The Men of Montford Point
The First Black Marines






ON JUNE 27, 2012 THE MONTFORD POINT MARINES WERE AWARDED THE CONGRESSIONAL MEDAL OF HONOR.


THE MONTFORD POINT MARINES - A CHOSEN FEW - ONE HELLUVA GROUP OF MEN

Last Updated September 11, 2012

The Golden Thirteen
 

 In Loving Memory of Brooks E. Gray

 A Step Back in Time - Montford Point Photo Album



SEMPER FI

ON JUNE 27, 2012 THE MONTFORD POINT MARINES WERE AWARDED THE CONGRESSIONAL GOLD MEDAL OF HONOR.






Today's generation of Marines serve in a fully integrated Corps where African-Americans constitute one-fifth of the strength of the Corps. African-American officers, non-commissioned officers, and privates are omnipresent, their service so normal a part of Marine life that it escapes special notice. The fact that this was not always so...that there was a time when there were no black Marines should not be overlooked. This site is dedicated to those awesome men of Montford Point - the first Black Marines. For me, this site is a continuation of my Tribute To My Father who reported to Montford Point on April 22, 1943 . A great tragedy lies in our lack of knowledge on this subject. I can't cover it all but I hope that I will at least provide enough history for you to want to seek more.   It is my fervent prayer that the Montford Point Story will be handed down to posterity.


LOYAL TO THE CORPS
As Marines, they fought the enemy, integrated the Armed Services and changed their country. On the land, on the sea, the Marines have led the way. At home the fight was within the Corps. But barriers fell because of A FEW GOOD MEN


It was 1941, months before Pearl Harbor. The United States was still unbloodied by the horror gripping Europe and the Pacific, but the times were tense. It was against this backdrop, at the urging of his wife, Eleanor, and threatened by civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph with a march on Washington, that on June 25th President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802. It established the Fair Employment Practice Commission, which prohibited racial discrimination by any government agency. With that stroke of his pen, FDR officially opened to blacks one of America's most celebrated all white bastions: THE UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS. The integration of the Marines marked the beginning of the end for officially sanctioned segregation in America, but the introduction of black Marines was so ridden with racism that at times it was difficult to say whether the Corps was more at war with itself or with the Japanese.


"These infamous barracks, called quonset huts and located at Montford Point, housed all black Marines that joined the Marine Corps in 1943."


Recruiting was to begin on June 1, 1942. Although the public announcement was not made until May 20th, the basic instructions were sent out in a letter from the Commandant on May 15th. This letter set a quota of 200 recruits each from Eastern and Central Divisions while the Southern was to furnish 500 of the initial 900 recruits. These men were to be citizens between 17 and 29 years of age, and they were to meet the existing standards for enlistment in the Corps. They were to be enlisted in Class III (c), Marine Corps Reserve, and assigned to inactive duty in a General Service Unit of their Reserve District. Both the service record book and the enlistment contract were to be stamped "COLORED".

On August 18, 1942, Headquarters and Service Battery of the 51st Composite Defense Battalion was activated at Montford Point. The first African-American recruit to arrive at the camp was Howard P. Perry of Charlotte, North Carolina. He arrived August 26th and was later joined by 119 other privates who began recruit training in September. Over the next two years, Montford Point would be the training site for the 51st and 52nd Defense Battalions. From July 1942 through the end of the war, 20,000 black men were trained at Montford Point and inducted into the Marine Corps. But in those days, integration was a relative term. Though black troops would train and be Marines, they would still be kept separate from the white troops at nearby Camp Lejeune. Unless accompanied by a white Marine, they were not allowed to set foot in Camp Lejeune. And after they were shipped off to battle zones, they served exclusively in all-black units.

