The Montford Point Marines are the “Tuskegee Airmen” of the Marine Corps, and a valuable part of the legacy of Black men and women. Considering today’s news, I am compelled to educate those of you brothas and sistas who might not be aware of these living legends.
All Marines today undergo basic training at one of two recruit depots: Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina, or at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, California. But back in 1942, the Marine Corps was still segregated, and African-American Marines were instead trained separately, at Camp Montford Point in Jacksonville, North Carolina. These Black Marines were forced to live in prefabricated huts, and were not allowed to enter the main base of nearby Camp Lejeune unless accompanied by a white Marine.
It wasnt until 1949 that President Harry S. Truman (despite strong opposition from Democrats) desegregated the Marine Corps with Executive Order 9981, which allowed Black men (and later women) to train and serve alongside their white counterparts. That same year, Montford Point was deactivated and new Black recruits were sent to Parris Island and Camp Pendleton. During seven years that Montford Point was operational, more than 20,000 Black men were trained there.
Take some time to check out this absolutely amazing documentary on the Montford Point Marines. You will not be disappointed.
From the ranks of the Montford Point Marines come several exemplary Black men and women.
Sergeant Major Edgar R. Huff – First Black Sergeant Major
Sergeant Major Edgar R. Huff, one of the first African-Americans to enlist in the Marine Corps in 1942, and the first African-American to be promoted to the rank of Sergeant Major enlisted in the Marine Corps, 24 September 1942, and received recruit training with the 51st Composite Defense Battalion, Montford Point Camp, New River, North Carolina. Following graduation, he joined the 155mm gun battery of the 51st Composite Defense Battalion and served with that unit as a gun commander.
In early 1943, he was assigned duty under instruction at drill instructors school, and upon completion of his course, was assigned duty as a drill instructor in March 1943. At that time, Montford Point Camp was the receiving point for all blacks entering the Marine Corps, and by November 1944, SgtMaj Huff had been assigned duty as field sergeant major of all recruit training at the Montford Point Camp.
Sergeant Major Gilbert H. “Hashmark” Johnson
Sergeant Major Johnson gave 32 years of his life to the military. His nickname, “Hashmark” referred to the markings on his sleeve that indicate his years of service. From the Montford Point Marines website, we learn more about Sergeant Major Johnson:
“In 1943, he was among the first black men to be trained as Marine drill instructors. He also served as field sergeant in charge of all recruit training at Montford Point. As a member of the 52nd Defense Battalion on Guam in World War II, “Hashmark” asked that Black Marines be assigned to combat patrols from which they were currently exempt. Once approved, he personally led 25 combat patrols.
Johnson later served in Korea with the 1st Shore Party Battalion, then later with 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, and finally as administrative advisor at the Headquarters of the Korean Marine Corps. Asked if he had experienced any problems as a senior black NCO serving in predominantly white units, Johnson characteristically said “I didn’t encounter any difficulty. I accepted each individual for what he was and apparently they accepted me for what I was.”
Johnson went on to become one of the first black sergeants major in the Marine Corps. Sergeant Major Johnson transferred to the Fleet Marine Force Reserve in 1957 and retired in 1959.
On 19 April 1974, the Montford Point facility at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, was dedicated as Camp Gilbert H. Johnson, Montford Point, Camp Lejeune, in honor of this outstanding Marine.”
The Marines of Montford Point left a legacy of African-American achievement that produced some of the bravest, most proficient, and most successful Black military men and women of the 20th century. These minds include:
Lieutenant General Frank E. Petersen Jr – First Black Marine General and Aviator
Following the legacy of the Montford Point Marines, Lieutenant General Frank E. Petersen Jr served as a United States Marine Corps officer from 1952 to 1988. On February 23, 1979, he was promoted to Brigadier General becoming the first African-American General. During his career, he flew more than 350 combat missions with over 4,000 hours in various fighter/attack aircraft. He received his bachelor’s degree in 1967 and his master’s degree in 1973, both from George Washington University, Washington, D.C., and earned an honorary Doctor of Law degree granted by Virginia Union University.
Petersen retired from the Marine Corps in 1988 after 38 years of service. “At the time of his retirement he was by date of aviator designation the senior ranking aviator in the U.S. Marine Corps and the United States Navy with respective titles of “Silver Hawk” and “Gray Eagle”.
Private First Class Oscar Palmer Austin – Marine Corps Medal of Honor Winner
During the Vietnam War, many Americans were drafted to fight in some of the most horrific combat conditions in the history of warfare. Private First Class Oscar Palmer Austin, however, volunteered. His bravery, ferocious fighting spirit, and love of his fellow Marine led him to achieve feats of bravery that few of us could ever live up to.
During the early morning hours on February 23, 1969, Private First Class Austin’s observation post came under a fierce ground attack by a large North Vietnamese Army. The Vietnamese rained down hell on Private Austin and his unit using hand grenades, explosions, and small arms fire. Observing that one of his wounded companions had fallen unconscious in a position dangerously exposed to hostile fire, Austin unhesitatingly left the security of his fighting hole and, with complete disregard for his own safety, raced across the fire swept terrain to drag the Marine to safety.
