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Both Sides of the Tracks
Black Marine Pioneers Fought Two Wars

First appeared in Our State Magazine
 

When Turner Blount arrived in Jacksonville, N.C., from his home in Keysville, Ga., in 1943, he was one of the first African-Americans allowed in the Marine Corps. At that time blacks were banned aboard the main base at Camp Lejeune, with the exception of those few who had service jobs, working in kitchens and clubs. The Corps established a separate basic training camp for blacks at Montford Point. Whites received basic training at Parris Island, S.C.
None of the nearly 20,000 black recruits who went through basic training from 1942 through 1949, were welcomed by the city or their fellow Marines. Previously barred from serving in the Corps, blacks gained entrance through an executive order signed by Pres. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, at the urging of his wife, Eleanor, a human rights pioneer. Executive Order 8802 forced the Commandant of the Marine Corps to admit blacks, which he did -- but grudgingly.
White drill instructors turned the first groups of black recruits into Marines. After that, black D.I.'s took over and they made the white D.I's seem mellow. "It was rough service," Blount says. "The black Marine leaders instilled in us that we had to prove ourselves."
Their survival hinged on their toughness and ability to shrug off the idea that because their skin color was different, they didn't belong in the Corps. When Blount reported for training, he stood prepared to fight, and if necessary, die for his country. But he still couldn't cross the railroad tracks in nearby Jacksonville.
Like all African-Americans in that time period, Blount's world bristled with boundaries. Blacks used separate water fountains and bathrooms and attended segregated schools. It hurt to be kept out, but Blount could handle small indignities on his way to his ultimate goal -- to become a U.S. Marine. He would stay on his side of the tracks if it meant one day wearing the Corps' eagle, globe and anchor insignia.

Holding the Line

As World War II raged, Americans stretched their resources to cover their country's wartime obligations. At home, women worked in factories and lived with rationing. The country's men fought in foxholes and from ships, flew fighters and assaulted foreign beaches.
But men and women of color -- particularly African-Americans -- were afforded little opportunity to contribute to the war effort. Although other services admitted blacks, they were mostly confined to supply and service specialties, and often served in black-only units. Roosevelt's order changed all that.
Black men jumped at the opportunity and lined up at the recruiters offices. Many left the Navy or Army for a crack at the Corps. For some, like the Rev. Adner Batts, Jr., the Marine Corps offered more than simply a chance to prove himself as a man, it also offered him a future.
"I was working at the commissioned officer's mess at Camp Lejeune and saw the posters to "see the world," and I had just lost my mother," Batts says. "I needed a job."
Batts, originally from Edgecomb, N.C., and now a resident of Hampstead, joined in 1948. Marine boot camp had a reputation for weeding out the weak and Batts says the truck carrying him and fellow black recruits to Montford Point emphasized that point by pulling up next to a small cemetery near the post. The driver made the passengers line up outside.
"They said to us, 'These are the ones who didn't make it,'" Batts said. While the cemetery didn't really hold recruits, they got the message: boot camp was rough, boot camp for black Marines was rougher still.
Batts says many Camp Lejeune Marines had little exposure to African-Americans, which made life more difficult. Whenever black recruits interacted with white Marines, they walked on eggshells, even during sporting competitions. The slightest perceived insult would be enough to send a black recruit packing.
"When we went to play ball with them, we had to be sure we didn't hurt anyone," Batts said. "We swallowed our pride and had to take a lot. But if we hadn't, there wouldn't be any black Marines."

The Bare Necessities

Melvin Borden, who joined the Marine Corps in 1948, says he became a Leatherneck because he wasn't afraid of hard labor -- he'd worked all of his life. The Alabama native and retired serviceman, who now lives in Jacksonville, says the segregated Corps provided a challenge.
"I grew up on a farm and worked in the fields," Borden says. "They didn't cut you no slack, but I didn't mind. I was used to it."
And he and other recruits found they had to get used to a few other things they hadn't counted on.
Johnnie Thompkins, Jr., of New Bern, remembers going hungry during basic training. Montford Point has its own mess hall and, Thompkins says, much of the food allocated the black mess hall would simply disappear. He believes the cooks stole it. "We got to the mess hall sometimes and there wasn't enough food to go around," Thompkins said.
In the winter, they often trained at Stone Bay. Things were different for the two groups of Marines: White Marines had steam heat in their brick buildings, but black recruits kept warm in old stone houses using coal-burning stoves. When Thompkins' unit arrived at Stone Bay they found no coal.
"They had some but they'd used up their allotment, so we had to go out and find broken branches and cut down trees to keep warm," Thompkins said.
Thompkins joined the service following two years of college at Winston-Salem State University and planned to enter the Coast Guard. He ended up in the Marine Corps, instead, and stayed for 23 years, earning both advancement and the respect of the white Marines with whom he worked.
"We really proved that the color of a man doesn't make any difference," Thompkins said. "It's what's in his heart."

