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Historic Montford Point Marines fought U.S. racism, Japanese forces

Historic Montford Point Marines fought U.S. racism, Japanese forces

Original Montford Point Marines stand for the National Anthem during an evening parade in Colonel Truman W. Crawford Hall at Marine Barracks Washington, Washington, D.C., June 16, 2017. The Montford Point Marines were the first African-Americans to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Paul A. Ochoa)

By Cheryl Chapman

This June 27 marks the fifth year since lawmakers in Washington, D.C., bestowed the Congressional Gold Medal on the Montford Point Marines, some 20,000 African-Americans who drew on every resource at their disposal during World War II to defend the U.S. against the Japanese.

They were used to fighting. First, they had to overcome the nation’s entrenched racism to enlist; second, they took on the U.S. Marine Corps for acceptance, and won; and only then did they ship out to the Pacific theater, their third battle zone. The Congressional Gold Medal is one of the two highest civilian honors in the United States.

Step back in time: Today’s open military, today’s flexible culture are merely decades removed from a populace strictly divided by skin color. Opportunity knocked, true, but mostly on white doors. Then came the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and a nation just coming out of the Great Depression and easing into mobilization abruptly was fighting for its life.

The run-up to a wartime economy was creating millions of defense industry jobs and military openings, but racism turned away patriotic African-Americans who wanted to serve. Black leaders, among them A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, beseeched President Franklin D. Roosevelt to ban discrimination against black defense industry workers — or face a mass protest march of 100,000 African-Americans through the streets of the capital.

On June 25, 1941, the president issued an executive order that directed federal contractors, all government agencies and the defense industries to hire without regard to any applicants’ race, color, creed or national origin and further pressed the Armed Services to recruit and enlist blacks.

The Marines began recruiting African-Americans a little less than a year later, on June 1, 1942, to form the unit that became the Montford Point Marines.

INVITED BUT A LONG WAY FROM WELCOME

Though President Roosevelt was their commander in chief, accounts of the times show the Marines were unenthusiastic about his order. African-Americans had fought on the American side in the War of 1812 and earlier, in the American Revolution, but the Marines had been all-white since their re-establishment in 1798. The Navy did take a few African-Americans but only as messmen and stewards. Contrariwise, the Army had maintained four regular regiments of black soldiers since the Civil War (check out the 1989 film “Glory”). By the time the Confederacy surrendered at Appomattox, Virginia, 10 percent of the Union Army, about 179,000 soldiers, was African-American, around 90,000 of them ex-slaves.

The first 1,200 African-American Marine enlistees were shunted into a segregated area at Camp Montfort Point, near Jacksonville, North Carolina, where they lived in 120 prefabricated huts, each for 16 men but sometimes jammed with twice that many. The Marine Corps’ Camp Lejeune was just to the east, but no Montford Point Marine could go there without a white Marine escort.

No black person could become a Marine officer; the first, Frederick C. Branch of Montford Point’s 51st Defense Battalion, was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the Reserve on Nov. 10, 1945, but only after the war ended. Within the first months, however, a functioning group of black noncommissioned officers was in place, among them the legendary Sgt. Maj. Gilbert “Hashmark” Johnson, who’d served previously in both Army and Navy. The fearsome Johnson whipped green recruits into Marines within weeks and was held in such awe that on April 19, 1974, the former Montford Point Camp was renamed Camp Gilbert H. Johnson. It’s now home to the Marine Corps Combat Service Support Schools and is the only Marine installation named for an African-American.

Camp was basic, according to “The Right to Fight: African-American Marines in World War II” by Bernard C. Nalty. Montford Point Camp held a headquarters, a chapel, a couple of warehouses, a mess hall, a dispensary, a steam-generating plant, a motor pool, quarters and recreational facilities for the white enlistees who initially staffed the camp, a barber shop, a snack bar (“the slop chute”), an officers’ club and a theater-cum-library. Local residents included clouds of mosquitos, snakes and the occasional bear. With the military draft, the camp’s population swelled, sometimes spilling into an old Civilian Conservation Corps camp across a creek to the north.

