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'Determined to integrate': Montford Point men pioneered equality in Corps

By Cpl. Derrick A. Small | | April 15, 2005

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(Photo by Cpl. Jared Padula)

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(Photo by Staff Sgt. Jeff Janowiec)

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MARINE CORPS RECRUIT DEPOT SAN DIEGO, Calif. (Feb. 25, 2005) -- June 25, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 establishing the fair employment practice that began to erase discrimination in the Armed Forces.

The Army's Buffalo Soldiers, the Air Force's Tuskegee Airmen and the Navy's Golden Thirteen, though rarely mentioned, all mark a pivotal point in United States' military history when African Americans were first permitted to enter the Armed Services.

Unlike the other services, which are often talked about with the exception of the Golden Thirteen, the Montford Point Marines are almost forgotten, according to Hosea Nathaniel, a regional vice president with the Montford Point Marines Association Inc. and a member of the MPMA's Los Angeles Chapter.

"A hotel was honoring some of the first black people to serve in the military, but there was only mention of the Buffalo Soldiers and the Tuskegee Airmen, and that's because people don't know who we are," Nathaniel said.

The Montford Point Marines visited the depot Feb. 11 to discuss ways to educate service members of their existence, thus helping to improve membership in the MPMA and also to take part in Company M's graduation ceremony.

Approximately 20,000 Marines were trained at Montford Point Camp, New River, N.C., - now Camp Johnson - during World War II between 1942 and 1949. The opportunity for blacks to serve came after President Roosevelt established a presidential directive giving African Americans an opportunity to be recruited into the Marine Corps in 1942.

Even service members that joined just a few years after that time frame are unaware that Montford Point Camp was a boot camp for black Marines, Nathaniel added.

"I was at the airport talking to a retired Marine and after finding out that he went to (Marine Corps Recruit Depot) Parris Island (S.C.) just a couple years after (blacks) were integrated with Caucasians into the Marine Corps; I told him I went to boot camp in Montford Point Camp, and he told me that there were only two places Marines came from, Parris Island and San Diego."

The MPMA was established as a non-profit veterans' organization and was chartered in Pennsylvania, in 1966.

According to retired Sgt. Maj. Augustus Willis, public affairs officer and member of the MPMA's San Diego chapter, the main purpose of the organization is to maintain the legacy of these Marines.

"Although nationwide there are about 1,000 members in the association, a lot of the current members of the MPMA are from the Montford Point era, so they're up in age," Willis said. "The only way we preserve their memory is through membership and education."

Montford Point Marines have a history deeply covered by a period of time where there was no racial equality and where segregation almost tore a free country apart, according to retired 1st Sgt. Person Barnett, member of the MPMA.

"The hardest part about being in the military was that we couldn't go certain places and eat, but we stuck around because we were determined to integrate the Marine Corps," Barnett said. "One of my most fondest memories was when we reported into boot camp. We were picked up at the gate in a dump truck and driven to the admin building, where the driver hit the dump handle and drill instructors watched us roll to the ground."

Through it all, Barnett said, "I never regretted joining because some of my best friendships came from the Marine Corps, even after we integrated."

The Montford Point Marines Association was not created to continuously open old wounds, but to move through the future without leaving behind their history, which although is black, is primarily Marine Corps, Willis said.

Their creed adds, by saying they are here, "to promote and preserve the strong bonds of friendship born from shared adversities and to devote ourselves to the furtherance of these accomplishments to ensure more peaceful times."

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