Marine opens the book on Montford Point February 24,2004 CYNDI BROWN DAILY NEWS STAFF
The gates to Montford Point may have shut in 1949, but the closing did not mark the segregated training camp's final chapter - that's been left to Dr. Herman Willie Smalls Rhett.
Rhett has collected memories from 215 original Montford Point Marines in the commemorative book "Final Roll Call," which will be unveiled at the Montford Point Marine Association's National Convention in July. The purpose of the booklet is to help promote national recognition of the Montford Point Marines and to provide a directory of still-living Montford Pointers. When he sent the call out, his main intent was the latter.
"What I really wanted to do was collect names, see who was still out there. All of a sudden, it exceeded my expectations," said Rhett, 76 and a "Montford Pointer."
The response, he added, "was overwhelming. I was able to muster up 215 Montford Point Marines.
"Two individuals sent me a package that thick," said Rhett as he held his thumb and forefinger about two inches apart. "It all started so innocently."
Rhett attended the 2002 MPMA National Convention in Atlanta, where he shared a poem he had written about Montford Point. The response led him to propose the booklet, and Rhett started spreading the word that he was looking to hear from those first black Marines.
"My wife said they'd never report in," said Rhett. "I said, 'Yes they will. They're Marines.'"
In addition to the 215 original Montford Pointers that he heard from, Rhett had 35 families send bios on their Montford Pointer plus about 300 photos and documents that he used to fill the "Final Roll Call" pages. He said he still has Marines and their families reporting in to him, even though the book has headed to its printer, International Graphics.
When the book is published, Rhett plans to return the original photos and documents to their owners, but send copies, as well as copies of his research materials, to both the Marine Corps Heritage Center and the Montford Point Marines Museum, which he recently visited.
Rhett and his wife of 52 years, Mary, were in Jacksonville last week from their home in Laurel, Md. Rhett was the guest speaker at New River Air Station's Black History Month Luncheon, and the couple used the time to take in the Montford Point Marines Museum, located aboard Camp Johnson, originally Montford Point.
Museum Director Finney Greggs was on hand to welcome the Rhetts. He said he was looking forward to the impending donation, which Greggs expected would include pictures, biographies and statements from original Montford Pointers.
"I think that's some of the materials we'll have. Basically, all the research data," said Greggs. "(The donation) will mean that researchers, educators and persons interested in the history of Montford Point Marines can sit down and take a look Â… from beginning to end. I think that's significant to the citizens of not just Onslow County, not just North Carolina, but the whole country. This is the only place in the world where the whole story is going to be told.
"It has a degree of nostalgia that I think people want to associate themselves with that era, to know what happened here and how they fit in," he added. "It's the history of a group of Marines that just happened to be African-American. I want people to understand that."
Rhett thinks his book will help.
"Not everyone will get to see the museum. What I wanted to do is bring the museum to the public," said Rhett, who could name only two books that tell the Montford Point story: "Blacks in the Marine Corps" and "The Right to Fight."
"My intention of the book," said Rhett, "is to draw attention to us Montford Pointers, let the world know we were there."
First, however, the world needs to know there was even a "there."
"Do you know the average person I stop on the street and ask about Montford Point Marines, they look at me like I have a hole in my head?" asked Rhett, who said those who have heard of the first black Marines mistakenly believe they served only as cooks and bakers.
"That's not true. We have Montford Pointers throughout the Marine Corps," said Rhett. "Montford Pointers were all over the place."
Like admin, where Rhett served as the first black Marine administrative clerk, even though he really wanted to be an electrician - and a soldier.
Rhett took the Army's exam for electronics in 1948 but was told the results would take a while.
He didn't want to wait.
"I was somewhat impatient," he remembered.
Rhett went to the post office where the Navy and Marine recruiters were, and he took the Navy's electronics exam. He was told he had failed, but there were openings for cooks and stewards. That's when he noticed the recruiting poster and the Marine in his dress blues.
"I signed up on the spot," said Rhett.
A day later, he received his passing score on the Army exam and an invitation to become a soldier. He later found out those who completed the Army electronics class were promoted to 2nd lieutenants.
"But I made PFC," laughed Rhett, who separated in 1959 as a master gunnery sergeant from the service - but not before being part of Platoon 18, the last platoon to go through Montford Point. ("I'm among the babies of the Montford Pointers," he said.)
Rhetts, for one, was glad to see the end of Montford Point and its segregated training.
"Yes, most definitely," said Rhett. "We're all Marines."