corps increased from 75,000 to 104,000 Marines. During the last month of peace in Novem­ber 1941, 1,978 men enlisted in the Corps. In Decem­ber enlist­ments jumped to 10,224. That number was smashed by a record of 22,686 enlist­ments in Janu­ary 1942. Overall, half a million Marines grad­u­ated by the end of the war from five Marine Corps recruit depots: San Diego and Camp Pendle­ton in Cali­for­nia, Parris Island in South Caro­lina, Camp Lejeune, and segre­gated Mont­ford Point, the latter two depots in North Carol­ina. Training con­sisted of, among other things, rigor­ous exer­cises, close-order drills, hand-to-hand combat, and weapons firing. The pay: $21 a month.

Montford Point Marines: Battery drillFour Montford Point Marines in 3rd Marine Ammunition Company on Saipan

Left: Montford Point Marines participate in a battery drill in this photo. The men of the segre­gated 51st Com­po­site Defense Bat­talion distin­guished them­selves as the finest artil­lery gunners in the Marine Corps, breaking almost every accu­racy record in training. During firing exer­cises attended by Secre­tary of the Navy Frank Knox, Comman­dant of the Marine Corps Gen. Hol­comb, and a colonel from the Selec­tive Service System watched an African-Amer­i­can crew open fire with a 90mm gun at a sleeve target being towed over­head and hit it with­in 60 seconds. The Comman­dant’s reaction: “I think they’re ready now.” Unfor­tu­nately, discrim­i­nation toward African Amer­i­can combat abili­ties existed during the war period. When shipped to the Western Pacific, the 51st and 52nd Defense Bat­talions (the quali­fier “Com­po­site” had been dropped) were first posted to islands away from the primary action. In July 1944 the 51st was reorganized as an anti­aircraft unit. Former drill instruc­tor Sgt. Maj. (since Janu­ary 1945) Gilbert “Hash­mark” John­son, a mem­ber of the 52nd Defense Bat­talion that helped garri­son recaptured Guam, lobbied his com­manding offi­cer to assign black Marines to combat patrols, from which they were then exempt. Once approved, John­son person­ally led 25 patrols to mop up strag­glers or die-hard sur­viving enemy who found concealment in the island’s dense vegetation.

Right: Posing with a Japanese bicycle they had captured on Saipan Island are four Montford Pointers in the 3rd Marine Ammu­ni­tion Com­pany. Their com­pany was a com­bat ser­vice sup­port unit con­sisting of (typi­cally) eight com­mis­sioned offi­cers and 251 enlisted men. The Marine Corps believed that the fuses and shells handled by ammu­ni­tion com­panies required non­com­mis­sioned offi­cers with tech­ni­cal know-how and the abili­ty to use this know­ledge in en­forcing safety regul­at­ions. In the midst of war the Corps felt it could not afford two months to train inex­peri­enced blacks for these duties; instead, they relied on pre­viously trained white non­com­mis­sioned offi­cers down to the level of buck sergeant (three upward stripes only). Black depot com­panies, because training was three weeks, had black non­com­mis­sioned offi­cers from first ser­geant (three upward stripes and three rocker stripes) on down to cor­po­ral (two stripes only). Mont­ford Point orga­nized one ammu­ni­tion com­pany and two depot com­panies each month. Both sets of com­panies were often inserted into the front lines as rifle­men. The first depot company shipped out in April 1943, the ammu­ni­tion companies shortly afterwards.

The Montford Point Marines, 1942–1949

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