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Saturday, January 6, 2018

Montford Point Marines

    When I was at Montford Point at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina in 1964 it consisted of Marine Corps schools and were we completely unaware of its history.
     At the beginning of World War II African Americans got their chance to be members of the previously all-white Marine Corps. The first recruits reported to Montford Point, a small section of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina on August 26, 1942. By October only 600 recruits had begun training although the call was for 1,000 for combat in the 51st and 52nd Composite Defense Battalions. 
    Between 1942 and 1949, approximately 20,000 African-Americans completed recruit training and became known as the Montford Point Marines. Despite the challenges presented to them, their valor and performance at Peleliu, Iwo Jima paved the way for those that were to follow. The men of the 51st soon distinguished themselves as the finest artillery gunners in the Marine Corps, breaking almost every accuracy record in training.

     Unfortunately, discrimination towards African Americans still existed and when shipped to the Pacific, the 51st and 52nd were posted to outlying islands, not where the primary action was. The only Montfort Marines to see action, and record casualties, were the Ammunition and Depot Companies in Saipan, Guam, and Peleliu. Private Kenneth Tibbs was the first black Marine to lose his life on June 15, 1944.
     In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 to establish the Fair Employment Practice Commission, banning discrimination "because of race, creed, color, or national origin" in all government agencies. Recruiting for the Montford Marines began on June 1, 1942. Thousands of African-American men, eager to serve, flocked to recruiting offices. The quota of 1,200 men were housed in prefabricated huts near segregated Jacksonville, N.C., where railroad tracks divided white residents from black. The troops at Montford experienced. For example, unless accompanied by a white Marine, these men were not allowed to enter Camp Lejeune.          
     In the beginning recruits were trained by white officers and NCOs, but citing a desire to have blacks train blacks, the Marines singled out several exceptional black recruits to serve as NCO drill instructors. 
     In January 1943, Edgar R. Huff became the first black NCO and in February Gilbert "Hashmark" Johnson, a 19-year veteran of the Army and Navy, became the first Drill Sergeant. 
    By May 1943 all training at Montford Point was done by black sergeants and drill instructors with Johnson as chief DI. Both Johnson and Huff would be renowned throughout the entire Marine Corps for their demanding training and exceptional leadership abilities. By 1945, all drill instructors and many NCOs at Montford Point were black.
     The Montford Marines performed well in their duties at home and abroad, despite the strictures placed on them. In practice, these men surpassed all anti-aircraft gunnery records previously set by Marines, and named their weapon "Lena" after their favorite singer, Lena Horne. The Montford Point Marines made it impossible for the Marine Corps to return to its prewar policy. President Harry S. Truman eliminated segregated units in 1949. But the Montford Point Marines have not been forgotten.
     In 1998, Parris Island drum major Staff Sgt. Vernon Harris composed the music to a song, "I'll Take the Marines," commemorating the group. The words had been written by a Montford Marine, LaSalle Vaughn. "If African Americans at that time could go through the rigorous training of Marines when it was segregated and they were looked down on and still be proud Marines … it encourages all Marines to look forward and recognize our progress," Harris said.
Gilmon D. Books, U.S. Marine
     On June 19, 2017, Montford Point Marine Gilmon D. Brooks died at the age of 91. Brooks witnessed history when the American flag was raised on Feb. 23, 1945, on Iwo Jima during one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. He was a Montford Point Marine. A Purple Heart and Bronze Star recipient and retired chief warrant officer, he served in three wars.
     While attending UCLA as an ROTC student, Brooks was recruited to enlist in the Marines and in October, 1943 he went through basic training at Montford Point where black recruits lived under miserable conditions with no toilets and no running water.
     Brooks became an expert rifleman and was promoted to Private First Class. A part-time musician in college, he was assigned to be a bugler and later to the Eighth Marine Ammunition Company. After undergoing training in Honolulu, his unit was sent to the Pacific where he served as an ammunition platoon sergeant.
     At Iwo Jima his unit went ashore February 23, 1945, just four days after the initial landing, to provide ammunition to a tanker outfit. Brooks was struck with shrapnel and evacuated to a hospital ship in Hawaii and later received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.
     Black Marines returning home after the war faced the same discrimination they encountered previously and in 1949 Brooks enlisted in the Army and was later was promoted to chief warrant officer and saw combat duty in the Korean War. He retired from the military in 1962 but returned for an assignment in Vietnam in 1973 with the Department of the Navy.
     In 1985 he retired from the federal government as a civilian personnel manager at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. He was a Boy Scout leader and served on the local school board and the Monmouth County Drug Board. He also served the St. Augustine Episcopal Church where he served on the vestry and clergy search committee.

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