Montford Marines, the 1st black Marines, to get highest civilian honor
By MICHAEL FUTCH | The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. | Published: June 24, 2012
Few people know their story.
Unlike the Army's Triple Nickels and the Army Air Corps' Tuskegee Airmen, the history of the groundbreakers who went through Montford Point has been largely overlooked.
Fayetteville's James Robert Simpson was among the roughly 20,000 Marines who lived it, training on a small, swampy peninsula jutting into the New River on the North Carolina coast. The World War II veteran, the eldest son of a farming couple from rural Cumberland County, was a "Point man" - one of the first blacks to serve in the Marine Corps.
"I'm proud of that," Simpson said. "To be a part of history, for sure."
At 88 and in poor health, he plans to fly to Washington this week to attend two ceremonies paying tribute to the fighting men known as the Montford Point Marines. These veterans will receive the nation's highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal.
About 400 of the estimated 420 living Montford Point veterans are expected to attend. In addition to Simpson, five men from Fayetteville are expected to make the trip: Robert Burns Sr., Cosmas Eaglin Sr., Linwood Haith, David Montgomery and Joseph Stinchcomb, said Capt. Kendra Motz, a spokeswoman for the Marine Corps.
"It's most of them, which is awesome," Motz said.
Simpson said he will go to Washington, where he and his fellow Marines will receive a bronze replica of the medal, with mixed feelings.
His wife, Lillie, died May 24 at age 83. The couple had been married 66 years. She was a strong and caring woman, a retired nurse who had worked for more than three decades at Womack Army Medical Center on Fort Bragg.
Hampered by diabetes and on dialysis, she had remained strong in faith.
"My family, after God, is my life," he said. "If her health had sustained, I was going to have her there with me."
Lillie Simpson had urged her husband to go.
She knew the importance of the long-overdue national recognition.
She, too, had played a role in the changing face of this country. In the 1960s, the nursing school at what is now Fayetteville Technical Community College denied her admission because of her race. She wrote to Gov. Terry Sanford to protest the discrimination that she and a few other African-American women faced.
Sanford overturned the school's decision. And Lillie Simpson became one of the first black graduates of the school's nursing program.
From 1942 through 1949, the Marines at Montford Point endured and prevailed over harsh racist treatment, both in the military and the outside civilian worlds.
"They paved the way for all the other African-Americans coming into the Marine Corps. They made the sacrifice," said Louise Greggs, who with her husband operates the Montford Point Marine Museum at Camp Johnson in Jacksonville. "They thought nothing of it. They had no way of knowing they were making history. They just wanted to be Marines."
The Montford Point Marines reflect a painful chapter in the 236-year history of a military institution that remains predominantly white. In April 1941, Maj. Gen. Thomas Holcomb, the commandant of the Marine Corps, declared: "If it were a question of having a Marine Corps of 5,000 whites or 250,000 Negroes, I would rather have the whites."
But this original generation of black Leathernecks proved in combat that they were just as tough and equally adept as any other hard-nosed combatant.
Simpson recalls that basic training at Montford Point Camp could be cruel. He reported for duty in June 1944.
"You can't forget it," he said, the only time this old Marine raised his voice when talking about his memories. "It was rough. That was the roughest I had ever seen as far as life was concerned. The training was rough."
Yet he looks back with pride at his place in the integration of the Marines, the last military branch to accept blacks.
As he put it so simply, "It means the world to me."
In late 2011, members of the U.S. House and Senate gave their approval - by unanimous vote - to recognize the original Montford Point Marines.
On Nov. 23, President Obama signed a bill to award them a specially designed Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of their personal sacrifice and service to their country.
After becoming the commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James Amos spearheaded the effort to change the oversight. He spent well over a year lobbying Congress to acknowledge the Montford Pointers by granting them the civilian medal. In 2006, the Tuskegee pilots had received the honor.
"Basically, it was a heavy push from Gen. Amos to raise awareness, not only among the American people in general, but also among the Marines in the Marine Corps," Motz said. "He thought the current Marines and the ones coming in should be aware of the history these Marines brought to the Marine Corps."