As he neared his companion, he observed an enemy grenade land nearby. Leaping between the grenade and the injured Marine, Austin took the full force of the explosion himself. Although he was badly injured, Austin turned to help his fallen companion and saw a North Vietnamese soldier aiming a weapon at the unconscious man. With full knowledge of the probable consequences, Austin threw himself between the injured Marine and the hostile soldier. In doing so, he was mortally wounded. Because of his dedication to his fellow Marines, he was awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest military decoration awarded by the United States.
David Dinkins – First and Only Black Mayor of New York
David Dinkins joined the United States Marine Corps in 1945, but would be discharged after racial quotas were filled (the Marine Corps restricted how many Black men could join). Once discharged, he graduated magna cum laude from Howard University with a degree in mathematics. As an investor, Dinkins was one of fifty African-Americans who helped prominent black American political and business leader Percy Sutton found Inner City Broadcasting Corporation – one of the first broadcasting companies wholly owned by African-Americans.
Dinkins would later become one of New York’s most successful Mayors. A 2009 report in The New York Times looking back at the Dinkins administration noted his achievements, which include:
- Significant accomplishments in lowering New York City’s crime rate and increasing the size of the New York Police Department, and the hiring of Raymond W. Kelly as police commissioner;
- The cleanup and revitalization of Times Square, including persuading the Walt Disney Corporation to rehabilitate an old 42nd Street theater;
- Major commitment to rehabilitation of dilapidated housing in northern Harlem, the South Bronx and Brooklyn despite significant budget constraints-—more housing rehabilitated in a single term than Mr. Giuliani did in two terms;
- The USTA lease, which in its final form Mayor Michael Bloomberg called “the only good athletic sports stadium deal, not just in New York but in the country”;
- Mental-health facility initiatives; and
- Policies and actions that decreased the size of the city’s homeless shelter population to its lowest point in 20 years.
Sergeant Major Alford McMichael – First Black Commandant of the Marine Corps
The very embodiment of discipline, Sergeant Major McMichael served in the United States Marine Corps from 1970 to 2006. During his term of service, he was a USMC Drill Instructor, A Battalion Drill Master (a position given only to Marines that are the most familiar with Drill and Ceremony), served as an Embassy Guard, and was Director of the Staff Noncommissioned Officers Academy where he was responsible for the training and development of senior enlisted Marines.
In each of these positions, Sergeant Major McMichael was not only a teacher of discipline, but an example – waking up and being completely prepared before any of his peers, spending long hours in disciplined study, and maintaining the same strict standards for himself that he required of his Marines.
During Sergeant MajorMcMichael’s time as the highest ranking enlisted Marine, the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP) was created, the War on Terror was commenced, and he later went on to become the Senior Non-Commissioned Officer for Allied Command Operations. After his military career, he wrote LEADERSHIP: Achieving Life-Changing Success From Within and settled into a semi active retirement. All this was accomplished by a man who came from dirt poor Hot Springs, Arkansas.
His accomplishments are a testament to what doing things in a disciplined manner, day after day and year after year can result in.
Sergeant Jeanette L. Winters – First Marine Female Killed in Action
On January 09, 2002, Sergeant Jeanette Winters became the first African-American woman to lose her life in the War on Terror, Afghanistan Campaign. To those who knew Sergeant Winters, there is little doubt that she died a hero. “She was one in a million,” said First Lieutenant Jeni Froehlich, 31, Winters’s platoon leader at the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego. In 1997 she followed her brother into the Marine Corps. “She had seen me in my uniform,” says Matthew Jr., who signed up in 1992,” and had seen the prestige that comes with that..”
Winters was an outstanding Marine. After re-enlisting for a second tour of duty at Cherry Point, North Carolina, Sergeant Winters transferred to Marine Wing Communications Squadron at Marine Corps Air Base Miramar in San Diego.”She always wanted to take care of people,” said her Commanding Officer Captain Steven Pacheco. When two younger radio men were ordered to Afghanistan at the beginning of the war, “she worked nonstop for a day and a half to train them,” said Lieutenant Froehlich. “I don’t think she slept.”
She didnt sleep. I know, because I was one of those two Marines.
Before going overseas, Sergeant Winters last act was to send Christmas gifts to her family, among them a coat,gloves and a hat for a 2-year old niece she had never met and a guitar for her father, once a professional musician. “The guitar means the world to me,” said Matthew Sr. He finds some comfort in the knowledge that “she loved what she was doing. She served her country.”
After her death, The Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association Educational Foundation established a $2,000 annual scholarship in her memory. The scholarship is awarded to students in the fields of electrical, chemical, systems or aerospace engineering; electronics; mathematics; physics; science or mathematics education; technology management; management information systems; or computer science.
In 2011 – 70 years later – Congress unanimously passed a resolution awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to the Montford Point Marines.
“I never expected that America would, quote, ‘evolve’ this way,” said Riley Ford, 81, of Bloomfield Hills, who also trained at Montford Point before going to Korea. “I never expected America would evolve to this point in my lifetime.”
These men should be honored, celebrated, and remembered for the example that they set for the rest of us. These are true warriors – living legends. The average age of surviving Montford Point Marines is 81, so the next time you see an old Black man wearing a Marine Corps emblem, take some time to talk to him. You could be in the presence of a Montford Point Marine.