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Profiles in Manlitude: The Montford Point Marines

It wasn't fun being black in 1940s America, unless you were a jazz musician: a job that required you to have fun, but still didn't mean you got a fair deal. Besides, there are only so many of those positions to go around. That's why civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph popped by the White House in 1940 and ordered Franklin Roosevelt to do his duty enforcing the Constitution and protect minorities from violence and discrimination in the nation's burgeoning defenses.

Bear in mind, this is FDR; if he didn't like a group of people, he stole their stuff and penned them into camps. Randolph didn't care. He threatened to march tens of thousands of supporters down the streets of Washington, which is a great way to effect change so long as you occupy the roads Congressmen take to get home.

Roosevelt immediately ordered the defense industry that protects American interests to stop being uninterested in Americans. *sigh* No, he sat around until just before the march deadline, at which point he realized "Oh yeah, World War II is sort of inevitable," and signed Executive Order 8802: "Enough with the racism, Marine Corps." 

Thousands of patriotic young men signed up, but only 1,200 were admitted to Montford Point Camp, which at that point was more boot than camp. While white recruits lived in buildings, the Montford men got...seriously? Huts? The hell, America?

As you might guess, the Montford Point Marines had to deal with heaping helpings of other people's bullshit. Black recruits weren't allowed inside the main base at Camp Lejeune unless escorted by a white Marine, and once they got in there, couldn't eat at the mess until the whites were finished. That's the most passive-aggressive way of being racist conceivable.

A Christmas bully
Seriously: don't ever be racist, but if you are, don't be racism's wormy sidekick.

Of course, the first black Marines couldn't get promoted no matter how well they performed, because why should completing the same training and tests as everyone else entitle you to equal treatment? You'd think signing up for a dangerous job would go a long way to earning some respect from the guys whose lives you may save, but...nah. That'd be rational.

The first thing their drill sergeant told them was "I don't like you people in my Marine Corps. But I was ordered to do the job right, and I'll do it right and fair," which is almost not a horrible thing to say to the men depending on you to teach them survival skills. Almost. Camp commander Gen. Henry Larsen replayed the "you people" line in what was supposed to be an inspirational address. 

It took several years and President Truman to desegregate the military (EO 9981: "Seriously, you guys: stop being such dicks"), and even then it was taken as a suggestion (thanks, Dixiecrats!). In 1949, the Armed Forces were finally integrated, so that this country could learn: whatever their census information, all men bleed the same color, preferably as little as possible.

Things weren't any easier in combat, once they convinced the brass to let them near it. Snipers abounded, and the Japanese bombed their beer!


Japan bombs beer. Boo, Japan
Have you no sense of decency in wartime, Japan?

And then what happens? You come home to the states only to find the people you've been defending won't serve you at a restaurant. That really happened. In uniform. It's just petty, and thank God we've come a long way from there.

Some notable Montford Pointers include:

Capt. Frederick C. BranchCapt. Frederick C. Branch, the first black officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. Applying for Officer Candidate School, he was denied because [see entire article]. "They told me to shut that blankety-blank stuff up about being an officer," he said, showing more patience and dignity than those blankety-blanks deserved. Persevering, he was commissioned in 1945 and made captain upon his release in 1952. The academics building is named after him in Quantico. Going by the picture on the left, he also married a cutie, which credits a man's character.

MSgt. Brooks Gray. One of the primary organizers of the Montford Point Marine Association and also its president. He spent years working with disadvantaged youth to show them they could be more than their surroundings, and was a leader of his church's community. Yeah, he was a better person than all of us.

Gilbert Hashmark JohnsonSgt.Maj. Gilbert "Hashmark" Johnson, so-called because he served so many times it's a wonder he could lift his arms under all that embroidery. Left college (and a career as a minister) to join the Army. Wait--the Army? That's right, Hashmark spent six years (two tours) in the infantry, became a corporal, and returned to civilian life, only to discover there wasn't enough marching for his taste. He decided to conquer the Navy next, and when the Marine Corps got with the program, ticked off that box too. Procured combat patrol duty for his men in Guam so that they could show their valor, and led 25 patrols just to personally put the fear of God into Japanese forces. After his death, Montford was renamed Camp Gilbert H. Johnson and is now a museum.

HuffSgt.Maj. Edgar R. Huff, World War II's only other black sergeant major, he was also Hashmark's brother-in-law. They married twin sisters (high five!) and proceeded to scare the living daylights out of every recruit they drilled. Serving in Japan and Korea across two wars, he made first sergeant for all of a day before the brass said, "That's not good enough -- sergeant MAJOR!" Seriously: one day. Two promotions.

Mayor David Dinkins. -- Really? Neat!

Cpl. Ernest Smith. -- One of 300 surviving Montfordians out of 20,000, and father to Col. Stephanie Smith, the highest ranking African-American woman in the Marine Corps.

This week, Congress awarded the first black Marines the Congressional Gold Medal, an honor generally reserved for people who conquer evils like polio, Nazism, and the moon. They deserve it. When everyone told them, "You can't do it," they said, "Yes, we can!" which is the only reply worthy of Marines and Americans. The men of Montford Point believed in what America is supposed to be, not what it sometimes is, and made that ideal a little closer to reality. 

You can (and should) read a lot more about the Montford Marines here. 

Brendan McGinleycongratulates the Montford Pointers and wishes the Marine Corps a happy belated birthday