"We are totally thrilled," said Greggs of the museum in Jacksonville. "This is something that these men totally deserve, and they have been waiting for this for over 60 years. These men are true patriots. That's all they wanted to do was serve their country and be recognized when they came home, but were not. We are sorry it came so late. So many of them have passed away. So many are 88 and 90 years old. We've lost a lot of them."
During the Civil War, the Army and Navy both enlisted blacks in separate units. But integration of all the services did not come until after 1948, the year that segregation no longer was the official policy of the U.S. government.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt's creation of the Fair Employment Practices Commission in 1941 forced the Marine Corps, despite objections from its leadership, to begin recruiting blacks.
But even with the new policy in place, no mixing of the races was allowed.
African-Americans from all states were not sent to the traditional boot camps in Parris Island, S.C., and San Diego. Instead, the recruits were segregated for basic training at Camp Montford Point outside Camp Lejeune. It was a remote, 1,600-acre tract surrounded by thick pine forests, inhabited by snakes and bears and swarming with mosquitoes.
"The African-Americans during those days - well, the Army had already accepted African-Americans and there were some in the Navy, as well," Greggs said. "These guys knew America loves Marines. They wanted to be accepted by white society. A lot of them were professional men who left their families. They made sacrifices. They felt if they were in the Marine Corps, they would be accepted.
"Not only that," she added with a laugh, "they loved the dress blue uniform."
Today, about 10 percent - or, 19,778 - of the 196,093 active-duty Marines are black. Amos has made diversifying the branch a priority and has ordered commanders to be aggressive in recommending qualified black Marines for officer positions.
"Our push for diversity in the Marine Corps is not just singular to African-Americans, but to all cultures and races," said Motz, the Marines spokeswoman.
James Robert Simpson was among seven men picked for the Marines from a group of 386 recruits fresh out of high school. Before that, he had thought about becoming a pilot.
"I didn't know anything about the Marines," he said at his Rosehill Road home.
Born in Fayetteville, Simpson grew up in the community of Savannah, about five miles from the Cedar Creek crossroads. When the U.S. went to war, he was living at home and helping his father, Edmond Fisher, and his mother, Cora, on the corn, tobacco and cotton farm.
In 1943, Simpson was drafted after graduating from Armstrong High School in Eastover.
"We was called up by the draft," he said, "and required to report."
He was assigned to Platoon 472 at Montford Point. The accommodations for blacks were inferior to those for white Marines stationed nearby. Instead of barracks, the men stayed in what some have described as cardboard huts. A single stove heated each of the overcrowded huts, which held up to 42 enlistees.
Some of the men could not take it physically, both the rugged living conditions in the heavily wooded swamplands and the grueling training. Farm life, Simpson said, had helped prepare him for the worst.
"They didn't want us to be part of the Marine Corps, and they tried to turn us off. They tried to put it beyond our reach," he recalled. "You see, being a young man like that and coming against something like that - you never thought you'd come against something like that. You could conclude that it couldn't be any rougher on the battlefield."
After boot camp, he received advanced training in California before serving in the South Pacific.
He was with the 6th Fleet aboard the USS Puget Sound between Hawaii and Japan when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. "We were heading to that area for an invasion of Japan," he said.
After World War II, thousands who trained at Montford Point made the Marine Corps a career. Many saw combat in Korea and Vietnam.
According to the Montford Point Marine Association, the initial intent of the Corps hierarchy was to discharge these men after the war, once again leaving the Marines an all-white service. Even after President Truman's 1948 order, historians say, the Marine Corps continued to resist desegregation.
Attitudes were changing, and blacks had proven themselves as the war had progressed. But it would not be until the Korean War that black Marines fought alongside whites.
Simpson returned to Montford Point, where he was discharged about 1946. He went into the insurance business and later became an ordained minister.
In 1974, Montford Point's name was changed to Camp Johnson in honor of Gilbert "Hashmark" Johnson. He was one of the first black sergeants major on the base, and as far as Greggs knows, it's the only Marine Corps installation bearing the name of an African-American.
"The saying is, 'Once a Marine, always a Marine,' " Simpson said. "That's how it was instilled in you the whole year we were there."
And like the other men who earned their stripes there, completing the rigid training on the cusp of an American society in transition, he remains a Montford Point Marine for life.