Nearby Jacksonville, North Carolina, was a strictly segregated town of its time, and its then-residents were not happy about the hundreds of armed black Marines on the other side of the railroad tracks. When they came to town on liberty, white businesses went into lockdown, even the bus station, until somebody realized the bus station had to be open for them to go somewhere, anywhere, else.

Once the black Marines did get somewhere else, they faced the problem of getting back to camp. White bus drivers often sped past, leaving them in the dust, so sometimes a group would commandeer a bus, eject the local driver and leave it near the camp gate for the transit company to retrieve.

“Jacksonville,” a song written by one of the camp’s white officers and a musician, Robert W. Troup, became the camp’s unofficial anthem, and went “Take me away from Jacksonville, ‘cause I’ve had my fill, and that’s no lie. Take me away from Jacksonville, keep me away from Jacksonville, until I die.” At its frequent performances, stagehands would toss little bits of brown paper into the breeze from a couple of electric fans to simulate the dust blowing down the Jacksonville streets.

MARINES RESPOND TO NEEDS

By 1943 Montford Point was training two combat battalions, the 51st Defense Battalion and later, the 52nd Defense Battalion; a Marine Corps Messman Branch that became the Stewards Branch; and what would eventually grow into 63 depot and ammunition combat support units. The camp commander, Col. Samuel A. Woods Jr., a white officer from the South, won the respect of his charges by his calmness and fairness and the understanding among the enlistees that they would have to overcome racism to show their mettle brought a sense of solidarity to the black Marines.

By Nalty’s count in “The Right to Fight,” 19,168 black Marines saw service in World War II, all trained at Montford Point Camp. Of those, 12,738 went overseas in defense battalions, depot or ammunition combat support companies or as stewards. The rest served stateside at supply depots in Philadelphia, Norfolk, Virginia, or the Naval Ammunition Depot at McAlester, Oklahoma; as stewards in officers’ messes across the country; or as Montford Point Camp staff; or as recruits still being trained there at the war’s end.

The two defense battalions were combat battalions, but by spring 1943, the Marines had discovered that they also needed people to move gear and supplies to Marines fighting their way forward. They created two new kinds of units: depot companies and ammunition companies. The main qualification was a strong back.

Depot companies underwent a bare three weeks of training and had white officers and black NCOs. Ammunition companies trained for two months and had white officers and white NCOs down to the level of buck sergeant.

OVER THERE

Wartime realities upended the Marine Corps’ concept of the two defense battalions as combat personnel and the service support units as mere laborers. The first defense battalion, the 51st, spent almost all its time overseas on remote Pacific islands, scanning the skies and seas for enemy threats that never materialized. The battalion’s occupation of Eniwetok Atoll was so uneventful that when, almost a year after it got there a movie was interrupted by a report of Japanese aircraft, unit member Herman Darden Jr. recalled, “I never saw such jubilation in my life.” It was a false alarm. Ennui returned.

The second defense battalion, the 52nd, had a livelier time. From Pearl Harbor its Marines traveled to the Marshall Islands to replace antiaircraft units, about half of them on Majuro Atoll and the other half on Roi and Namur islands in Kwajalein Atoll. On May 4, 1945, the two halves reunited on Guam for the fight to hold the island for U.S. forces.

The depot and ammunition companies were bloodied by vicious fighting on Saipan, Tinian, Guam, Peleliu, Iwo Jima and Okinawa and took the most casualties among all the African-American Marines.