During the first half of 1943, the first black non-commissioned officers were appointed at Montford Point. By the end of April, most of the white drill instructors had left, and were replaced by black sergeants and corporals. In late May, the recruit battalion's field sergeant major and the last white drill instructor, 1st Sgt. Robert W. Colwell, was transferred and replaced by Sgt. Gilbert "Hashmark" Johnson, who was given his nickname for all the service stripes he wore because of prior service in the Army's black 25th Infantry. Johnson also served as a Navy mess attendant and officer's steward before joining the Marine Corps. From the time Johnson took his post, black non-commissioned officers conducted all recruit training at Montford Point.

Edgar R. Huff, an early black Marine Corps Sergeant Major and the man who held that rank longer than any Marine on active duty, once described an encounter when General Henry L. Larsen, the commander of Camp Lejeune, first spoke to a group of Montford Point men. "I just came back from Guadalcanal," said the General as 150 dark faces stared at him. "I've been fighting through the jungles. Fighting day and night. But I didn't realize there was a war going on until I came back to the United States. There was excitement in the air because it was rare for a man of such rank to visit those new recruits. He was bringing news of the fight they were all so eager to join. "And especially tonight," Larsen continued. "When I returned from overseas and found women Marines at Camp Lejeune and
you people here at Montford Point wearing our Globe and Anchor, I realized that a grave state of war existed." The recruits were insulted and shouted General Larsen down. Though the South was rife with prejudice - "white" and "colored" designations being the norm - discrimination could be found anywhere in the country. Society at large was untouched by Executive Order 8802, and to most whites the idea of Negroes wearing the emblem of the Corps was repugnant. A black steward working in an exclusive Midwestern country club in 1942 overheard a member remark, "If what I saw today (black Marines) is an indication of how the war is going, America is in deep trouble."

~Copyright © Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine July 30, 1995~


Despite the insults and the scrutiny they faced, the black troops scored as well as their white counterpoints in combat training. Of the 19,168 African-Americans who served in the Marine Corps during World War II, 12,738, went overseas in the defense battalions or combat support companies or as stewards. Those who remained in the United States performed numerous duties: stewards in officers' messes at various headquarters; staff members at the Montford Point Camp or recruits in training there when the conflict ended; or service troops at supply depots at Philadelphia or Norfolk or the Naval Ammunition Depot at McAlester, Oklahoma.

While the African-American Marines in the United States braved loneliness and racial discrimination, those overseas might wait on distant islands for Japanese attacks that never came; manhandle heavy containers out of ships' holds; load all sort of supplies into landing craft; sort out the cargo on the beachhead, often under deadly fire; and move the desperately need material inland to the fighting units. Men in the defense battalions sometimes unloaded ships, whereas members of the combat support companies became infantrymen in an emergency, and stewards often doubled as stretcher bearers. Looking back at a succession of exhausting, dangerous, and at times boring assignments, one African-American Marine is quoted as saying, "If I had to do it all over again, I'd still be a black Marine. I think they made a man of me."

One thing is for certain, the post World War II Marine Corps could never return to the racial policy of 1940. African-Americans had won the fight for the right to serve; they were in the Marine Corps to stay. African-Americans continued to serve in serve in segregated units until the fall of 1949 when an executive order from President Harry S. Truman established a policy of full integration.

In the fall of 1949, the first African-American woman, Annie E. Graham of Detroit, Michigan, enlisted in the Marines.  On the following day, Ann E. Lamb joined at New York City.  The two women reported to Parris Island on September 10, 1949 and went through boot camp together with Platoon 5-A of the 3rd Recruit Training Battalion.  Both subsequently reported for duty at Headquarters Marine Corps.  The third African-American woman to join, Annie L. Grimes of Chicago, who was destined to become a chief warrant officer later in her career, joined and went to boot camp in February 1950.  From the beginning, the reception, training, and housing of African-American women Marines was completely integrated.


