Newsletters & Information > Remembering the Montford Point Marines
Remembering the Montford Point Marines

Feb 21, 2005

By JOHN McCAA / WFAA-TV

They were no doubt excited that night in June 1942 when
they heard the commandant of Camp LeJeune was coming to
speak to them.

The men of the Montford Point camp in North Carolina had
been training hard to become America's first black Marines.


They trained separately because in those days, half a year
after Pearl Harbor, the military, like much of the country,
was still segregated.

The United States Marine Corps, for all intents and
purposes, had no blacks until Montford Point. (Blacks did
serve as Marines during the American Revolution, but their
presence had disappeared.)

By June 1942, Pearl Harbor had been attacked – so had Guam,
Midway and Wake Island, Hong Kong and a host of others
places with American interests.

Still the word from the Corps was that yes, Uncle Sam
wanted a few good men – but not black men.

Only threats of civil rights protests and agitation from
Eleanor Roosevelt had pushed Franklin Roosevelt to sign
Executive Order 8802 outlawing such discrimination. But it
takes more than paper and pen in hand, even a presidential
hand, to truly change things on this scale.

That would take a few truly good men.

There would be black Marines, but they would stay in
separate units, on their separate base.

The only way they could even get to Camp LeJeune was with a
white Marine.

Those were the rules.

Still, Gen. Henry L. Larsen was coming to Montford Point
that night and looked forward to it. He could relay to them
first hand his harrowing accounts of the war in the
Pacific. He had commanded troops there.

Gen. Larsen's reputation as a man of action preceded him:
In France, he served with the first U.S. military convoy in
World War I. He was a part of every Marine Corps battle on
French soil – Belleau Wood, Meuse-Argonne – you name it,
Henry Larsen had been there.

And during this war, after Pearl Harbor and a stint as head
of wartime expansion for the Corps, Franklin Roosevelt sent
him to American Samoa to reinforce the American brigade
there and serve as military governor.

Gen. Larsen had seen fighting up close, and the Montford
Point Marines hoped he would bring with him news of their
coming contribution.

The young recruits probably began to perspire as they
waited.

Summer had not arrived and June in North Carolina can be a
warm month, with highs averaging in the mid-80s. This being
a 1940s-era Marine Corps camp, and a black one at that,
there's little likelihood the recruits sat in
air-conditioned comfort.

And yet there must have been an electricity in the air that
night as the assembled men awaited Gen. Larsen's arrival.

Gilbert Johnson was one of them. By the time he showed up
for recruit training in Montford Point camp, he'd already
served six years in the Army and spent time in the Naval
Reserve as a mess attendant at military installations
around Texas.

All that service gave him three diagonal stripes, or hash
marks, on his uniform indicating he had successfully
completed three previous enlistments.

The other men would come to call him "Hashmark" Johnson and
he would become a legend among the Montford Point Marines.

Edgar R. Huff was also there that night. He became the
first African-American promoted to the rank of sergeant
major.

A Gadsden, Ala., native, Huff had experienced second-class
treatment all his life, and like others in his recruit
class (the 51st Composite Defense Battalion), he believed
their graduation would open new doors to African-Americans.


In remembering the general's visit that night, Edgar Huff
told the Philadelphia Inquirer magazine in 1995 that when
Henry Larsen got there, he was confronted by a sea of eager
black faces.

Huff said Gen. Larsen started by telling the recruits, "I
just came back from Guadalcanal."

He went on to tell them, "I've been fighting through the
jungles. Fighting day and night. But I didn't realize there
was a war going on until I came back to the United States."


At first, the recruits were probably a bit confused. North
Carolina was a long way away from the front and they wanted
desperately to get to the fighting – any fighting. What
"war" could the general be talking about?

Gen. Larsen pressed on, "And especially tonight, when I
returned from overseas and found women Marines at Camp
LeJeune and you people here at Montford Point wearing our
globe and anchor, I realized that a grave state of war
existed."

The insulted recruits, Huff says, shouted Larsen down.

Not all the whites they came across in the Marine Corps
treated the Montford Point Marines that way.

They spoke highly of their camp commander, Col. Samuel
Woods Jr., and many of the drill instructors.

But such comments, coming from their commander's commander,
might have been enough to dissuade some people from
continuing in recruit training. It did not.

The men in that room that night, and the thousands who
would follow them through recruit training at Montford
Point Camp, would prove more than worthy to wear the globe
and anchor.

By the time he retired from the Marine Corps in 1972, Sgt.
Maj. Huff's personal decorations included three Purple
Hearts, two Bronze Stars (with Combat "V," for direct
participation in combat operations), the Navy Commendation
Medal, a Navy achievement medal and Combat Action Ribbon.

Gilbert Johnson would also become a sergeant major,
spending another 17 years in the Marine Corps in a career
so distinguished that the Montford Point camp now bears his
name: Camp Gilbert Johnson.

• http://www.lejeune.usmc.mil/mccsss/about.htm

The United States Marine Corps, like the country, is a very
different place today – not perfect, but different.

Despite the risk of death in combat and insult and
mistreatment at home, each of the Montford Point Marines
persevered in a goal to open a closed branch of the
military to African-Americans.

Most people today know nothing of these men and their
story. Even fewer have heard about that one night at
Montford Point camp when a "hero" came calling.

If Gen. Larsen's intention (he is now buried in Arlington
National Cemetery) was to inspire the recruits and
encourage others to follow, he was successful. Every day,
new African-Americans enter the Marine Corps.

There are those who simply want to forget that night and
nights like it – to forget those words, and words like
them.

That would be a mistake.

While we cannot judge Gen. Larsen by our times, we can use
him as a benchmark to determine progress.

And we can remember the Montford Point Marines who heard
his words and proved by their success that even generals
can make terrible mistakes.

 JAMES E STEWART JR PRESIDENT

JOHN TILLMAN VICE PRESIDENT

Historical advisor Byron Stewart PhD

 

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