4 Montford Point Marines honored posthumously at Jacksonville ceremony
By MIKE MCHUGH | The Daily News, Jacksonville, N.C. | Published: August 24, 2017
JACKSONVILLE, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — They volunteered to become Marines 75 years ago to fight a common enemy, yet entered a Corps and community divided by segregation and rife with inequalities.
Thursday morning the community and Corps came together as one to honor their legacy and determination during a 45-minute ceremony on ground dedicated in their honor.
Three living Montford Point Marines and the families of four, along hundreds of spectators, paid tribute to the more than 20,000 African-American Marines who entered service in 1942 and trained aboard Camp Lejeune on land called Montford Point.
In recognition of the 75th Anniversary of the first “Montford Pointers,” Thursday’s gathering was used to present Congressional Gold Medals posthumously to family members of four Montford Point Marines: Gunnery Sgt. Leroy Lee Sr., Sgt. Virgil W. Johnson, Cpl. Joseph Orthello Johnson and Pfc. John Thomas Robinson.
Robinson’s son, John Robinson who traveled from his home in Tennessee to attend Thursday’s service, was overcome with emotion when he accepted on behalf of his father a Congressional Gold Medal and plaque by Brig. Gen. Julian Alford, commanding general of Marine Corps Installations East and Marine Corps base Camp Lejeune.
“He never talked about his service,” Robinson said about his father who left home in Michigan and arrived at Montford Point during World War II, where he would fight in Saipan. “He would always say, ‘I crossed the international dateline,’’ Robinson said with a chuckle.
After the war, Robinson returned to Michigan where he raised a family and worked as a welder and a musician.
The Montford Point Marines, “found courage and determination and grit to overcome inequalities. Because of their determination and all that they went through, we all now are able to serve freely,” Alford said speaking near a granite and bronze statue which portrays a Montford Point Marine scaling a hill with a bayonet affixed to his rifle.
Three Montford Point Marines sat in the front row: Norman Preston, 95, accompanied by his daughter Christine Allen Preston; John L. Spencer, 89, from Jacksonville; and 89-year-old F.M. Hooper, of Wilmington.
Hooper enlisted in 1948 and said the division in Jacksonville was evident.
“We’d walk three miles from base to downtown. My shoes were spit shine like mirrors,” the Brooklyn-raised Marine said. “We passed establishments but weren’t permitted to go inside because we were black. I remember walking across the railroad tracks and the streets were dirt and my shoes were no longer shiny.”
Onslow County Commissioner Chairman Jack Bright spoke from the dais about the legacy of the late Turner Blount, a Montford Point Marine and later an elected official in Jacksonville.
“He was always upbeat and ready for controversy as a councilman. Turner was a pillar of our community,” Bright said before recognizing Blount’s family seated in the gallery then leading the gathering into a moment of silence. Blount died on July 21 at the age of 92.
Because the Marine Corps was segregated at the outbreak of World War ll, African-American recruits entering the Marine Corps in 1942 endured boot camp at Montford Point aboard Camp Lejeune rather than Parris Island, S.C. After training, the Montford Point Marines were assigned to the Pacific Theater to function in support roles. The Montford Point Marines quickly proved themselves to be as capable as their Caucasian counterparts wearing the same uniform and soon found themselves on the frontlines spilling their blood and defeating the enemy during fierce combat.
In July 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order No. 9981, negating segregation and in Sept. 1949, Montford Marine Camp was deactivated.
In April 1974, the camp was renamed Camp Johnson in honor of the late Sgt. Maj. Gilbert Hubert “Hashmark” Johnson, who served in the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy and as a Montford Point Marine.
“You are truly part of our greatest generation,” Col. David P. Grant, commanding officer of Marine Corps combat service support schools, Camp Johnson and the ceremony’s keynote speaker, said. “They simply wanted to serve their country during the war and they wanted to do it as Marines.”
Mike McHugh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.