Feb. 9, 2012 - Every Marine remembers his arrival at recruit training. Marines shared feelings of fear, anxiety and doubt when faced with the challenges of boot camp. The Marines of Montford Point faced even greater obstacles than the rigorous training of the average recruit. These brave men broke through racial discrimination to earn the title of the few and the proud: the first African American Marines.
The first African American Marines started training at Montford Point, N.C. The obstacles they faced while in the Corps is now being honored with the awarding of the Congressional Gold Medal.
Before World War II, African-Americans were denied the right to serve in the Marine Corps.
In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order to address the discrimination in employment practices to include the armed forces.
During World War II, the nation was segregated under the Jim Crow laws, and the Marine Corps was no exception. Black recruits were not sent to either recruit depots in Parris Island, S.C., or San Diego for training but were completely segregated at a new training facility in Montford Point, N.C.
The first black recruits volunteered in early June 1942, and three months later stepped foot on Montford Point Camp to begin training as the 51st Composite Defense Battalion.
“A lot of pressure was put on these young men to perform to a very high caliber,” said Robert B. Bruce, associate professor of history at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. “Any imperfection would have been seen as a failure of black people in general.”
Two battalions, the 51st Composite Defense Battalion, and later, the 52nd, were trained specifically for combat and were deployed in the Pacific Theater.
A total of nine black Marines died in World War II. According to the National Archives, these fallen Marines weren't infantrymen.
More than 20,000 Marines passed through the gates of Montford Point before the desegregation of the Marine Corps in 1949.
Officer candidates participate in the first Montford Point Challenge Dec. 8, 2011. The course was designed to mirror the obstacles the first African American Marines faced while serving as supply Marines in World War II. New courses such as this ensure that the Montford Point Marine story will never be forgotten. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Chelsea Flowers
Gunnery Sgt. William D. Mike III, drill band instructor at the Navy School of Music, Norfolk, Va., said he believes his success and the way Marines view each other can be directly credited to the example set by the Montford Point Marines.
“These men paved the way,” Mike said. “They set the precedent for the African-American Marine today. They are the backbone of what we have today for our Marines.”
Although segregation is no longer an issue in the Marine Corps, remembering the obstacles the first African American Marines went through is essential to the future of the Corps.
On Nov. 8, 2011, the U.S. Senate voted unanimously to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the Montford Point Marines. Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James F. Amos supported the bill to ensure the Montford Point story continues to be told.
“Every Marine from Private to General will know the history of those men who crossed the threshold to fight not only the enemy they were soon to know overseas, but the enemy of racism and segregation in their own country,” Amos said. “My promise to you is that your story will not be forgotten. It will take its rightful place and will be forever anchored in the rich history of the United States Marine Corps.”
In addition to this honor, the Marine Corps has changed its curriculum at Officer Candidate School at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., to include a segment dedicated to the Montford Point Marines. The students are taught the history in a classroom setting with a culminating physical event called the Montford Point Challenge.
By USMC Lance Cpl. Chelsea Flowers
Marine Corps News
Comment on this article