Remembering the Montford Point Marines
We remember the brave Montford Point Marines who faced segregation in service for an opportunity to fight for our country during World War II.
Today, we honor the Montford Point Marines who were the first African Americans to serve in the United States Marine Corp. They overcame discrimination and segregation in service for an opportunity to fight for our country during World War II. Wilmington resident Norman Preston is a hero, and World War II veteran. At 91 years old, he is among our country’s first black Marines.
“I’ve had my good days, and I’ve had my bad days… But I don’t regret a bit of it.”
Preston was a private in his mid-20’s when he arrived at Montford Point in Jacksonville, North Carolina, a segregated training camp for African American Marines.
“An afro-american was trained and treated harder in the beginning than the average whites. Once you had an area to become in contact with white marines, you was always kept at a distance.”
Prior to 1941, African Americans weren’t allowed to enlist in the military. But as American involvement with World War II became a real possibility, there was a sudden need for jobs in the defense industry. Deputy Director of the National Montford Point Marine Museum Houston Shinal says President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a directive on June 25th, 1941 that that sought to erase discrimination in the Armed Forces.
“Executive Order 8802, what that did was it was actually called the Fair Employment Practice Commission, and what it did it barred discrimination and the hiring of government contractors because of race.”
Roosevelt’s executive order was the first Presidential decree issued on race since Reconstruction. The directive required the armed services to begin recruiting and enlisting African Americans, including the Marine Corps. In 1942, the first black Marines were sent to Camp Montford Point in Jacksonville where they trained separately and away from their white counterparts.
“The belief was by putting the base here in the South, the southern whites had a better understanding with dealing with the blacks and that they would be more apt to manage them then by putting the base in some other place.”
While white Marines were sent to traditional boot camps like Parris Island in South Carolina and San Diego, California, Montford Point was exclusively for African Americans. Shinal says many of the black Marines didn’t know they were heading to a segregated training facility.
“The Montford Point Marine Boot camp was supposed to be an experiment. And that experiment was intended to prove that Blacks could not serve as Marines. So consequently, in the effort to establish that, those Marines found themselves to prove that notion.”
During the early years of Montford Point, white drill instructors were in charge of training the young recruits. By 1945, all of the drill instructors at Montford Point were replaced with African American instructors that Shinal says were tougher and pushed them harder.
“In a conversation I had with Sgt. Major Huff, once when we was living, he said yes he was harder. Because he understood that a black Marine had to be three times as good as a white Marine to stay in the Corp. So they actually pushed them harder than the white drill instructors did.”
91 year old Norman Preston remembers the intense training. He says his African American drill instructor pushed him to his limits because he understood what they had to go through.
“He was very strict, hard, different. But he wasn’t unreasonably cruel in no way. He was very compassionate. But he was a different Marine. If you want to be the best, you got to be the best. You got to train hard and that was it. That’s the type of leader he was.”
While at Montford Point, Preston, who was a military police officer says railroad tracks divided white residents from the camp for African-American troops. He remembers he was forbidden to enter the main base of Camp Lejeune unless accompanied by a white Marine.
“Blacks weren’t even allowed at Camp Lejeune on main side. Period. That’s how they isolated us from the whites. I worked with the civilian police which was all white in downtown Jacksonville and when you go down there to report to them, and their philosophy is if you’re down here to protect. Stay away from these Marines so they won’t get contaminated with disease.”
The intense training at Montford Point prepared the African American marines for combat, where they were often involved in support roles such as supplying ammunitions to the frontlines.
“We have Montford Point Marines that were actually involved in the battles on Iwo Jima, Saipan, these are places where they actually saw combat action.”
Shinal says the attitude toward African American Marines on the battlefield was much different than in non-combat situations.
“There were white marines that were glad to say that the Montford Pointers were there because they showed up, they filled in gaps, they did those things that ultimately caused those battles to be won.”
Montford Point Marine Norman Preston never saw a combat situation. He was deployed overseas to Pearl Harbor to help with the troop drawdown in the South Pacific. He says he didn’t really experience segregation or discrimination there, but white marines did set him up for embarrassing situations.
“When we went downtown in Honolulu, we was treated nice but the first thing people would say, whether they were Hawaiian or Americans they would say “you guys look funny, where’s your tails at?” I said, what do you mean? Well, those white Marines told us you black Marines have long tails like bears, how do you hide them under your clothes? And after that, you know what? I didn’t go downtown but twice while I was down there.”
Between 1942 and 1949 when Camp Montford Point was deactivated, more than 20,000 African American Marines had been trained at the Jacksonville facility. Many of these men went on to further serve their communities.
“Locally, we had Montford Point Marines that stayed on like Mr. Turner Blunt. Turner G. Blunt who was a Montford Pointer here ended up serving on the city council here in Jacksonville.”
In 1974, Camp Montford Point was renamed Camp Johnson to honor Sgt. Maj. Gilbert "Hashmark" Johnson who one of the first African Americans to enlist and serve as a drill instructor in the Marine Corps. Now, Camp Johnson is home to the National Montford Point Muesum.
“We have in our possession a World War II 9mm anti-aircraft gun. This is the primary weapon that the 51st and 52nd defense battalion, which was the two battalions that were formed for the black marines that they trained on that weapon.”
Currently, the 9mm anti-aircraft gun is on display at the museum, but will be relocated to the Montford Point Memorial that’s being constructed at Camp Johnson’s front gate. The museum also includes a variety of photographs, documents, papers, and artifacts that preserve the legacy of the Montford Point Marines. However, no object or artifact can capture the courage, strength and dedication of the Montford Pointers except the men themselves. Many of the Marines have passed away, some of them are still here to share their stories of bravery in adversity. 91 year old Montford Pointer Norman Preston…..
“The legacy I want to leave with all Afro-Americans, look, if you’re a Marine, be a Marine. Be the best. Even if you’re on the base, off the base, where ever you are, you are a Marine. And be proud to be one of the greatest military organizations in the world, they are number one. Yeah.“
Preston was among 400 Montford Point Marines that were awarded the Congressional Gold Metal- which is the country’s highest civilian honor - in 2012. If you’d like to visit the National Montford Point Museum, it’s located in the East Wing of building M101 aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Johnson. The museum is open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11 to 2, and 4 to 7:00 pm. And on Saturday, it’s open from 11:00 am to 4:00 pm. For more information, visit montfordpointmarines.org. I’m Jared Brumbaugh.