National Montford Point Marine Association continues mission to honor first Black Marines

National Montford Point Marine Association continues mission to honor first Black Marines

February 11, 2021

 

By Calvin Shomaker, The Daily News
February 8, 2021

If she had to compare the Montford Point Marines to someone, National Montford Point Marine Association (NMPMA) President Carmen Cole would liken them to Rosa Parks, who made history in 1955 refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus.

“Had she not done that, I would probably have never been afforded the opportunity to ride in the front of the many public transportation buses that I had to take to school and to work,” said Cole, a retired chief warrant officer 3.

The Montford Point Marines enlisted and fulfilled draft duties to endure social, physical and mental hardships that helped pave the way for future Black Marines and the desegregation of the military.

“We stand on their shoulders,” Cole said. “Because without them, there would have been none of us that were given that opportunity to serve.”

Montford Point Marines

Company A Platoon 202 at Montford Point, October 1943. Historical Resources Branch, Marine Corps History Division

June will mark 80 years since an executive order from President Franklin Roosevelt opened the Marine Corps to African Americans.

According to a Marine Corps Museum timeline, a small number of African Americans served with the Continental Marines in the Revolutionary War, but Congress limited enlistment to white men in 1792.

In 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation allowed African Americans to serve in the Army and Navy, but the Marines were off limits, up until Roosevelt’s order.

On Aug. 26, 1942, the first Black Marine recruits arrived at Montford Point Camp in Jacksonville, N.C. for segregated training with white drill instructors. From 1942 to 1949, an estimated 20,000 African Americans trained at Montford Point and many served overseas in the Pacific during World War II where they fought at places like Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Saipan and Peleliu. Approximately 2,000 Black Marines saw combat during the Battle of Okinawa, the largest group of Montford Pointers to fight in one battle.

In 1948, an order from Roosevelt led to the end of segregation in the military, but the impact of the Montford Point Marines had already begun to seep into the rich lineage of the Marine Corps and America’s history.

The NMPMA is tasked with carrying on that legacy.

Cole was introduced to the NMPMA in 2011. Having trained as a Marine several times at Camp Johnson, formerly Montford Point

Carmen Cole President of MPMA

NPMA President Carmen Cole, a retired chief warrant officer, was the first female Marine to be a Motor Transport Maintenance Officer and the first woman to become president of the National MPMA since it formed in 1965. Derek Snowten and Gilbert Taylor.

Camp, she says there was little talk of what those hallowed grounds meant.

“I just don’t recall anyone ever really making it a subject of importance while we were there training, and that still kind of bothers me,” Cole said.

Cole was the first female Marine to be a Motor Transport Maintenance officer and the first woman to become president of the NMPMA since it formed in 1965. She says the biggest issue they have now is locating the remaining Montford Point Marines and surviving family members.

“Most of the family members don’t know their father, grandfather or great grandfather served in the Marine Corps, because they didn’t talk about it,” Cole said. “The training and that time in their life was so difficult with discrimination and segregation. They wore the uniform, yet they were denied some of the same rights and privileges of the white servicemen, even on the base.”

At the time, to go from Montford Point to Camp Lejeune, Black Marines had to be escorted by a white Marine, Cole said.

Retired Sgt. Maj. Johnny Young, Jr. serves as president of the NMPMA’s Jacksonville chapter and as a regional officer. He says it is not easy to compare the Montford Pointers.

“But we can correlate the determination of those brave men that had the desire to change the course of not only the Marine Corps, but the course of the United States and also the course of the world by persevering and simply saying ‘I am an American and as an American I have the right to defend my country’,” Young said.

Young got involved with the association in 1992 when on active duty with Camp Lejeune’s 2nd Marine Division.

“Individuals here educated me on what the original Montford Point Marines were, and I did not have any of that knowledge at the time,” Young said. “My interest was to get involved based on their mission, and the mission was to ensure that the original Montford Pointers were never forgotten.”

Retired Master Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Geeter III has been a NMPMA member since 1987 when he began interacting with Montford Pointers in his hometown of Chicago who enthralled him with their stories.

Having been interested in the history of Black Marines since joining the Marine Corps in 1976, Geeter’s passion for the subject led him to become president of the NMPMA from 2005 to 2009. A major focus this year, he says, is continuing to seek out the Montford Pointers still living and the families of those no longer here.

“We are losing a lot of these Montford Pointers,” Geeter said. “I just think it’s vitally important, for the ones that we have left, that we have the opportunity to tell their stories on film or on tape, so we have those stories forever.”

Of the 20,000 Black Marines believed to have trained at Montford Point, Geeter estimates that only about 300 to 400 are still living today. In 2012, Congress awarded Montford Pointers a collective Congressional Gold Medal, but so far he says only about 2,000 or so bronze replicas have been presented to Montford Pointers or surviving families.

So the mission continues.

According to Young, the nonprofit has over 40 chapters across the country and provides scholarships while continuing to maintain the legacy of the Montford Pointers through community engagement and the active search for Montford Point Marines and their relatives, among other objectives. Membership is open to veterans and active duty service members of all U.S. military branches without discrimination due to race, creed, color, gender or national origin.

Despite the pandemic, Young says members are staying connected virtually and that he still talks weekly with a “motivated” 106-year-old Montford Pointer who lives in Fayetteville.

In 1974, Montford Point Camp was renamed Camp Johnson in honor of Sgt. Maj. Gilbert “Hashmark” Johnson, a legendary Black Montford Point drill instructor who also served in the Army and Navy and was one of the first African Americans to join the Marine Corps.

According to Visit Jacksonville, Camp Johnson is the only Marine Corps installation named after an African American.