Montford Point Marines
Their Wartime Contributions Helped Break
the Military's Color Barrier
| During wartime training at Montford Point,
Cpl. Arvin Lou Ghazlo shows a recruit, Pvt. Ernest C. Jones, how
to use judo to make the enemy's bayonet useless. (National Archives)
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By Bethanne Kelly Patrick
It was May 1943, and the young man in his $54 dress blues just wanted
to get away from base and the stress of wartime, take some liberty,
and see his family. But when he got to Cleveland, Pfc. R.J. Wood was
arrested and charged with impersonating a Marine, according to Bennie
J. McRae's "The Montford Point Marines" Web site. Like most Americans
at that time, the Cleveland police had never seen an African-American
Wood was one of 21,609 African Americans trained at Montford Point,
N.C. They all soon proved that they were real Marines, many of them
at places like Iwo Jima.
Today's Marine Corps, like its sister services, is fully integrated,
but for decades, the Marines did not admit African Americans. In 1941,
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 to establish
the Fair Employment Practice Commission, banning discrimination "because
of race, creed, color, or national origin" in all government agencies.
Recruiting for the "Montford Marines" began on June 1, 1942. Thousands
of African-American men, eager to serve, flocked to recruiting offices.
The quota of 1,200 men were housed in prefabricated huts near segregated
Jacksonville, N.C., where railroad tracks divided white residents from
black. The troops at Montford experienced racism again and again. For
example, unless accompanied by a white Marine, these men were not allowed
to enter Camp Lejeune.
By 1945, all drill instructors and many NCOs at Montford Point were
black. The Montford Marines performed well in their duties at home and
abroad, despite the strictures placed on them by society in their era.
In practice, these men surpassed all anti-aircraft gunnery records previously
set by Marines, and named their weapon "Lena" after their favorite singer,
Most important, the men of Montford Point made it impossible for the
Marine Corps to return to its prewar policy. President Harry S. Truman
eliminated segregated units in 1949. But the Montford Point Marines
have not been forgotten. In 1998, Parris Island drum major Staff Sgt.
Vernon Harris composed the music to a song, "I'll Take the Marines,"
commemorating the group. The words had been written by a Montford Marine,
LaSalle Vaughn. "If African Americans at that time could go through
the rigorous training of Marines when it was segregated and they were
looked down on and still be proud Marines … it encourages all Marines
to look forward and recognize our progress," Harris said.