The Montford Point Marines
By DAVID F. WINKLER
The first major battle in the Civil War, the First Battle of Bull Run, included a Marine battalion of 12 officers and 336 enlisted men in the federal ranks. As with
their Army brethren, the Marines, most of whom were
recently recruited, did not fare well on July 21, 1861.
Forty-four Marines were left dead, wounded or captured
on the battlefield. None of the Marines who fought 150
years ago at Manassas, Va., were African Americans.
Eventually, with the Emancipation Proclamation,
the northern objective moved beyond reunification to
the end of the institution of slavery. However, though
the eventual outcome of the war would lead to this
lofty goal, barriers remained in place and others would
be built to deny equality among the races.
In the case of the Marines, congressional regulations
passed in 1798 specifically forbade “Blacks” or
“Indians” from enlisting. Not hamstrung by such regulations, the Army and Navy filled their ranks with tens
of thousands of black and Indian Soldiers and Sailors
during the Civil War.
On the eve of World War II, the Marines still refused
to enlist blacks. At a Navy General Board meeting con-
vened in April 1941 to discuss expansion of the Corps,
the commandant, Maj. Gen. Thomas Holcomb, said: “If it
were a question of having a Marine Corps of 5,000 whites
or 250,000 Negroes, I would rather have the whites.”
However, responding to demands made by
Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters President A.
Philip Randolph and other African-American leaders
that the government and the growing defense industry
cease job discrimination against blacks, President
Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 on
June 25, 1941, that had a consequence of forcing the
Marines to enlist African-Americans. With America at
war following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the recruit-
ment of black Marines began on June 1, 1942.
Gilbert “Hashmark” Johnson and Edgar R. Huff
would be among the first to enlist. They were sent to
“Camp Montford Point” at Jacksonville, N.C., where
prefabricated barracks and other structures were being
built to house 2,000 blacks who were recruited to form
the 51st Defense Battalion.
Initially, the drill instructors were white. Black
recruits had their service papers stamped “Colored” and
could not travel to nearby Camp Lejeune unless accompanied by a white Marine. But the insistence on racially
segregated units in a way proved beneficial to Johnson,
Huff and six others who were quickly promoted to
become drill instructors, and in April 1943 took over
the reins of the eight platoons then in training.
By that time, the nation’s manpower procurement policies had changed and the Marines were now receiving
thousands of black draftees. In addition to creating an
additional Defense Battalion to provide defenses for captured Pacific islands, blacks would be assigned to stevedore and ammunition-handling companies and go ashore
on D-Days at Saipan, Tinian, Guam, Peleliu, Iwo Jima and
Okinawa to provide critical logistical support.
Reading reports of the 3d Marine Ammunition
Company at Saipan, new Marine Corps Commandant Lt.
Gen. Alexander Vandegrift observed: “The Negro Marines
are no longer on trial. They are Marines, period.”
In all, 19,168 African-Americans would see service
with the Marines during the war.
On Nov. 10, 1945, one of Montford Point’s graduates,
Frederick C. Branch, earned a commission as a second
lieutenant and would serve during the Korean War. Huff,
on the other hand, would remain a noncommissioned
officer and rise to become the first black to attain the rank
of sergeant major, fighting both in Korea and Vietnam.
Following President Harry S. Truman’s Executive Order
9981 that ordered an end to segregation in the military,
Camp Montford Point closed and black recruits were sent
to Parris Island, S.C., or San Diego for basic training.
Montford Point still exists. Renamed in 1974 as
Camp Gilbert H. Johnson, the facility hosts Marine
Corps Combat Service Support Schools as part of the
Camp Lejeune complex. In 1965, a reunion of approximately 400 Montford Point graduates led to the formation of the Montford Point Marine Association,
which presently has 36 chapters dedicated to preserving the legacy of the first black Marines.
On July 7, Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., introduced a
resolution proposing to grant the Congressional Gold
Medal to the Montford Point Marines. ■
Source: Bernard C. Nalty, The Right To Fight: African-American
Marines in World War II, History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1995.
Dr. David F. Winkler is a historian with the Naval Historical