Montford Point Marines fought a two-front war: the enemy abroad, prejudice at home

In celebrating Black History Month throughout February, CalVet will share several stories about African American service members and veterans. To begin the month-long recognition, we first pay tribute to the Montford Point Marines.

Montford Point Marines, 1942.

A small number of African Americans served in the Marines from 1776 until they were banned from the Corps in 1792. That ban ended in 1942, when the Montford Point Marines were formed. They were among the more than 1.2 million African Americans who served during World War II, and they fought in every theater.

The famed Tuskegee Airman became the first African American aviators in the Army Air Corps during World War II, and have been immortalized in books, movies, and documentaries. The Montford Point Marines have not enjoyed the same level of attention.

It took extensive pressure from civil rights leaders and the needs of the nation to compel President Franklin D. Roosevelt to sign Executive Order 8802 in 1941. The order prohibited racial discrimination in the defense industry or government, and forced the Marine Corps to integrate, even over the objections of its commandant, Major General Thomas Holcomb.

However, while FDR’s executive order forced the integration of the armed forces, it didn’t prohibit segregation within the military branches.

These new Marine recruits built their own training camp in North Carolina at Montford Point. The camp was located on the other side of the railroad tracks from Camp LeJeune, where white Marines trained.

A Montford Point Marine could not go into Camp LeJeune unless he was accompanied by a white Marine. They once had to fight white Marines who tried to stop them from leaving their Montford Point camp to go on leave.

Early on, all of the Montford Point drill instructors were white. By 1943, African American Marines took their places but were denied opportunities to move up through the ranks.

While African Americans could become officers in the U.S. Army, the first African American Marine officer wasn’t commissioned until November 1945 – three months after the Japanese surrendered to end World War II.

Ultimately, 20,000 African Americans trained at Montford Point between 1942 and 1949, with 12 thousand serving overseas in World War II, and some fighting bravely and valiantly through the Vietnam War.

One, Sergeant Major Louis Roundtree, earned Silver Stars in both the Korean and Vietnam wars.

Other Montford Point Marines have been recognized by their home towns. A few have had streets or buildings named in their honor, and a building at Marine headquarters in Quantico, Virginia, is named for Frederick C. Branch, the first African American Marine officer.

The camp at Montford Point was decommissioned in 1949, after President Truman signed the order to desegregate the U.S. military.

Despite their heroics, these Marines are still relatively unknown as a group. The government never kept records detailing those Marines who trained at Montford Point, and has been playing catch-up ever since.

For more than a decade, the Montford Point Marines Association and the U.S. government have continued to look for those Marines who served. In 2011, Public Law 112-59 awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to all Montford Point Marines. Of the 20,000 Marines, fewer than 2,000 have been identified and presented their medals.

Montford Point Marines stand for the national anthem during an evening parade in Washington, D.C., June 16, 2017. Photo from the Department of Defense.

The most recent, 94-year-old Joseph Alexander of Hayward, just received his medal in August 2019. Some others have gone posthumously to family members.

These Marines have earned their due place in American history. Their story tells about the bravery and valor of Americans who fought a two-front war: the enemy abroad and racial prejudice at home.

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