Edgar R. Huff enlisted in the Marine Corps in June 1942, and underwent training at the new Montford Point Camp.  He reported for duty at a time when the Montford Point operation desperately needed forceful and intelligent African Americans, with or without previous military experience, to take over from the white non-commissioned officers of the Special Enlisted Staff.  He attended drill instructor's course, served briefly as an assistant to two white drill instructors, took over a platoon of his own, and soon assumed responsibility for all the DIs at Montford Point.  He made Platoon Sergeant in September 1943, Gunnery Sergeant in November of that year, an din June 1944 became First Sergeant of a malaria control detachment at Montford Point.  He went overseas six months later as the First Sergeant of the 5th Depot Company,  served on Saipan, saw combat on Okinawa, and took part in the occupation of North China.  Discharged from the Marine Corps when the war ended, he spent a few months as a civilian and re-enlisted.  He saw service in the Korean War and the Vietnam War.  The first black Marine to complete 30 years of regular service retired on September 28, 1972. To quote Sergeant Major Huff, "I wanted to be a Marine because I had always heard that the Marine Corps was the toughest outfit going, and I felt that I was the toughest going, and I wanted to be a member of the best organization." His military life spanned the dark years of segregation and the gradual advance toward integration to the present climate of human awareness. When he ended his active duty years, he summed up a varied and honored career with a simple oft-repeated statement: "The Marine Corps has been good to me and I feel I have been good to the Marine Corps." There can be no better yardstick by which to evaluate the worth of the Corps to black Marines and their worth in return than that philosophy, for good measure received, good measure given.


Frederick C. Branch had his eye on a commission. He was qualified and the requirements didn't mention race. All he needed was a recommendation. "They told me to shut that blankety-blank stuff up about being an officer," said Branch. "You ain't going to be no officer." He began his distinguished military career at Montford Point Camp and served with the 51st Defense Battalion in the South Pacific. His first breakthrough came when as a PFC, he was selected to attend the Navy's V-12 program at Purdue University where he made the Dean's List. He subsequently attended the 16th Platoon Commander's Class in Quantico, Va. After graduation from college he stood out as the only Black in a class of 250 officer candidates. LT. FREDERICK C. BRANCH BECAME THE FIRST BLACK COMMISSIONED OFFICER IN MARINE CORPS HISTORY ON NOVEMBER 10, 1945. This was a significant milestone in the then 170 year history of the Marine Corps. At one time, he was the commanding officer of an all-White platoon. He had received the rank of captain when he was released in 1952. On July 9, 1997, the Marine Corps first Black officer was honored when he returned to Quantico as the guest of honor for the dedication of the newly remodeled Academics Building named in his honor. His strong inspirational desire to achieve never was forgotten by the Marines. This was the reason the base's academics building was named in his honor. Captain Branch established a well earned reputation for all things military. His fame has grown, and he has set the course for African-American officers to follow.  I had the priviledge of meeting this extraordinary legend on July 14, 1999 at the 34th  National Montford Point Convention where he was inducted into the newly established Montford Point Marine Hall of Fame.   What an honor this was for me......a memory that I shall forever cherish. Captain Branch departed this life on April 10, 2005 after a short illness.    Thanks for the memories Captain Branch!


