The rigorous history of service and battle does not discriminate. Many stories rich with the grit, valor and patriotism of all Americans dot the landscape that is the US Military. And they all deserve honor, not just on Veteran’s Day, but every day.
Though the faces of those who’ve fought for freedom’s way are varied, the truth is that the contributions of some are unknown. In reality history and discrimination have at times gotten in the way of recognizing the total scope of this nation’s many brave service members. Such is the case for “the few and proud” Montford Point Marines, African-American men that trained in a segregated camp outside of Jacksonville, N.C. during World War II. This facility was established in 1942 when President Roosevelt issued a directive allowing the recruitment of African Americans into the Corps.
These new recruits in heeding the call to service came from all over the United States, but because of their skin color were not sent to training at the traditional and nearby boot camp facilities such as Parris Island or Camp Lejune. Because of racial separation in effect at that point in time, they instead went to Montford Point and established their own legacy of endurance with pride. From 1942 until 1949, approximately 20,000 courageous African-American marines learned to ‘support and defend’ at this location. They proved themselves to be equal in the mission of battle and after President Truman issued Executive Order No. 9981 desegregating the armed services in 1948, the Montford Point facility was deactivated in 1949. This presidential order along with the valiant performance of the Montford Point Marines at Iwo Jima and Okinawa also thwarted the initial War Department plan to discharge these African American troops after WWII. As their path for the “right to fight” became more known, in 1974 Montford Point was renamed Camp Johnson, in honor of the late Sgt. Maj. Gilbert H. “Hashmark” Johnson. He was one of the first African American’s to join the Marines, having served also in the Army and Navy while also known as a distinguished drill instructor. The Camp remains the only Marine Corps installation named in honor of an African American.
Now their remarkable story is being told — legislatively as well as in the community — through efforts of The Montford Point Marine Association. This organization, launched in 1965 after a reunion gathering of Montfort Point Marines in Philadelphia, has spearheaded the way in getting recognition for their place in the roll call of military history. Through the bill H.R. 2447, which recently passed the House unanimously as a way to honor the Montford Point Marines with a Congressional Gold Medal, the significant gifts of those brave faces live on. It’s now on track as S. 1527 for Senate approval. This highest civilian award in the country is most fitting for their service on all fronts to include military mission and equal opportunity. Support for this measure has come from the highest levels of Marine, Defense and Congressional leadership.
The Montford Point Marine Association is currently led by James Averhart, PhD. and a chief warrant officer 4, stationed at the Naval Consolidated Brigg in Chesapeake Virginia. His own journey from Mobile, Ala. to a now 24 year marine, speaks to the role the Montford Point Marines played in his success and dedication to this organization. Averhart served in Desert Storm and after his tour considered leaving the Corps. Upon sharing this intent with his platoon sergeant, Averhart relates that this leader then took him to Camp Johnson and introduced him to a legendary Montford Point Marine, the late Sgt. Maj. Edgar Huff. “What he told me changed my life. The things they endured caused me to fall in love with the ancestral anchoring of this branch of service,” says Averhart.
While at the helm of the Montfort Point Marine Association, Averhart looks forward to dedicating a monument to his historical predecessors in Jacksonville around Aug. 2012. Their structure as an organization is impressive with over 36 chapters divided into four regions nationwide. Other involvements on their agenda include scholarship funds for minority youth, increased historical awareness of these African-American troops and senior citizen support. Local chapters in the Metro DC area include Quantico and Maryland. And of great note is that there are on record over 300 Montfort Point Marines still living, with 200, in their 80s and 90s, in contact with the organization. Averhart further states that outreach continues nationwide to get verification of service dates and other documents to harness the stories of these heroic troops. He continues the important work of the Montford Point Marine Association with the “wind and sails” of those who’ve labored, lobbied and led.
The Montfort Point Marines have modeled “Semper Fi (fidelis).” To God, duty and country, it’s about being “always faithful.” Every veteran and person has benefited from their stance in adversity on battlefields here and beyond. So we honor them this Veterans Day of 2011.