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MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. - Montford Point Marine Sgt. Maj. Gilbert "Hashmark" Johnson became one of the first African-Americans trained as a drill instructor in 1943. Two years later, he became sergeant major of the company.

Photo by Official Marine Corps Photo

Sgt. Maj. Johnson - Just a 'Hashmark' above the rest

17 Feb 2006 | Lance Cpl. Adam Johnston Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune

Deciding to join the military is like deciding to attend college; you’ve got options. In the Army, you can become an Army of one. In the Navy, you can learn how to accelerate your life. And in the Marine Corps, you become one of the few to earn the right to wear the Eagle, Globe and Anchor. But rather than weighing his options and choosing just one, Sgt. Maj. Gilbert “Hashmark” Johnson concluded that the best way to determine which branch of the service was for him was by trying all three of them. And that’s exactly what he did.

Sergeant Maj. Gilbert “Hashmark” Johnson was one of the first African-Americans to enlist in the Marine Corps after the signing of Executive Order 8802 by then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt on June 25, 1941.

I do hereby reaffirm the policy of the United States that there shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government because of race, creed, color or national origin, Roosevelt wrote in Executive Order 8802.

Born in rural Mount Hebron, Ala., in 1905, Johnson was the oldest of four children. After graduating high school, he decided to remain in-state and attended Stillman College in Tuscaloosa from 1920 to 1922. Then, at the young age of 16, he volunteered for the all-black 25th U.S. Infantry Regiment, U.S. Army, at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., in October 1923.

Six years later, Johnson was discharged from the Army and spent his next four years as a civilian working in California as a real estate agent. Then, in 1933, he decided to re-join the armed forces and volunteered for service in the Navy. Because of his race, however, he was restricted to the steward’s branch, performing menial jobs such as mess attendant. During his tour, he served in the Pacific Fleet aboard the USS Wyoming when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941.

But when he found out about Executive Order 8802, he immediately requested to be discharged from the Navy and transferred to the Marine Corps. At the age of 37, he volunteered for service and reported to Montford Point Nov. 14, 1942. In the Navy, he was an officer steward first class, equivalent to a Marine Corps gunnery sergeant. To become a Marine, Johnson had to enter the Corps as a private, losing both rank and pay.

The first African-Americans to wear the Marine Corps uniform received their training at Camp Lejeune’s Montford Point. The segregation policies of the Navy during these years required African-American Marines to live and train separately from their white counterparts. Approximately 22,000 African-American Marines received their training here from 1942 to 1949.

“Like Johnson, many of the African-Americans who joined the Corps were already fairly successful in their civilian or military careers,” said Finney Greggs, the director of the Montford Point Museum on Camp Johnson. “He was willing to do whatever it took to become a member of this elite organization.” 

From the moment he graduated until the day he retired, Johnson was known as simply “Hashmark”. Unlike his fellow Marines, he was the only black boot with more service stripes than actual rank stripes.

During his first year as a Marine, Johnson was promoted a total of four times. In February 1943, he was promoted to private first class. In April, he was promoted to corporal. In July, he was promoted to sergeant and was designated as field sergeant in charge of all recruit training at Montford Point. In August, he was promoted to staff sergeant.

It was also in 1943 that Johnson became one of the first African-Americans to be trained as a Marine Corps drill instructor. Reminiscing about his days as a DI, Johnson described himself as somewhat of an “ogre” on the field.

“I was a stern instructor,” he said, “but I was fair. Ultimately, my goal was to produce in a few weeks, and at most a few months, a type of Marine fully qualified in every aspect to wear that much cherished Globe and Anchor.”

Throughout the rest of his Marine Corps career, Johnson served his country in every clime and place.

In January 1945, Johnson became sergeant major of the Montford Point Camp. Also in June of that same year, he joined the 52nd Defense Battalion as its sSergeant major. While serving in Guam with the battalion during World War II, he found black Marines were being assigned to labor details rather than combat patrols, from which they were currently exempt. Once he got the commanding officer to reverse the decision, he personally led 25 separate excursions into the jungle.

During the Korean War, Johnson first served with 2nd battalion, 1st Marine Regiment. He was later assigned as an administrative advisor to Headquarters of the Korean Marine Corps.

His final tour of duty was from 1955 to 1957 as the company first sergeant of Headquarters and Service Company, 3rd Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, in Japan. He retired in 1959 after a total of 32 years served in the U.S. military, 17 of those years as a Marine.

Sergeant Maj. Gilbert “Hashmark” Johnson died of a heart attack at the age of 67 in August 1972 while speaking at a Montford Point Marine Association luncheon.

“The objective was to qualify you with loyalty, with a devotion to duty and with determination equal to all: transcended by none…,” said Johnson in his final speech. “I had a job to do – I brainwashed you. But I remembered something you did. You measured up …”

Two years later, the Marine Corps paid tribute to his accomplishments by naming the Montford Point Facility in his honor. To this day, Camp Johnson remains the only Marine Corps installation named in honor of an African American.