On Saipan, for instance, the depot companies saw heavy action, starting June 15, 1944, with offloading cargo from ships to landing craft, then seeing to it that it got to Marines fighting their way inland. They themselves came under fire but kept pushing forward, some battling as infantry to hold a line near shore. The next day depot Marines helped locate and eliminate Japanese infiltrators who had breached the lines in the night. They endured pounding by waist-deep surf to unload food and water from landing craft, set up security to thwart snipers as they loaded wounded Marines aboard boats headed to hospital ships and rode as guards, under heavy fire, on trucks carrying highly explosive gasoline from the beaches to the front lines.

A Montford Point Marine ammunition company was at Saipan as well that day, shifting ammunition from ships to landing craft or pontoon barges, then to amphibious trucks or tractors clawing across the reef to the assault troops on the beachhead. Japanese who were shelling the beach shot the amphibious tractor out from under one of the ammunition teams. That same night, Marines from the ammunition company took out an enemy machine gun and helped block a Japanese counterattack.

Wherever they went, they garnered or shared in recognition and accolades. After Saipan, the commandant of the Marine Corps, Lt. Gen. Alexander A. Vandegrift, said: “The Negro Marines are no longer on trial. They are Marines, period.”

But Saipan was far from the end. The Montford Point Marines carried supplies and defended their ammunition dump on Guam, where they made it part of their mission to track down and kill remnants of Japanese forces hiding in ambush. They were at Tinian, the final objective of the Marianas campaign. Black combat support units also backed the Marines boring into the fortress island of Paleliu, where 17 members of the 11th Marine Depot Company were wounded, more casualties than any other company of African-American Marines during the war.

Despite the black Marines’ deployments, their segregation was so complete that white U.S. troops sometimes had no idea they had black counterparts until they encountered them in combat situations. One of the surprised Marine casualties being rescued by Montford Point Marines during the battle for Peleliu called them “black angels sent by God.”

The black combat support units did not hang back at bloody Iwo Jima. The 8th Marine Ammunition Company defended, in vain, a rear-area ammunition dump and bunker packed with high-explosive and white phosphorus shells set ablaze by Japanese mortar fire, but its Marines didn’t stay empty-handed long. They dodged sniper fire at a captured airfield to pick up an emergency drop of replacement ammunition, and were on their way. After Iwo Jima was declared “secure,” a final Japanese attack got all the way to rear-area units, including the Marine depot companies, who helped stop the attackers in a brutal melee in the dark, then mopped up survivors at dawn. Two privates from the Montford Point Marines were awarded Bronze Stars for their heroic achievement.

World War II’s last battle, the invasion of Okinawa, involved more black Marines than any previous operation, some 2,000 of them, including three combat Marine divisions, three ammunition and four depot companies, all from Montfort Point, and all fighting in constant downpours, storms and deep, sticky mud. Since Okinawa was made the base to invade Japan and then North China, the ammunition and depot companies stayed busy. When on Aug. 14, 1945, Japan surrendered after U.S. forces dropped atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, three ammunition and five depot companies from Montford Point accompanied the occupation forces.

On Aug. 15, 1945, the war with Japan officially ended, and the Montford Point Marines began their return to U.S. soil. On Jan. 31, 1947, the first African-American combat unit created by the Marine Corps, the 51st Defense Battalion, disbanded at Montford Point. By October 1947, all the black Pacific theater units had returned and been disbanded.

THE AFTERMATH

On July 26, 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed an executive order forbidding racial discrimination in the nation’s military. He defied powerful Southern Democrats in Congress to do so.

With the end of military segregation, Montford Point Camp closed in 1949, and from then on African-American Marine recruits were trained at Parris Island, South Carolina, and Camp Pendleton, California. By the Korean War (1950-1953), the Marine Corps was fully integrated.

Today, the nonprofit Montford Point Marine Association, founded in 1965 during a Philadelphia reunion of more than 400 former Montford Point and active-duty Marines, keeps their memory alive. The MPMA supports educational assistance programs, veterans’ programs and community services, with an emphasis on helping disabled or older veterans. Their creed: “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.”

Go to www.montfordpointmarines.com to find out more.

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