A memorial honoring the Montford Point Marines broke ground last week in Jacksonville. We honor the legacy of the Montford Point Marines and hear a firsthand account of 92 year old Montford Pointer Norman Preston.
Last week, a groundbreaking ceremony took place in Jacksonville for the National Montford Point Marines Memorial. They were the first African Americans to join the United States Marine Corp, overcoming discrimination and segregation for an opportunity to serve during World War II. Today, we explore the legacy of the Montford Point Marines and hear a firsthand account of Wilmington resident Norman Preston.
“I’ve had my good days, and I’ve had my bad days… But I don’t regret a bit of it.”
A World War II veteran, 92 year old Preston is among an elite few, our nation’s first black Marines. He was a private in his mid-20’s when he arrived at Montford Point in Jacksonville, North Carolina, a segregated training camp for African American Marines.
“An afro-american was trained and treated harder in the beginning than the average whites. Once you had an area to come in contact with white marines, you was always kept at a distance.”
Prior to 1941, African Americans were not allowed to enlist in the military. But as U.S. involvement in World War II became a possibility, there was a sudden need for jobs in the defense industry. National Monument Director of the Montford Point Marine Museum Houston Shinal says President Roosevelt issued a directive on June 25th, 1941 that that sought to put an end to discrimination in the Armed Forces.
“Executive Order 8802, what that did was it was actually called the Fair Employment Practice Commission, and what it did it barred discrimination and the hiring of government contractors because of race.”
Roosevelt’s executive order was the first Presidential decree issued on race since Reconstruction. The directive required the armed services to begin recruiting and enlisting African Americans. In 1942, the first black Marines were sent to Camp Montford Point in Jacksonville. Shinal says they were trained separately and away from their white counterparts.
“The belief was by putting the base here in the South, the southern whites had a better understanding with dealing with the blacks and that they would be more apt to manage them then by putting the base in some other place.”
While white Marines were sent to traditional boot camps including Parris Island and Camp Lejeune, Montford Point was exclusively for African Americans. Shinal says many of the black Marines didn’t know they were heading to a segregated training facility.
“The Montford Point Marine Boot camp was supposed to be an experiment. And that experiment was intended to prove that Blacks could not serve as Marines. So consequently, in the effort to establish that, those Marines found themselves to prove that notion.”
During the early years of Montford Point, white drill instructors were in charge of training young recruits. By 1945, all of the drill instructors at Montford Point were replaced with African American instructors that Shinal says were tougher and pushed them harder.
“In a conversation I had with Sgt. Major Huff, once when we was living, he said yes he was harder. Because he understood that a black Marine had to be three times as good as a white Marine to stay in the Corp. So they actually pushed them harder than the white drill instructors did.”
92 year old Norman Preston remembers the intense training. He says his African American drill instructor pushed him to his limits because he understood what they had to go through.
“He was very strict, hard, different. But he wasn’t unreasonably cruel in no way. He was very compassionate. But he was a different Marine. If you want to be the best, you got to be the best. You got to train hard and that was it. That’s the type of leader he was.”
While at Montford Point, Preston, who was a military police officer says railroad tracks divided white residents from the camp for African-American troops. He remembers he was forbidden to enter the main base of Camp Lejeune unless accompanied by a white Marine.
“Blacks weren’t even allowed at Camp Lejeune on main side. Period. That’s how they isolated us from the whites. I worked with the civilian police which was all white in downtown Jacksonville and when you go down there to report to them, and their philosophy is if you’re down here to protect. Stay away from these Marines so they won’t get contaminated with disease.”
The intense training at Montford Point prepared the African American marines for combat, where they were often involved in support roles such as supplying ammunitions to the frontlines.
“We have Montford Point Marines that were actually involved in the battles on Iwo Jima, Saipan, these are places where they actually saw combat action.”
Shinal says the attitude toward African American Marines on the battlefield was much different than in non-combat situations.
"There were white marines that were glad to say that the Montford Pointers were there because they showed up, they filled in gaps, they did those things that ultimately caused those battles to be won.”
Between 1942 and 1949 when Camp Montford Point was deactivated, more than 20,000 African American Marines had been trained at the Jacksonville facility. Many of these men went on to further serve their communities.
“Locally, we had Montford Point Marines that stayed on like Mr. Turner Blunt. Turner G. Blunt who was a Montford Pointer here ended up serving on the city council here in Jacksonville.”
In 1974, Camp Montford Point was renamed Camp Johnson to honor Sgt. Maj. Gilbert "Hashmark" Johnson who one of the first African Americans to enlist and serve as a drill instructor in the Marine Corps. Now, Camp Johnson is home to the National Montford Point Museum.
“We have in our possession a World War II 9mm anti-aircraft gun. This is the primary weapon that the 51st and 52nd defense battalion, which was the two battalions that were formed for the black marines that they trained on that weapon.”
Currently, the 9mm anti-aircraft gun is on display at the museum, but will be relocated to the Montford Point Memorial that’s being constructed at Camp Johnson’s front gate. Shinal says the memorial will be built at Lejeune Memorial Gardens on NC 24.
“It’ll be built in two phases. The first phase will include a ground plane, Montford Point statue and a WWII 9mm gun which we have already acquired and had refurbished to go in the monument.”
A centerpiece of the memorial will be the large statue by artist and sculptor Stan Watts, who created the 40 foot tall bronze monument named “To Lift A Nation” honoring those who died during the terrorists attacks on September 11th.
“The statue is a larger than life sized replica representing a Montford Point Marine. He’s depicted on a steep incline which is supposed to symbolize the struggle of the Montford Point marines as they move into the regular Marine Corps. We have him picking up a rife out of the mud which signifies when the Montford Point Marines went from being basically ammo carriers and stretcher bearers to actually being fighters in the war.”
The project became active in 2009 and the memorial is being paid for by donations. Shinal says phase one of the project is estimated at $681,000 and will be complete in August. Phase two comes in at just over a million dollars, and includes the placement of memorial stones.
“these are four by eight bricks we sold engraved bricks where people can purchase to help build the memorial. And you could have your name put on it or inscriptions of Montfort pointers or whatever you choose. In phase one, the entire surface will be concrete. In phase two, we’re actually going to go back and lay the bricks on top of the concrete.”
Shinal says an additional $900,000 still needs to be raised before initiating phase two.
“We can hopefully roll right into phase two once we complete phase one and if that occurs, the entire project will be done by August of 2016.”
While the monument is just starting its long journey to completion, the National Montford Point Museum is open to the public. It’s located in the East Wing of building M101 aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Johnson. Hours are from 11 to 2, and 4 to 7:00 pm Tuesdays and Thursdays and Saturday from 11:00 am till 4:00 pm.