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Marines honor African Americans who enlisted amid segregation

On the Marine Corps' 236th anniversary, a small gathering of black veterans, who trained and served in a segregated force in the 1940s, attend a ceremony at Camp Pendleton.

November 11, 2011|By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times
  • Montford Point Marines watch as they are recognized during a ceremony held at Camp Pendleton on Thursday.
Montford Point Marines watch as they are recognized during a ceremony held… (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Camp Pendleton, Calif. -- On a day that marked its 236th anniversary, the Marine Corps sought Thursday to atone for a failure to fully honor some of its own — the African Americans who enlisted amid the racial segregation of the 1940s.

"You showed great courage," Col. Christopher Dowling told a small gathering of veterans who had trained at a segregated boot camp at Montford Point, N.C. Those who came out of Montford Point served in some of the bloodiest battles of World War II and also in Korea.

"You went into the Marine Corps," Dowling said, "when the Marine Corps was not ready to accept you."

In a ceremony atop a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, a  plaque remembering the Montford Point Marines was installed along the course of the Crucible — that 54-hour gut-check where recruits of all races are pushed to their physical and emotional limits.

Other plaques tell of Medal of Honor recipients and historic battles.  When recruits march past,  drill instructors lecture them on the stories of bravery and issue a challenge to "live up to the legacy."

From 1942 to 1949,  an estimated 19,000 African Americans went to the Montford Point boot camp, adjacent to Camp Lejeune, N.C., where whites were assigned. After leaving Montford Point, the black troops largely were assigned to racially segregated battalions.

And this year, more than six decades after President Truman ordered racial integration of the U.S. military, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos ordered that the Montford Point Marines and their legacy be given a long overdue honor.

"I never thought I'd see this day," said Robert Reid, 81, who attended boot camp at Montford Point, served in Korea and Vietnam, and retired as a master gunnery sergeant.

Reid was among seven original Montford Point Marines to attend Thursday's ceremony. Other members of the Montford Point Marine Assn., who served in more recent decades and trained at boot camps at San Diego or Parris Island, S.C., also were in attendance.

After World War II, most African Americans were discharged from the Marine Corps. "They threw you guys under the rug," Reid told the group.

Navy chaplain Lt. Sam Contreras, in his invocation, asked God to "forgive us how we forgot the memory of the Montford Point Marines."

Dowling, commanding officer of the Weapons and Field Training Battalion, noted that the day and place were ideal for the Marine Corps "to get it right." Thursday was one of the few times when the service's birthday celebration has coincided with recruits having just finished the Crucible. It was also the eve of Veterans Day.

As the Montford Point Marines watched, several hundred recruits — exhausted and dirty — received the Eagle, Globe and Anchor and, for the first time, were called Marines.

Later, at the unveiling of the plaque, the Montford Point veterans were praised for helping the Marine Corps realize that courage, not race, is the defining characteristic of a good Marine.

"You were ahead of the greats" of the civil rights movement, Dowling said. "And for that, we thank you very much. Your legacy has made our corps greater."

There were expressions of individual gratitude as well.

"Thank you," Sgt. Major Trevor Jackson, a black Marine, told the veterans. "Without you, there would be no me."

tony.perry@latimes.com

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