Honored Montford Point Marines recall breaking racial barriers
Stars and Stripes
WASHINGTON — The racism and segregation only made them work harder.
It was 1942, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt had given an order allowing African-American men to join the Marine Corps.
However, instead of sending these first black Marines to traditional boot camps, they were sent to a newly-established segregated camp — known as Montford Point — at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
Their camp, which first consisted of dilapidated, Depression-era huts, was on the other side of the railroad tracks. Montford Point Marines weren’t allowed to enter the main base unless a white Marine was with them.
And then in 1943, Joseph Ginyard recalled a white general showing up and telling the Marines: “I never thought I’d see you people in my uniform. I didn’t think it was that bad.”
To Ginyard, who at age 87 was among 430 Montford Marines awarded the Congressional Gold Medal this week in Washington D.C., the general’s dismissiveness became a challenge.
“They would rather have 15 white Marines ... than 25 black Marines,” said Ginyard, who fought in World War II and the Korean War before leaving the service as a sergeant in 1952. “That just made us buckle up, move faster.”
From 1942 to 1949, about 20,000 black recruits went through training at Montford Point. The Marine Corps initially wanted to discharge the black Marines after WWII so the corps could once again be all-white.
But the Montford Marines proved themselves invaluable and just as capable, fighting alongside their white counterparts in the bloodiest battles of the Pacific, including Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Saipan, Guam, Tinian and Peleliu.
There were so few of them that they were deployed in companies of 100, and in other companies there were only two or three blacks.
Still, they paved the way for modern-day black Marines in the service, even though the Montford Marines aren’t as famous as their counterparts in the Air Force, the Tuskegee Airmen.
“Young black Marines today, they’ve never even heard of Montford Point,” said Yoder Faulkner, 81, who was a rocket gunner during the Korean War. “It’s part of their heritage. It’s history they ought to know about.”
Awarding the Montford Marines the Congressional Gold Medal — the highest civilian honor — is a step toward putting them on the map and shows the strides that have been made since Roosevelt issued the order, said Augustus A. Johnson, 86.
“I never thought I’d be around to see a black general, a black president. It boggles my mind,” said Johnson, who traveled from Philadelphia to receive the medal. “If you had said there’s a three-star black general, I’d have said, ‘What are you drinking?’”
It took 70 years for the Montford Marines to get their due, but Johnson was just happy that they got it at all.
“I can’t get hung up on something that took so long to happen,” Johnson said after a presentation ceremony Thursday at Marine Barracks Washington. “I’m glad it happened.”
Still, the joys of finally getting honored this week also highlighted the absence of those who died in war or didn’t live long enough to see recognition, Ginyard said.
“Many have gone on without realizing what they have contributed to the United States of America,” Ginyard said. “To me, that’s the sadness of it.”