New River Marines and sailors learn about the past
By Thomas Brennan | The Daily News, Jacksonville, N.C. | Published: February 14, 2014
JACKSONVILLE, N.C. — “Words motivate but actions inspire.”
That’s the message retired Marine Col. Grover C. Lewis III he wanted to make clear to today’s Marines. Lewis, speaking during a Montford Point Marine Association presentation aboard Marine Corps Air Station New River on Thursday, said for too long the history of the Montford Pointers has gone untold, but their story of honor, courage and commitment to their Corps must be told and must be built upon.
During the presentation members of the Montford Point Marines Association discussed a variety of topics including World War II battles the Montford Pointers were involved in, how they have been recognized with the Congressional Gold Medal and by having a U.S. Navy vessel named after them and how Camp Johnson is the only military installation named after a black service member (Gilbert “Hashmark” Johnson, one of the Marines’ first black sergeants major). In wrapping up, the association presented the schematics for the proposed Montford Point Marines Memorial, which will be constructed at Lejeune Memorial Gardens.
The groundbreaking actions of the Montford Point Marines in integrating the Corps more than 70 years ago are appreciated by today’s Marines, said Lance Corporal Anthony Williams, 24, of Paterson, N.J. and a aviation ordinance Marine with MALS-26. He said that the story of the original Montford Point Marines inspires him every day — not only that they survived but thrived in such austere conditions.
“We can’t sweep our history under the rug,” Williams said. “We need to cherish it and be knowledgeable about what has happened in our past. All (the Montford Pointers) wanted was to make their families proud, the same way I want to make my family proud every day when I get dressed.
“I couldn’t imagine going what they went through.”
After the presentation, Williams said he was walking away with a renewed sense of pride not only in the Marine Corps but also in his heritage as an African-American. According to Williams, the Montford Pointers laid the ground work that allowed him to serve.
“I feel as though the Montford Point Marines would be happy with how African-Americans are treated in the Marine Corps,” Williams said. “We have a very diverse Corps and everyone is treated the same. We all start in the same start and it’s not about the color of your skin. It’s about the quality of person you are and the quality of your performance.”
For Lisa Mechaley, a staff sergeant in the Marine Corps with more than 18 years in uniform, it was the first time she had ever heard of a Montford Point Marine. The struggles that these men went through from 1941 until 1949 were “unimaginable” and “wrong,” she said, and she felt bad not knowing that part of Marine Corps history.
“They showed how a group of people can overcome intolerance and how society views them in order to succeed and inspire people, and I think that is a great lesson for the Marines of today to know,” said Mechaley, 37, of Jacksonville. “It shows the Marines they can rise above adversity, which is important for younger Marines to know when they are dealing with their own forms of adversity.”
The story of Montford Point, the segregated training camp now known as Camp Johnson, is an important one, she said, More than 20,000 black Marines were trained and processed aboard the base. The Marines who were trained there, she said, have a different perspective of the Marine Corps and when looking at Marine Corps history, you should look at every side of the story.
“It absolutely makes me appreciate the Corps that I am serving in today,” she said. “It’s interesting to know that we as Marines are always learning stuff. It’s impressive and encouraging for me to continue to learn more things both while I’m in the Marine Corps and after.”
Whenever Lewis, who was the first black commanding officer of Camp Johnson, talks about the original Montford Point Marines, he feels a weight being laid on his shoulders, he said, because their service deserves the utmost respect and he hopes to tell their story and give it justice, doing right by all who served during that time.
The legacy of the Montford Point Marines set the ground work for Lewis to serve 30 years and attain the rank of colonel — something for which he will forever be grateful, he said.
“What makes their story worth knowing is that it’s part of Marine history, and we need to tell our entire history,” Lewis said. “It rounds out the entire story of Marine history; and it’s a left out piece of times passed, which makes it more important to talk about now.”
Sgt. Gilbert “Hashmark” Johnson, one of the first African-American drill instructors, leads a platoon in drill aboard Montford Point, now Marine Corps Base Camp Johnson, N.C., in 1942 Johnson served 17 of 32 years in the armed forces as a Marine when the Marine Corps opened to African-American enlistees.