The Montford Point Marines were the first African Americans to serve in the Marine Corps during a time when segregation was the norm. From 1942 to 1949, more than 20,000 black men underwent training at the segregated Montford Point Camp in Jacksonville, North Carolina.
Despite facing discrimination and prejudice within the Marine Corps, these Marines played a pivotal role in the desegregation of the Armed Forces. In this blog post, we explore the legacy of the Montford Point Marines and their contributions to American history.
The History of Montford Point Marines
In April 1941, during a meeting of the General Board of the Navy — a body roughly comparable to the War Department General Staff — the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Major General Thomas Holcomb, declared that blacks had no place in the organization he headed. “If it were a question of having a Marine Corps of 5,000 whites or 250,000 Negroes,” he said, “I would rather have the whites.”
The Montford Point Camp was established in 1942 as a segregated training facility for African American Marines. Before the establishment of Montford Point, African Americans were barred from serving in the Marine Corps as were Native Americans and other minorities. Franklin D. Roosevelt's creation of the Fair Employment Practices Commission in 1941 mandated that the Marine Corps, despite objections from its leadership, recruit African American Marines in 1942.
The Montford Point Marines received a rigorous boot camp experience and extensive training under all-white officer leaders. In 1943, black noncommissioned officers replaced the original white drill instructors who according to historians pushed the recruits harder than had their white predecessors. The first combat unit formed at Montford Point was the 51st Defense Battalion and it was organized in 1943.
The Role of Montford Point Marines in World War II
Despite the obstacles they faced, the Montford Point Marines played a crucial role in the success of Allied forces during World War II. They served in various campaigns throughout the Pacific Theater, including Saipan, Guam, and Iwo Jima. More than 13,000 of the 20,000 trained at Montford Point served in overseas areas including Japan and Guadalcanal during WWII and later in Vietnam.
Members of the 51st and 52nd Defense Battalions were never placed in combat, but members of both ammunition and depot companies saw action in some of the Pacific campaign’s bloodiest battles, including Saipan, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa.
Despite the segregation and racism they experienced Montford Point Marines exhibited remarkable bravery and determination on the battlefield. Their actions helped to break down the barriers of segregation in the Marine Corps.
The Legacy of the Montford Point Marines
The legacy of the Montford Point Marines extends beyond their military service. After World War II, the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum. The bravery and determination of the Montford Point Marines helped to pave the way for future civil rights activists to fight for equal rights and opportunities.
In 2012, the Montford Point Marines were collectively awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award in the United States. This recognition was long overdue for the sacrifices and contributions these Marines made to American history.
Remembering the Montford Point Marines
It is important to remember the contributions of the Montford Point Marines and honor their legacy. There are several ways to do this, including visiting the Montford Point Marine Museum in Jacksonville, North Carolina, which tells the story of these brave men through historical exhibits and artifacts. Another way to honor the Montford Point Marines is to support organizations that provide scholarships and other assistance to the families of these veterans. Additionally, sharing their story with future generations ensures that their legacy lives on.
Lessons Learned from the Montford Point Marines
The Montford Point Marines overcame immense barriers of racism and segregation to serve their country, and their legacy continues to inspire and educate on the importance of resilience in our Armed Forces. Their example serves as a reminder that even in the face of adversity, courage and determination, can lead to triumph. We must continue to honor their contributions and remember their sacrifices to ensure that their legacy is never forgotten.
The Montford Point Marine program wasn’t the first time African American servicemembers were called into service. Partway through the War of 1812, demand for servicemembers increased, and the Navy had to work around a ban it had in place on the recruitment of African Americans.
During the American Revolution and the Civil War, slave owners sent slaves to serve for them. In the Civil War more than 180,000 African Americans served, some of whom were former slaves and fugitives who fled to the North and fought for the Union. And there are stories we now know to be true about all black units like the 54th Massachusetts Regiment who fought bravely during the Civil War.
The ramp-up to World War II demanded a dramatic increase in enlistment and more than 1 million African Americans served and of those 835,000 went to the Army, served in combat and eventually would be presented with some of the nation’s highest awards for gallantry in combat. Many African American men served in the U.S. Navy where the Navy allowed them to serve as stewards or messmen. One of them, Doris Miller, would earn the Navy Cross at Pearl Harbor.
The Montford Point Marines represent a pivotal moment in American history and the fight for civil rights. Their legacy has inspired and will continue to inspire future generations of service members and civilians alike.
Remembering their contributions and honoring their bravery is essential in ensuring that their legacy lives on and that the Marine Corps strives to tell a complete story of the Marine Corps. The Marine Corps has a duty to keep the memory of the Montford Point Marines alive and continue the progress they helped to start.
The Montford Point Marine Training Facility was shut down in 1949 after President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981 which desegregated the U.S. Armed Forces.