The grand old man in the history of black Marines would have to be Sergeant Major Gilbert H. "Hashmark" Johnson.   He earned the nickname "Hashmark" because he wore on the sleeve of his Marine Corps uniform three of the diagonal stripes, called hashmarks, indicating successful previous enlistments.  He joined the Army in 1923 and served two three-year hitches with a black regiment, the 25th Infantry.  In 1933, he enlisted in the Naval Reserve as a mess attendant, serving on active duty in officer's messes at various installations in Texas.  He entered the regular Navy in May 1941 and had become a steward second class by 1942 when he heard that the Marine Corps was recruiting African Americans.  With  infantry experience ranging from company clerk to mortar gunner and squad leader, he felt he was ideally suited to become a Marine.  As regulations required, he applied to the Secretary of the Navy, via the Commandant of the Marine Corps, for a discharge from the Navy in order to join the Marines.  He reported to Montford Point on November 14, 1942.  He was chosen as an assistant drill instructor and later a drill instructor.  In January 1945, he became Sergeant Major of the Montford Point Camp and in June of that year joined the 52nd Defense Battalion on Guam, also as Sergeant Major, remaining in that assignment until the unit disbanded in 1946.  His subsequent career included service during the Korean War.   He retired in 1955.    Retired MSgt. Bob Reid is quoted as saying, "He was a grumpy old man. He was very stern, but knowledgeable. He had these penetrating eyes and looked at you like a cobra looking out of his hole." Tough as nails when he presided over the recruit drill field at Montford Point and imbued throughout his career with a driving ambition for black Marines to succeed, to be somebody, he mellowed somewhat in later life to the status of elder statesman and spokesman for a generation of men who led the way toward desegregation and the end of discrimination in the Marine Corps.   He died stricken by a heart attack, while addressing a testimonial dinner of the Camp Lejeune Chapter of the Montford Point Marine Association on August 5, 1972. There could have been no man prouder - except perhaps my own father - of the accomplishments of black Marines, and perhaps no man who left such a personal mark on others through his insistence that the first of his race in the Corps would "measure up." It was altogether fitting, therefore, that his name was commemorated in the Marine Corps where it first began to be known. On the recommendation of the Executive Board of the Montford Point Marine Association, the Commandant, General Cushman, approved the renaming of Montford Point Camp. On April 19, 1974, in ceremonies held at Camp Lejeune, CAMP GILBERT H. JOHNSON was activated at Montford Point. This well deserved tribute to a distinguished human being honors EVERY African-American man and woman who has worn the Marine uniform, as he did, with pride of self and Corps.


This site would not be complete without mention of my father, James Albert Ferren.  He had the distinct privilege of being one of the first African-Americans, and the first African-American from Glassboro, New Jersey to join the United States Marine Corps.  He was inducted into the Corps February 9, 1943 and reported to Camp Montford Point on February 11, 1943.   He served with the 51st Defense Battalion, Headquarters and Service Battery, and received an honorable discharge on February 4, 1946 having attained a personal conduct record of 4.85 out of a possible 5.0 and rank of PLT. Sgt.  One year, nine months and 29 days of his military tenure was spent in foreign or sea duty.  While in the Corps, he received the World War II Victory Medal, American Campaign Medal and the Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal.  We laid my father to rest on March 23, 1993, in a beautiful serene area beside a lake at the New Jersey Veteran's Cemetery in Arreytown, New Jersey.  I am extremely proud to be the daughter of a Montford Point Marine.


Since his enlistment in the Marine Corps in March, 1944, his accomplishments have been many. During World War II he served in the Marshall Island and Guam with the 52nd Defense Batallion. In the Korean conflict, he was called back to active duty in the Reserves as a Corporal. He served with the 2nd Automatic Weapon Batallion as Section Leader and Fire Control Instructor from 1950-1953 at Camp LeJuene, North Carolina. In 1953 he was assigned as Gunnery Sergeant in 29 Palms, California; and from 1954 through 1955 served with the 1st 90 MM Batallion at Pusan, Korea. Master Gunnery Sergeant Brooks E. Gray, who helped form the Montford Point Marine Association to preserve the heritage of the wartime black Marines, has spoken of the "pride mixed with Bitterness" experienced by the African-Americans who wore the uniform of the Marine Corps during World War II. Segregation prevailed at the time, even following black Marines across the Pacific to Japan and the Asian mainland. "The injustices in these segregated units." Gray recalls, "sparked a fierce determination to excel." These African-Americans DID excel. "We represented," Gray believed, "the breakthrough of the final barrier - the obstacle of racism - by being part of the elite Corps." Master Gunnery Sgt. Gray retired in 1969 after 24 years of service with the Corps.  Master Gunnery Sgt. Gray  suffered a stroke on Friday, October 06, 2000 followed by a massive heart attack two days later.   He went home to be with the Lord at 10:30 AM on Sunday, October 08, 2000.  I am VERY proud to have had the honor to call this gentleman my "adopted father". What an extremely blessed woman that makes me.....to be the proud daughter of not one but TWO, Montford Point Marines!


