MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. --
On Aug. 26, 1942, Howard P. Perry stepped onto the grounds of Montford Point Camp and became the first African-American to enlist in the United States Marine Corps.
From 1942 to 1949, approximately 20,000 more African-American Marines would endure racism and oppression in a segregated military service branch for a chance to train at Montford Point Camp and defend their country in the midst of World War II.
Montford Point Camp was renamed Camp Johnson in 1974, in honor of retired Sgt. Maj. Gilbert “Hashmark” Johnson, the first black man to attain the rank of sergeant major.
Camp Johnson was, therefore, the location where 20 original Montford Point Marines gathered with service members, families, Department of Defense civilians and other members of the Montford Point Marine Association, Inc., to formally recognize the 68th anniversary of the day the first African-American recruits started training on Montford Point.
Senate Resolution 587, which was co-authored by Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina and Senator Roland Burris of Illinois, designated this day – Aug. 26, 2010 – as Montford Point Marines Day.
“Whereas the African-American volunteers who enlisted in the United States Marine Corps during World War II, joined the United States Marine Corps to demonstrate their commitment to the United States, despite the practice of segregation, served the United States in the most honorable fashion, defied unwarranted stereotypes and achieved distinction through brave and honorable service,” cited the Senate resolution.
Chief Warrant Officer 4 James T. Averhart Jr., the national president of the MPMA, said the MPMA wanted to preserve the legacy of the Montford Point Marines by honoring the past and celebrating the future.
“Let me begin by telling you it is an honor for me to be here this morning to celebrate this historical occasion, paying tribute to these African-American heroes,” said Averhart. “We dedicate this program with the purpose of honoring these men of distinction sitting before us and all who trained here at Montford Point. They are true pioneers, for they have paved the way and walked these hallowed grounds at Montford Point Camp and persevered during a time of racial divide in a society that didn’t want them. They had to fight for the right to fight.”
Averhart added that preserving the legacy started with senior leaders such as Gen. James T. Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, and Sgt. Maj. Carlton Kent, sergeant major of the Marine Corps, who were present at the ceremony.
Conway explained it was extremely difficult for African-Americans to become Marines in the 1940s due to the objections and prejudices by their own senior leaders. In spite of this, Conway described the determination, patriotism and unwavering loyalty these Montford Point Marines felt toward their country.
“Black Marines were not allowed to be in front-line combat units; rather, they were relegated to combat service support duties,” said Conway. “The inference was that they could not fight as well as white troops or worse yet, that they could not be trusted to hold their ground in the face of a determined enemy. And yet they trained here.”
Conway continued, “To many black Marines in the ranks, it made little sense, and they were told they were fighting to end oppression in the Asia Pacific by the Japanese, at a time when (the blacks) were oppressed by their fellow Americans in their own hometowns and cities. And yet they went forward from here. They did all this because they were Americans. Because their country, right or wrong, was still their country, and it had been attacked by the Japanese. They trained because their sense of dignity, their manhood and their families told them it was the right thing to do. They went forward, I think, because they felt their service and their sacrifice would somehow, someday, force the issue and start to bring about fairness and equality in the ranks.”
Conway added that while the Marine Corps is comprised of a diverse group of people, he also feels the Corps is much more unified today.
Kent echoed Conway’s sentiments and said the Montford Point Marines made it possible for diversity to appear at all levels of leadership.
“I am indebted to you because I would not be standing here as the 16th sergeant major of the Marine Corps if you hadn’t paved the way for Marines like me, so thank you,” expressed Kent.
Kent added that the service and contributions of the Montford Point Marines also instilled a deeply-rooted sentiment of loyalty and selflessness within Marines today.
Kent recalled the story of a Marine squad leader, deployed to Afghanistan, who died trying to save an Afghan policeman during a river crossing.
“That Marine didn’t even know that Afghan policeman,” said Kent. “That Marine did not even speak the same language. That Marine just knew he had to do the right thing for that individual. And the Montford Point Marines paved the way for that young corporal because he was in combat, leading a squad, and he did the right thing. (They) paved the way, not only for black Marines, but for all Marines.”
To conclude the ceremony, members of the honorary party received an autographed portrait of Johnson, and Averhart accepted a copy of the Senate resolution, which was soon to be displayed at the Montford Point Museum aboard Camp Johnson.
A reception followed the ceremony where attendees had the opportunity to meet the Montford Point Marines like James R. Carter and Ambassador Theodore R. Britton Jr., as well as other members of the MPMA.
Carter enlisted in the Marine Corps April 1, 1943 and trained aboard Montford Point Camp before being stationed in Hawaii. His dream was to be a Marine and to make it possible for others to have the same chance.
“We were not allowed to fight,” explained Carter. “My legacy is that I had to fight to get into the Marine Corps because I was turned down, and then when they tried to draft me, I refused to go into any other branch of service except the Marine Corps.”
Before Carter got out of the Marine Corps in 1946 as a sergeant major, he spent his career helping his Marines learn to read and write while still strongly advocating civil rights for the African-American Marines.
“I didn’t like my status of being segregated,” explained Carter. “I thought more of us should be trained to be fighters. I protested, I wrote letters, I did all kinds of things to advocate better treatment among the unit. When the war was over, I got out (of the Marine Corps) to better myself and took advantage of the GI bill and went to college and paid for more education. I’m still a member of the (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and all the advocacy groups out there fighting for equality.”
Carter added it was an honor to come back to his old stomping grounds and reunite with his brothers from years ago.
Britton, the honorary consul general, Republic of Albania, enlisted in the Marine Corps Jan. 14, 1944 and later served in Guadalcanal from August 1944 through April 1945. Another strong advocate for desegregation, Britton said he was glad to be at the ceremony and noticed the senior leadership’s proactive attitude toward equal opportunity.
“This was very meaningful because my feelings about the Marine Corps were somewhat ambivalent,” said Britton. “From the days of segregation, not being allowed to be on the war front, to today – in which the commandant of the Marine Corps himself takes note, and with the sergeant major of the Marine Corps taking note – it’s very meaningful.”
Kent reiterated with complete confidence that the Montford Point Marines’ tireless efforts, sacrifices and deep devotion to duty would continue to shape the Marine Corps and the country for years to come.
“Our former president, Ronald Reagan, said ‘Some people go through their entire lives wondering if they made a difference in the world, but Marines do not have that problem,’” said Kent. “And I’d like to take that a step (further) today for the Montford Point Marines. You do not have that problem because you have made a difference in our Corps and in our nation.”
For more information about the Montford Point Marine Association, visit the website montfordpointmarines.com.