The United States Marine Corps prides itself on its ability to implement its government’s policies in places far from territorial America. This week however, the Corps will be celebrating a beachhead just as monumental as those executed in the Pacific Theater of World War II.
Friday, at the Eighth Marine Barracks in Washington, D.C., the Montfort Point Marines, who became the first African Americans qualified to wear the eagle, globe, and anchor emblem of the Corps, will be honored in a ceremony and parade. The events are being held in commemoration of June 1, 1942, when Executive Order 8802 was issued to open the ranks to recruits of color.
This initial objective occurred not on some foreign beach in a far off clime, but within the domestic terrain of deepest, darkest North Carolina in the 1940’s, when a few intrepid sepia-skinned recruits dared to challenge the status quo by becoming the first Black Marines.
Over the next seven years, some 20,000 African American servicemen began the rite of passage from civilian to the ranks of “the few, the proud,” amid ram shackled conditions at the newly established Camp Montfort Point outside the Whites-only main Marine training facility of Camp Lejeune, in the middle of the inhospitable Jim Crow South.
Retired Leatherneck and vice president of Chapter 8 of the Montfort Point Marine Association, L. E. (Michael) Johnson reminisced about the obstacles facing these fledgling ‘jar heads:’
“Unlike their White counterparts at the Parris Island depot, who simply arrived on post to begin their basic training, these pioneers had to help build their quarters from the ground up.”
At 85 years old, Los Angeles resident Ernest L. Jackson fondly remembers his military tenure as he now prepares for the sojourn east to reunite with his comrades in arms. For this product of the Philadelphia projects, the Corps afforded him access to some of the best food he’d ever eaten. At 130 pounds, he was dwarfed by many of his platoon mates, but found a measure of satisfaction as he endured the arduous conditioning runs on the North Carolina beaches while his strapping compatriots collapsed in the 105-degree heat.
“Looking back, I believe the Corps made me a man,” says Jackson.
Just as the decision to open the ranks of the Corps was forged by historic circumstances, the opportunity to actually engage the enemy was denied to most of these newly-minted Marines.
However, occasionally manpower shortages and the prospect of being overrun by the Japanese Army did force the Corps to allow Black Marines who were normally assigned as ammo bearers or mess boys, to become combatants, as in the Battle of Peleliu and Saipan.
To commemorate the sacrifices of these trailblazers, the Montford Point Marine Association (MPMA) was chartered in 1966, with its stated creed being “to promote and preserve the strong bonds of friendship born from shared adversities and to devote ourselves to the furtherance of these accomplishments to ensure more peaceful times.” Today, it has some 36 chapters throughout the United States, including Chapter 8 in the Los Angeles area.
The Montfort Pointers are not nearly as well known as the Tuskegee Airmen or the Buffalo Soldiers, yet their legacy is a cornerstone of the credo of every Black Marine, be they a single enlistee or a lifer, because as the old adage states ‘once a Marine, always a Marine.’ Their heritage serves as a foundation for the Marines who followed them as models of individual standards of valor, such as Pfc. James Anderson Jr., who became the first Black Marine to win the Congressional Medal of Honor by using his body to shield his comrades from a live grenade during the Vietnam Conflict.
It is the standard which guided Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen as he endured racial harassment to become the first Black Marine aviator, and the first African American Marine general. During the course of his 38-year career, Petersen flew every aircraft in the Marine inventory, and became the senior ranking aviator in both the Marines and the U.S. Navy, earning the titles of “Silver Hawk” and “Gray Eagle,” respectively.
It is the tradition upheld by Maj. Gen. Charles F. Bolden as he endured the rigors of the Naval Academy to become a test pilot, and later an astronaut. After ending his career as a Marine, Charlie Bolden continues to uphold the legacy of Montfort Point, as the first Black man to head the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
It is this convention that guides present and future Marines, as they prepare for threats yet to make an appearance on the horizon. Gen. James F. Amos, the 35th and current commandant of the Marine Corps, is leading the push to have the MPMA awarded the congressional gold medal.
Along with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian award, and is bestowed on those who perform “an outstanding deed or act of service to the security, prosperity, and national interest of the United States.”
Among the groups previously honored with this decoration are the Tuskegee Airmen, who battled the Nazi menace during World War II, and the Little Rock Nine, who successfully integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957 at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement.
The Montfort Point Marines persevered in an era when their services were not appreciated, and continue today via their sponsorship of social programs to uplift youth, improve treatment for the nation’s veterans, and attention to the overall welfare of the inner city.