African American History: Montford Point Marines

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In honor of Black History Month, today we look at the Montford Point Marines of World War II (1939-1945). “Montford Point Marines” was the nickname given to the first African American units to serve in the United States Marine Corps. The troops trained at Montford Point Camp in Jacksonville, North Carolina, from 1942 to 1949. Montford Point was a racially segregated facility within a larger Marine base, Camp Lejeune. Segregation is the separation of groups of people by custom, by law, or by executive order. More than 12,000 Montford Point Marines served overseas during World War II.

A few black volunteers served in the newly established Marines during the American Revolution (1775-1783). After that, however, the Marines did not accept African Americans. In June 1941, Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, the Fair Employment Act. The act barred “discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government because of race, creed, color, or national origin.” In the summer of 1942, the Marines became the last branch of the U.S. military to accept African Americans.

^U.S. Marines take a well-earned break on the sands of Iwo Jima in March 1945. The battle cost the lives of nearly 7,000 Marines. Credit: National Archives

Black recruits first entered Montford Point Camp in August 1942, nine months after the United States entered World War II. The Marine Corps did not allow the camp’s new members to serve in front-line infantry units. Instead, they served in defense, maintenance, supply, and transport battalions. These roles did not exclude the Montford Pointers from danger, however. Like other Marines, they joined assaults on a number of Japanese-held islands in the Pacific Ocean. They saw action in such bloody campaigns as Saipan, Peleliu, Iwo Jima (now Iwo To), and Okinawa. Thirteen Montford Point Marines were killed in combat during the war.

In July 1948, President Harry S. Truman, also a Democrat, signed Executive Order 9981, requiring the desegregation of the military. Montford Point Camp closed in September 1949, after having produced some 20,000 U.S. Marines. The Marine Corps became fully integrated during the Korean War (1950-1953).

In 1974, Montford Point was renamed Camp Gilbert H. Johnson. Gilbert Johnson, a World War II combat veteran, was one of the camp’s first black drill instructors. Today, Camp Johnson is home to the Marine Corps Combat Service Support School. There, Marines are trained in administration, supply, support, and other duties. The Montford Point Marines Museum opened at Camp Johnson in 2001.

In November 2011, the Montford Point Marines received the Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of “their personal sacrifice and service to their country.” The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest civilian decoration awarded by the U.S. government.

The origins of Black History Month began in 1926 as an annual observance of the achievements and culture of African Americans. February was chosen to honor the birthdays of Frederick Douglass (the 14th) and Abraham Lincoln ( the 12th).

Top image: U.S. Marines take cover on the beach during the 1944 Battle of Peleliu, one of the bloodiest battles in Marine Corps history. Credit: National Archives

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