Heroic ‘Montford Pointers,’ the First Black Marine Unit, Honored in North Carolina

Montford Pointers with a rare 90mm M1A1 anti-aircraft gun in background. (James LaPorta)
Montford Pointers with a rare 90mm M1A1 anti-aircraft gun in background. (James LaPorta)

“If it were a question on having a Marine Corps of 5,000 Whites or 250,000 Negroes, I would rather have the Whites.”

So said the U.S. Marine Corps’ 17th commandant, Gen. Thomas Holcomb, in May 1941 and then again in January 1942, one month after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

There would be “a definite loss of efficiency in the Marine Corps if we have to take Negroes.”

At the time, Holcomb and many senior officers at Headquarters Marine Corps stood in strong opposition to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 executive order that established the Fair Employment Practices Commission, which opened the door to “full participation in the defense program by all persons regardless of color, race, creed or national origin.” Additionally, the order directed, “all departments of the government, including the Armed Forces,” to “lead the way in erasing discrimination over color or race.”

The Marine Corps would eventually succumb to political pressure from the White House and finally adhere to Roosevelt’s demands to start enlisting African Americans in June 1942.

For the first time since the Revolutionary War, the Marine Corps would put out a call to enlist 900 African American recruits between the ages of 19 and 29. Upon entering the military, “Colored” would be stamped upon their service record book and their enlistment contract, according to the History and Museums Division of the Marine Corps.

The Marine Corps would keep them segregated and establish a training base at Montford Point in North Carolina, today named Camp Johnson, after Marine Sgt. Maj. Gilbert “Hashmark” Johnson, so named for having more service stripes than rank stripes.

They would come to be known as the Montford Point Marines. Camp Johnson remains the only military base named after an African American.

Former Sgt. Leroy Pittman, 85, still remembers when he arrived at Montford Point in 1948 after dropping out of high school in Hartford, Conn. “It was tough. We had to build our own huts to live in. We spent weeks chopping down trees and dodging rattlesnakes. It wasn’t a joke.” Pittman said they were not allowed to ride in cars or go into town to eat. Harassment or arrest without cause was frequent from the Jacksonville Police Department, with locals threatening the black Marines to “not cross the railroad tracks in Jacksonville.”

Some 45 of the original “Montford Pointers” came together Friday for the unveiling of the first phase of the National Montford Point Marine Memorial in a ceremony at Lejeune Memorial Gardens, located just outside Marine Corps base Camp Lejeune.

The men sat in silence on the hot concrete, beneath barbershop-striped tents to shield them from the blistering Carolina sun, among the Chinese Pistache trees and 20,000 gold stars — each symbolizing a brother-in-arms.

The plastic water bottles went quickly as sweat seeped through the wool, cotton and polyester suits, dresses and military uniforms.

The men had traveled from all across the country, undeterred by age, faltering health and, for some, the inability to move under their own strength. But still, they came — just as they did seven decades ago.

At a time when the United States seems to be divided along racial, political and religious lines, these men of valor, once looked upon with disdain and hatred — found themselves being honored by four-star generals, officials from all levels of government and ordinary citizens gathered together to remember the sacrifices of the first African Americans admitted to a still-segregated Marine Corps during World War II.

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SOURCE: James LaPorta 
The Washington Post