In 1986, Frank E. Petersen became the Marine Corps' first African American three- star general when he received the rank of Lieutenant General. He had also made history more than 30 years earlier by becoming the Corps first African-American pilot. He would later earn many military decorations, including the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Meritorious Service Medal, and the Purple Heart.   General Petersen was the first black  marine aviator to command a marine attack squadron in combat (Chu Lai 1966-1967).  His retirement as the Commanding General of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command at Quantico, Va., in 1988 completed a saga that began in 1950 when he decided to join the Navy. His career had been brilliant. He was the senior ranking aviator in the Marine Corps as well as the senior ranking naval aviator. These distinctions earned him the respective titles of "Silver Hawk" and "Grey Eagle."   This awe inspiring first black marine aviator has written his autobiography which I encourage you all to read.   When he retired in 1988 as a lieutenant general, Frank Petersen had witnessed and participated in the historic changes in racial elations within the Marine Corps and the U.S. military in general.  His absorbing and well written account of his life in the Marines allows us to venture into the tiger's jaw, but to leave without a scratch.   Anytime you feel like giving up anytime you wonder how you are going to make it through your pain and anguish, you should turn to Lt. General Petersen's moving autobiography, Into The Tiger's Jaw:  America's First Black Marine Aviator, for a boost of inspirational ammunition.  General Petersen left behind a legacy for all to follow regardless of color or ethnic background.  Read this book, get angry if you will, but read the whole book, word for word, cover to cover.  Then put it down and think about the man, the truly remarkable awesome man, the times and the accomplishments.  


Captain Thomas H. McPhatter, CHC, USNR (Retired) was one of the first young black men to enlist in the United States Marine Corps, and the last Montford Pointer on active duty, the last of the "Chosen Few".  He received the highest rank of all who entered Montford Point Camp.  Captain McPhatter  is Black History.  Born October 8, 1923 in Lumberton, North Carolina, he enlisted in the Marine Corps in December, 1943.  He served in the 8th Marine Corps Ammunition Company, with the 3rd, 4th and 5th Marine Divisions on Iwo Jima from day one, until the last Marine left the Island.  He entered the mainland of Japan with the first American uniformed men since Admiral Perry on August 14, 1945.  He spent 24 continuous months in the theater of war Pacific during WWII, training, working and fighting.  Executive Order 8802 opened the door for Chaplain McPhatter and other blacks who were finally enlisted in the Corps.  Captain Thomas H. McPhatter was a part of that mass that went into a Black Boot Camp; and on trial.  With the designation - USMC (SS) Selective Service.  These were the pioneers, the "Chosen Few" who really opened the door.  Captain McPhatter was discharged from the Marine Corps in July, 1946. 


Visit My Other Montford Point Marine Sites



Awarded the
Al Varelas "Honor Award"
for Outstanding Patriotism







Many Thanks to My Friend, Adopted Father, and Founder of the MPMA
The Late Master Gunnery Sgt. Brooks E. Gray (Retired)
For All of His Help In My Research on The Montford Point Marines
In July of 1990, at the 25th anniversary celebration of the Montford Point Marine Association held at the Philadelphia Adams Mark Hotel, Master Gunnery Sgt. Gray (Retired) was designated President Emeritus/Founder of the Montford Point Marine Association.



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Photos Contained on This Site Are My Personal and some Official Marine Corps Photos

This site developed and maintained by Carolyn A. Ferren
and is not the property of the MPMA

Some materials on this site courtesy of Henry I. Shaw, Jr. and Bernard C. Nalty