MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. - -- Prior to World War II, the Marine Corps’ policy concerning African-Americans was one of zero tolerance. According to a set of rules approved by the Secretary of War in 1798, no Negro, Mulatto or Indian men were allowed to enlist. But with the proclamation of Executive Order 8802 on June 25, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt effectively opened the door for blacks to serve in any branch of the U.S. military.
“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,” reads Executive Order 8802.
Even though the Marine Corps was being forced to open its ranks to African-Americans, nothing in the order specifically prohibited the practice of segregation within the services. This is where Montford Point Camp originated.
Chosen most likely for its remote location, the original Montford Point Camp site was an area of about 5.5-square miles of rugged terrain. It was surrounded by thick pine forests, which were inhabited by bears, snakes, mosquitoes and a variety of other critters. An initial $750,000 was allotted to construct and enlarge temporary barracks and supporting facilities. For the black recruits, this was their Parris Island.
Recruiting officially began June 1, 1942. The initial quota set forth by the Commandant of the Marine Corps was a total of 900 men, between the ages of 17 and 29, who met the existing standards for enlistment.
“Guys from all walks of life answered the call to become a Marine,” said Finney Greggs, the director of the Montford Point Museum on Camp Johnson. “Some were in college, some worked as day laborers and some were in other branches of the service. But when the opportunity presented itself, they gave it all up to do something that had never been done before, to make history.”
The first black recruits to arrive at Montford Point Aug. 26, 1942, were met by a group of drill instructors who had been specially chosen for their firm demeanor and high level of military bearing.
Sgt. Maj. Gilbert “Hashmark” Johnson, a former Montford Point recruit, recalls some of his earliest impressions of the men who transformed him into a Marine.
“They set about from the very beginning to get us thoroughly indoctrinated into the habits, the thinking and the actions of the Marine Corps,” said Johnson. “Discipline seemed to be their lone stock in trade, and they applied it with a vengeance, very much to our later benefit.”
The majority of those who managed to make it through the grueling eight weeks of basic training were assigned to the 51st Composite Defense Battalion on Montford Point. The unit contained seacoast artillery, anti-aircraft artillery, infantry and tanks. Originally commanded by Col. Samuel A. Woods Jr., its purpose was to defend overseas bases.
Voluntary enlistments in the Armed Forces were discontinued Dec. 5, 1942, for all men ages 18 through 37. Beginning January 1943, all men in this age group would be inducted into the services through the Selective Service System.
At its present size, Montford Point was designed for a maximum of 1,200 men, one defense battalion and its training base. Needless to say, with a large influx of draftees on the way, the camp was due for some serious expansion and reorganization.
Among other changes, new recruit companies were organized, a Stewards’ Branch Battalion was created and a motor transportation company was added to the camp headquarters battalion. But the most noticeable difference was on the drill field. By the end of April 1943, almost all of the white drill instructors had left. Therefore, for the first time in the history of the Marine Corps, black sergeants and corporals took over as senior drill instructors of recruit platoons.
“From what I’ve been told by the guys who were there,” said Greggs, “it was hell; tougher than anything you could imagine. But if they wanted to be one of the few, they had to be better and do more than their [white] counterparts.”
Following World War II, the rapid demobilization of the Marine Corps led to a decrease in the overall requirement for troops, both black and white. By 1947, there were only about 1,500 blacks left on active duty. Ironically, this cutback in manpower played a big role in the end of segregation in the Marine Corps.
In a memorandum issued to commanders Nov. 18, 1949, the Marine Corps established a new policy regarding black Marines.
“Individual negro Marines will be assigned in accordance with MOS vacancies in any unit where their services can be effectively utilized,” according to the memorandum.
This has often been referred to as the official beginning of integration in the Marine Corps.
With the number of black Marines so small, it became uneconomical in the postwar period to continue separate training facilities at Montford Point. In the spring of 1949, recruit training was switched to Parris Island and on Sept. 9, 1949, Headquarters Company, Montford Point Camp, was deactivated. The remaining Marines were, for the most part, transferred to other Camp Lejeune units.
“That was a sad day. It was a black day. A black mark as far as I’m concerned,” said Sgt. Maj. Edgar R. Huff, one of the first black drill instructors. “Myself, and to my knowledge the majority of black Marines … we wanted to stay together, we had our own camp, we had our own resources, and we were taken care of, holding our own we called it at that time. I didn’t care to go anyplace, and I was sorry to see it happen.”
The first black Marines to wear the Eagle, Globe and Anchor were trained at Montford Point Camp. From the day it opened in 1942 until its closure in 1949, more than 20,000 African-Americans received training there.