Montford Point

MONTFORD POINT

 

A peninsula projecting conspicuously into the New River at its major junction with Northeast Creek, Montford Point (initially Montfort Point) has enjoyed a remarkable history dating to pre-colonial times Prior to the immediate area’s acquisition by the Marine Corps, it was considered the

foremost recreation destination in Onslow County, even being described as the county’s “Riviera,” [1] and was being planned for development as part of the county’s nascent tourism and real estate industry [2]. When the Marines arrived in 1941, it was housing an abandoned Civilian Conservation Corps encampment along with the homes of many of Onslow’s prominent citizens. Shortly thereafter, the area served as the site of Camp Lejeune’s second base headquarters, as a recruit training camp, as the home of the Corps’ only war dog training school and as part of the Naval Medical Field Research Laboratory [3]. Although Montford Point is now considered to coincide geographically with Camp Johnson, in WW II it encompassed some six square-miles and extended east of Scales Creek to include what is now the Knox Cove housing area. Montford Point gained its greatest recognition, however, as the aforementioned recruit training camp and is best known as the home of the Corps’ only training facility for black Marines, one of the unique “firsts” with which Camp Lejeune can be credited, and an irradicable chapter of Marine Corps history.

 

Even though innovative and fore-thinking in war fighting, the Marine Corps was notoriously conservative in other respects, such as its racial composition; no African Americans had served in its ranks since the American Revolution. The Corps was unique in this regard. But, World War II effectively and radically changed this situation. In addition to the obvious need for additional military personnel, the country was facing a monumental backlash from the African-American communi

ty, which found the wide spread and continued discrimination against their employment, particularly in the burgeoning defense industries, intolerable. Domestic politics intervened: President Roosevelt issued Executive Order No. 8802 on 25 June 1942 eliminating discrimination in all government programs, with the Armed Forces directed to lead the way.

 

The Marine Corps grudgingly complied, and as instructed by Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, prepared to receive and train black recruits as soon as a suitable training facility was made available. Camp Lejeune, the Corps’ new massive training base in North Carolina was realistically and practically the only suitable site for such training and was so selected, with $750,000 being allotted initially for construction. Within its 110,000-acre fastness, Montford Point was the chosen site for the training facility, based in part on its pre-existing structures, closeness to logistics support and separation from nearby white facilities and communities. This was the era of “Jim Crow” segregation in the South, which was always a weighty consideration, and allowance had to be made for the trepidation of the local population and businesses toward the influx of large numbers of blacks, potentially armed [4].

 

Enlistment commenced on 1 June 1941 with the first black Marine, Alfred Masters, enlisting on

that date. Recruits began arriving on 26 August, which is considered the date for the beginning of Montford Point Camp, and were assigned to the first, all black, Marine Corps unit, the 51st (composite) Defense Battalion, which had been activated on 18 August. From a beginning modest goal of inducting 200 black Marines a month, the Selective Service System shortly thereafter began to inundate the Corps with 1000 a month, necessitating a new phase of construction at the camp and the creation of new units, to include the 52nd Defense Battalion, and eventually 61 Ammunition and Depot Companies, the latter mainly to constitute a ready-made reservoir of labor troops to address an acute shortage of stevedores in the Pacific. A new occupational field was also opened up for messmen (later stewards) to deal with the influx. The old guard in the Corps was still reluctant to accept blacks as combat capable, seeing them only as a wartime expedient, and didn’t envision their continued presence afterwards. [5]

 

The service of Montford Point Marines during the war, however, was to eventually dissuade even the most recalcitrant and as the Commandant, General Alexander Vandergrift, was to freely admit in 1944: “The Negro Marines are no longer on trial. They are Marines, period.” Their well-documented, exceptional performance can be attributed, in part, to the fact that having been proportionally shut out of employment opportunities, to include military service, better qualified African-Americans chose the distinction of becoming Marines, and were on the average better educated, older, more physically fit, and more professionally experienced, than their white counterparts [6]. Montford Point was self-contained, isolated geographically, racially and socially, from the remainder of Camp Lejeune and surrounding communities, except for a limited number of technical schools taught at Camp Davis [7]. But, as the black Marines gained experience in their segregated encampment, and evidenced their potential, they began to replace the white NCOs and staff NCOs in leadership positions, and demonstrated a professional competence on par with or exceeding their white counterpart units.

