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The Marines of Montford Point 

Remembering America's first black Marines, who trained in North Carolina

The Marines of Montford Point: America's First Black Marines
By Melton A. McLaurin
UNC Press, 202 pp.

click to enlarge Drill formation at Montford Point - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Nothing was easy for the first black Marines. All of the other service branches had allowed African Americans to serve in their ranks, except for the Marine Corps, America's oldest military branch.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order in 1941 that prevented government agencies from refusing to hire Americans based on race, creed or color. As a result of this order, recruitment actively began in 1942 for the first black Marines, as did construction on their new base at Montford Point, which was adjacent to Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C.

In 1949 after seven years of segregation, Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981 to end discrimination in the military, so black Marine recruits could finally join their fellow white soldiers at Parris Island and Camp Pendleton. But despite rampant segregation at every step in their early Marine careers, the 20,000 men of Montford Point distinguished themselves by serving their county in three wars and in laying the groundwork for the African-American Marines now serving in Iraq. Melton A. McLaurin, professor emeritus of history at UNC-Wilmington, captured the Montford Point veterans' stories and this book is the result of his 60 filmed interviews. The Marines at Montford Point also includes 36 photos of the men in training and offers a few rare photos of their combat experiences. Through their own words, we get the true picture of what life was like for these men who trained in the Jim Crow South, and we also get a gritty and harrowing account of their combat experiences, especially during the landing at Iwo Jima.

McLaurin provides a summary at the beginning of each chapter to give all readers, not just history aficionados, a transparent perspective of the times. For instance, we learn in the summary of the "Getting There" chapter that the men from the North rode in trains with whites, but when they reached Washington, D.C., they all were gathered into the same segregated car. From reading the men's stories, we can put a face on segregation, especially when we're told numerous times that they were forced to sit inside the coach closest to the diesel in largely unsanitary conditions. More segregation experiences are revealed when the men go on liberty.

James Ferguson describes a fellow soldier who was arrested for "impersonating" a Marine. He says, "Many people were not aware of the fact that there were black Marines, and people looked on black Marines as some type of hostility, such as, who are you? We didn't know that you were in our Marine Corps."

The men were restricted in all aspects of their lives from finding a sandwich when they arrived at Montford Point to finding a toilet when they had work detail at the all-white Camp Lejeune. George Taylor says, "Couldn't even get a hamburger in town, no place. It was horrible down there. You in a bus station, over that sort of chain across, you on this side, they're [whites] on that side. And they never cleaned the [black] bathroom." Perhaps even more telling is how Joseph Carpenter recounts his experiences with the Italian prisoners, which is echoed in other veterans' accounts: "[Prisoners of war had] definitely more privileges. They could go anywhere in town they wanted; we could only go to the black section."

Most of the Montford Point Marines wanted to see combat, but they were largely disappointed since most of the black Marines served in auxiliary units and had clean-up detail after the Pacific islands were secured by white Marines. However, men in the ammunition and depot companies saw combat during the amphibious landings on the beaches of Iwo Jima, Saipan, Pelelui and Okinawa. From these experiences, the Montford Point Marines earned the respect of their white counterparts, in spite of the general notion at the time that blacks weren't ready for combat. Even the fact that black Marines were present at the landing on Iwo Jima was suppressed. Steven Robinson comments on how the camera crews turned away when they saw black Marines. He further states, "We were fighting the war against the bigotry at home and fighting the war against the bigotry overseas. And we were fighting the war to liberate people who had more liberty than we had."

Many of the Montford Point men did witness the flag raising at Mount Suribachi. Archibald Mosely describes the moment best: "White boys couldn't have climbed that mountain if we black boys wasn't at the bottom giving them supplies and ammunition to be able to climb it." Mosely and many of his fellow soldiers remind readers that the fighting continued for another bloody 33 days.

More than a history book, The Marines at Montford Point is for readers interested in first-hand narratives, which are a rare treat, considering most of these men had to wait 60 years before McLaurin recorded their stories. However, I found some of the segregation and training narratives repetitive and wished McLaurin could have provided historical accounts of either what the press or the Marine brass had to say about the black Marines, in order to give these narratives a richer context. He could have also lengthened his summaries and shortened some of the stories that dealt with the same subject matter.

But absorbing all of these true stories made me appreciate everything the Montford Pointer Marines sacrificed during a time when black soldiers were fighting two wars. Reuben McNair knows the value of his contributions for today's African Americans when he states, "You don't have to take the abuse or sit on the back of the bus to go into Jacksonville. I've already gone through this, and you don't have to prove anything to anybody in the world."

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