First Black Marines Celebrate 75th Anniversary of First Service in Jacksonville

Four previously unidentified Marines received the Congressional Gold Medal posthumously

Aug. 24, 2017

JACKSONVILLE, N.C. ― On Thursday, the Montford Point Marine Association marked the 75th year since the first African-American Marines in the United States arrived at Montford Point, N.C., to train during World War II. The anniversary was remembered at the Montford Point Marine Day Ceremony at the Montford Point Marine Memorial at Lejeune Memorial Gardens in Jacksonville. The Montford Point Marine Memorial to the first African-American Marines was dedicated July 29, 2016. It is one of five at the Lejeune Memorial Gardens, on the same road to Camp Johnson where the men trained.

From 1942 to 1949, about 20,000 African-American men were admitted to the Marine Corps. With segregation in place, these men trained at a separate base at Montford Point, a part of Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune. During World War II, just months after Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued the order to admit African Americans into the Corps. The Marines were the last branch of the service to include African Americans.

Aware that they had to “fight for the right to fight,” these individuals trained harder than their Caucasian counterparts to assume roles as ammunition carriers and later, frontline fighters. This compounded the segregation they endured at their base camp where they were forbidden to enter Camp Lejeune without a white Marine accompanying them; they could not cross the railroad tracks into Jacksonville. They were not afforded doctors or other support personnel assigned to their white counterparts. Their African-American drill sergeants pushed them physically and mentally to withstand tests that surpassed the high standards used for white Marines.

During the Pacific Campaign, the Montford Point Marines were called into service, first as defense units holding land far behind the front or as ammunitions carriers; they saw little action. Later, about 8,000 black Marine stevedores and ammunition handlers served under enemy fire during offensive operations in the Pacific. After the June 1944 Battle of Saipan, USMC General Alexander Vandegrift praised the performance and heroism of the 3rd Marine Ammunition Company. “The Negro Marines are no longer on trial. They are Marines, period,” he said.

After a Presidential order from Harry S. Truman in 1948 to desegregate the military, Montford Point was deactivated as a black training facility. In 1974, it was renamed Camp Gilbert H. Johnson in honor of the man who served as one of the camp's first black drill instructors. He continued to serve in the Marine Corps after desegregation including service in the Korean War retiring with the rank of Sergeant Major.

The Montford Point Marines' significant service to the Marine Corps and the nation was recognized in 2012 when all men known to have served were awarded a Congressional Gold Medal. With no official record of those who served from 1942 to 1949, the Montford Point Marine Association has sought to recognize and continue awarding the medal to the families of the men who served but were not recognized.

At Thursday's ceremony, four previously unidentified men were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, recognizing their membership in the Montford Point Marines. The medals were presented by officers of the Montford Point Marine Association and accepted by the Marine’s families. Those men are:

  • Dr. Joseph Orthello Johnson of Leesburg, Va.
  • Virgil W Johnson of Woodbridge, Va.
  • John Thomas Robinson of Ypsilanti, Mich.
  • Leroy Lee Sr of Augusta, Ga.

Search Continues for 'Montford Pointers'

Of the almost 20,000 men who served as Montford Point Marines from 1942-1949, the names of only about 1,200 are known. Of these 1,200, only about 300 are still living.

The Montford Point Marine Association continues to actively search for these men and their families, building awareness through social media and in their local chapters across the country. If you know a Montford Point Marine who has not received appropriate recognition for his service to his country, contact Carman Cole, National Secretary, Montford Point Marine Association Inc., 706-840-1789 or nationalsecretary@montfordpointmarines.org

To be documented and receive the medal, individuals or their families must show their discharge documents. The medal can be awarded posthumously to family members.

About the Montford Point Marine Association:
The Montford Point Marine Association is made up of original Montford Point Marines, family members and interested citizens. A nonprofit military veterans organization, it was founded to memorialize the legacy of the first African Americans to serve in the United States Marine Corps. The group continues to identify those who served. www.montfordpointmarines.com 

About Jacksonville:
Jacksonville is North Carolina's undiscovered coastal gem and home to Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune. Visit the stirring Lejeune Memorial Gardens, enjoy the beach, take to the bays and riverways, or tackle the extensive bike and walking trails. For more information on what to do and where to go, see VisitJacksonvilleNC.

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CONTACT:

Susan Dosier
susan@dkcommunicationsgroup.com 
704.993.7871