 

As training progressed, the first black unit to leave Montford Point, the 1st Depot Company, deployed overseas on 16 April 1943. Montford Point was to eventually train 21,609 black Marines in 565 recruit platoons, 19,168 during WW II, and 12,738 of which served overseas [8]. With the issuance of Executive Order 9981 by President Truman on 26 July 1948 ending color bias in the Armed Services and the massive drawdown in Marine Corps personnel strength following the war, it was as no long

er viable to maintain separate school facilities for blacks and whites; black recruit training was moved to Parris Island, South Carolina. Montford Point Camp closed on 9 September 1949 as a black training facility. By the conclusion of the Korean War in 1953, black Marines finally found themselves serving in totally integrated units. Montford Point subsequently continued to serve the Corps to house logistics units and as today, to serve primarily as the home to Marine Corps Combat Service Support Schools, and today, is now known appropriately as Camp Johnson, at Montford Point.

 

The proud history of the Marine Corps has been significantly enriched by the seven-year existence of Montford Point Camp, whose African-American graduates overcame humiliating segregation, overt hostility and institutional bias to achieve the coveted title of not just “Montford Point Marines,” but U. S. Marines. They fought for the right to fight, and succeeded. Many also garnered individual honors, but individually or collectively, their professionalism, personal courage and commitment to being the best continues to be enshrined in our nation’s history.

 

Montford Point Camp was renamed Camp Johnson to honor its most iconic graduate, Sergeant Major Gilbert “Hashmark” Johnson in 1974 and in 2001, a North Carolina state historical marker was emplaced at the camp’s entrance along with the establishment of a national museum aboard the camp.  In 2012, the Montford Point Marines joined the Buffalo Soldiers and Tuskegee Airmen by being honored with the award of the Congressional Gold Medal for their distinguished service. And, as yet two final gestures to recognize their place in the pantheon of American heroes: the USNS Montford Point (T-MLP-1) was christened in 2013 and the Montford Point Marine Memorial was dedicated aboard the camp in 2016. In receipt of these honors, they personified the Marine Corps slogan: “Earned-Not Given.”

 

CITATIONS

  1. Murrell. “Montford Point Recreation.”
  2. Loftfield. Archeological and Historical Survey, p. 160.
  3. Kimball. “Quinlan Memorial.”
  4. Dale. “Supervisor’s Confidential Statement.”
  5. Rottman. U.S. Marine Corps WW II Order of Battle, p. 30.
  6. Clouet. First Black Marines, p. 117.
  7. Nalty. The Right to Fight, p. 8.Rhett. Montford Point Marines, 1942-1949, P. 10.

 

REFERENCES

Fred de Clouet. First Black Marines: Vanguard of a Legacy James C. Winston Pub. Co., 1995.

Tracey A. Cunning, Architectural Historian, and Martha H. Bowers, Principal Historian. WW II Construction at Marine Corps Base, Camp Lejeune, 1941-45. Cultural Resources Group, Louis Berger & Associates, Jan 2000.

Kenneth S. Dale. Supervisor, Region 1. “Supervisor’s Confidential Statement of Jacksonville, NC, for Historical Records.” 5May47.

Edward J. Evans, Sgt, USMC. “Men from Montford Point.” Leatherneck, Nov 1947.

  1. J. Kimball, LtCol, USMC (Ret), Consulting Historian. Semper Fidelis: A Brief History of Onslow County, NC, and MCB Camp Lejeune. U.S. Marine Corps, 2002.

“African-American Marine Training Experience, Montford Point.” Fortitudine, Vol.77, No.2, 2012.

“Montford Point: No Hell,” Ltr to the Ed. Marine Corps Times. 30Jul12.

“Quinlan Memoriam.” Daily News, Jacksonville, NC. 31Aug12.

Thomas C. Loftfield, Principal Investigator, Tucker Littleton, Compiler.  Archaeological and Historical Survey of USMC Base Camp Lejeune. 2 vols, V. ll, Historical Record. Dept. of the Navy, 1981.

Morris J. MacGregor, Jr. Integration of the Armed Forces 1940-1965-Defense Studies Series. Center of Military History, U.S. Army, 1977.

Dr. Stratton Murrell. “Montford Point Recreation.” Daily News, Jacksonville, NC.7Sep97.

Bernard C. Nalty. The Right to Fight: African American Marines in WW II-Marines in WW II Commemorative Series. History and Museums Div, HQMC, 1995.

     Strength for the Fight: A History of Black Americans in the Military. The Free press, 1986.

Herman W. Rhett. Montfort Point Marines 1942-49: final Roll Call. International Graphics, 2004.

Gordan L. Rottman. U.S. Marine Corps WW II Order of Battle: Ground and Air Units in the Pacific War, 1939-1945. Greenwood Press, 2002.

Henry I. Shaw, Jr. and Ralph W. Donnelly. Blacks in the Marine Corps. History and Museums Div, HQMC, 1975.

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Posted on: January 31st, 2020
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