Love and Hate

Henry McNair says that back in the old days, when a Marine recruit didn't like what was being dished out, he couldn't "call his mama or his congressman."
The Dillon, S.C., native bounced between his home and an aunt who lived in Brooklyn, N.Y., when his mother died. McNair finally decided to enlist in the Marine Corps, to prove to himself he could do it.
For him the gauntlet was thrown down when he was a kid and a friend, the son of a Marine who was also a Cherokee Indian, told him blacks couldn't be Marines. In 1945, McNair proved him wrong.
Black Marines served primarily in combat support roles or as stewards, although some did see action during World War II. When the war ended, the Marines began discharging blacks.
"They tried to kick us out," McNair says. "There were less than 1,000 'colored' Marines in the Corps at one point and all you had to do was goof up and you were out."
McNair swallowed his pride, held on and ended up on the front lines in Korea, one of four blacks in a battalion of 1200-1300 men. "I didn't want to fry no officer's eggs, so I stayed where it was rough -- I stuck it out," the Chosin Reservoir survivor said.
Batts also remembers the fight to stay in the Corps. A veteran who retired on 30 years, Batts saw combat in Korea and was twice sent to Vietnam. He says he remembers when black men were not allowed to travel Onslow County's roads with guns. In order to get to the rifle range, the black recruits had to take a barge through the waterways. But, despite the conditions -- freezing in winter, steamy in summer, low on food, having to defer to whites, he'd do it all over again.
"We broke the ice for future generations of Marines," Batts said. "Now there are black generals."

Crossing the Line

Even educated blacks, like McNair, found themselves ostracized and looked down upon. For the men who volunteered to break ground as the first black Marines, the road ahead loomed deeply dangerous. But men like McNair, who saw action in places like Saipan, say they had to do well, or die trying.
"The majority of us didn't have that much to go back home to, so we stuck it out," McNair says. Did he -- and other Montford Point Marines -- make a difference? McNair says they did, and not simply as Marines.
"Jacksonville's a better place to live now," McNair says. "People from all races, from all over the world, live here. Life's a lot better."
Blount agrees. He says part of his job as a Montford Point Marine was to pave the way for others. They must have succeeded -- black Marines are pilots, unit commanders, intelligence officers, gunnery sergeants, war heroes. And Montford Point is no longer a black training camp.
Although Marines still train there, in 1974 it was renamed Camp Johnson in honor of Gilbert H. "Hashmark" Johnson, a legendary drill instructor at the camp and one of the first African-Americans to join the Marines.
That's not the only sign that times have truly changed. Blount knows all too well that railroad tracks and imaginary lines can divide a community both physically and in spirit. Years of hatred and mutual mistrust often create chasms that swallow the character of a community. But Jacksonville was different: The 1980 U.S. Census named the city as the most integrated in the nation. And in March of 1984, the Interstate Commerce Commission gave the city permission to pull up the old, abandoned railroad tracks. Today, the only sign the tracks ever existed is a renovated depot, flanked by an old railroad car.
And one more thing: In December of 1993, Turner Blount, the Georgia recruit who once was not allowed to cross the tracks in downtown Jacksonville, was elected to a seat on that city's council, proving without a doubt that the Montford Point Marines had, indeed, changed the face of the world.

Side Bar:

The Montford Point Marine Museum: Telling It Like It Was
Word Count: 186

In 1965, a Philadelphia group formed the Montford Point Marine Association to reunite former and active-duty Marines trained at Montford Point. Following a reunion, the group launched chapters all over the country and in Japan.
MPMA members recognized their heritage stood in danger of being forgotten as Montford veterans began to age. Not wanting their struggle to fade into the pages of history, they established a museum to preserve their story.
The Montford Point Marine Museum is housed at today's Camp Johnson, on the same grounds where MPMA recruits attended boot camp. Curator Finney Greggs oversees the collection of memorabilia and photographs, which continues to grow.
In addition, the MPMA is cooperating with documentary filmmakers from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, who were hoping to release their project in December 2005.
The MPMA Museum is open to the public. Hours of operation are: Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 11 am to 2 pm and 4-7 pm. Saturdays, from 11 am to 4 pm. Out-of-town visitors and groups can be accommodated by calling Greggs at 910-450-1340.
The museum is located at Building M101 at Camp Johnson.

 

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