THE RIGHT TO FIGHT: African-American Marines in World War II
by Bernard C. Nalty
Face-to-Face with Segregation
Service in the Marine Corps brought men like Obie
Hall, who enlisted from the cities of the North where race relations
were somewhat relaxed, into contact with segregation at its harshest.
Hall received a sleeping-car ticket for the rail journey from Boston to
the training site in North Carolina, and all went well until he reached
Washington, D.C., where he was ordered out of his assigned berth. A
porter, also an African-American, explained that Hall had reached the
"black line" south of which rail travel was segregated. The porter, in
defiance of the law and social custom of that time, found an empty
compartment that Hall occupied for the rest of the trip. Some 18 months
later, John R. Griffin of Chicago did not find a sympathetic porter
willing to break the rules; at Washington he had to transfer to a Jim
Crow car, "hot, dirty, crowded (with babies crying and old men drinking
and [black] Marines discussing the fun they had on leave)."
Segregation prevailed at the Marine Barracks, New
River, North Carolina soon redesignated Camp Lejeune where
the African Americans would train, and in the nearby town of
Jacksonville. For the black recruits, the Marine Corps established a
separate cantonment, the Montford Point Camp, in westernmost Camp
Lejeune. At least one Marine veteran, Lieutenant General James L.
Underhill, suggested in retrospect that the Corps made a mistake in
pushing them "off to one corner," for doing so reinforced the belief,
accurate though it was, that blacks were not truly welcome. The Marine
Corps, Underhill believed, "should have dressed them up in blue uniforms
and put them behind a band and marched them down Fifth Avenue" to show
their pride in being Marines and their acceptance by the Corps. At the
time, as Underhill surely realized, neither the Marine Corps nor much of
American society was ready for such a gesture of racial amity.
Gilbert H. "Hashmark" Johnson, a veteran of service in both the Army and
Navy, glares at the boots in his recruit platoon. He became a Marine in
1942. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 5344
The Montford Point Camp consisted at first of a
headquarters building, a chapel, two warehouses, a mess hall, a
dispensary, a steam generating plant, a motor pool, quarters and
recreational facilities for the white enlisted men who initially staffed
the operation, a barber shop, and 120 green-painted prefabricated huts,
each capable of accommodating 16 recruits, though twice that number were
sometimes jammed into them, pending the completion of new barracks. The
original camp also boasted a snack bar that dispensed beer, a small club
for the white officers, and a theater, one wing of which was converted
into a library. As the black Marines cleared the land around the camp,
they encountered clouds of mosquitoes, a variety of snakes, and the
tracks of an occasional bear, if not the animal itself. To the north of
the original site, across a creek, lay Camp Knox, occupied during the
Great Depression of the 1930s by a contingent of the Civilian
Conservation Corps, an agency that put jobless young men to work, under
military supervision, on public improvements and reclamation projects.
As the number of African-American Marines increased, they spilled over
into the old CCC camp.
Railroad tracks divided white residents from black in
segregated Jacksonville. Suddenly, hundreds of African-American Marines
on liberty appeared on the white side of the tracks, looking for
entertainment. At first, white businessmen reacted to this sight by
bolting their doors. Even the bus depot shutdown until some one realized
that the liberty parties might well find other North Carolina towns like
New Bern or Wilmington more attractive than Jacksonville, and the ticket
agents went back to work.
Getting out of Jacksonville became easier, but
returning to camp from the town proved difficult on a Jim Crow bus line.
Drivers gave priority to white passengers, as state law required, and
restricted black passengers to the rear of the bus, unless whites needed
the space. Since the two races formed separate lines at the bus stop,
drivers tended to take only whites on board and leave the black Marines
standing there as the deadline for returning to Montford Point drew
nearer. When this happened, angry black Marines, at the risk of violence
from the local police, might commandeer a bus, remove the driver, and
take it to the gate nearest Jacksonville, where the transit company
could retrieve it on the next morning. The white officer in command at
Montford Point, Colonel Samuel A. Woods, Jr., took steps to ensure that
the black Marines could return safely to Montford Point without risking
arrest. He sent his battalion's trucks into town to pick up the men and
assigned white non-commissioned officers from the staff at Montford
Point to the military police patrols that kept order in the town. The
NCOs detailed by Colonel Woods helped deter local authorities from
making arbitrary arrests of black Marines. As black noncommissioned
officers became available, one of them accompanied each patrol, though
unarmed and without authority to arrest or detain white Marines.
The 'Great White Father'
Samuel A. Woods, Jr., established the Montford Point Camp and also
served as the first commanding officer of the 51st Defense Battalion
(Composite). National Archives Photo 127-N-9511
Colonel Samuel A. Woods, Jr., launched the training
program for black Marines at Montford (originally Mumford) Point. At
this time, based on the Army's practices, the Marine Corps believed that
officers born in the South were uniquely suited to commanding
African-Americans, and the colonel fit the pattern, since he hailed from
South Carolina. Born at Arlington, he graduated from The Citadel, South
Carolina's military college, and in 1906 accepted a commission in the
Corps. He served in Haiti and Cuba but arrived in France as World War I
was ending. Afterward he saw duty in the Dominican Republic and China,
attended the Naval War College, and headed the Marine Corps
correspondence schools at the Marine Barracks, Quantico, Virginia.
The colonel's calmness and fairness earned him the
respect of the blacks he commanded. He cultivated a paternalistic
relationship with his men and emerged, according to one African-American
veteran of the Montford Point Camp, as "the Great White Father of
everybody," trying to ease the impact of segregation on the morale of
his troops, though he accepted the separation of the races, and
insisting that the black Marines exhibit self-pride and competence.
Although race also affected relationships among
Marines, especially during the early months of the Montford Point Camp,
instances of the racial harassment of black Marines became increasingly
less frequent. The improved conditions resulted in part from Montford
Point's isolation, but it also reflected the efforts of the
African-Americans to impress their white fellow Marines. Obie Hall
recalled that the men of Montford Point tried to look their sharpest,
especially when in the presence of white Marines. "They really put that
chest out," he said. Pride in appearance had beneficial effects, for one
white Marine remarked that, although he only saw blacks when they were
on liberty because of the segregation on Camp Lejeune, "they always
looked sharp." The white military police remained unimpressed, however.
They tended to share the racial attitudes of their civilian
counterparts, and the persistent hostility generated intense resentment
among the African-American Marines.
Knowledge that they would have to overcome racism to
gain the right to serve created a feeling of solidarity among black
Marines. At times, they could invoke this unity to right a wrong, as
happened after the officer of the day at Montford Point, angered by what
he considered raucous behavior during a comedy being shown at the camp
movie theater, had the black audience take their buckets these
utilitarian possessions at the time were serving as seats and put
them over their heads. The recently appointed black drill instructors
reacted by ordering their Marines to clean the barracks instead of
attending a show being staged especially for them by black performers.
When Colonel Woods heard of the impromptu field day, he investigated,
learned of the ill considered action by the officer of the day, and made
sure the African-Americans attended the performance.
One incident painfully reminded the African-Americans
of their second-class status in the Marine Corps, indeed throughout a
Jim Crow society. A boxing show staged at the Montford Point Camp
attracted a distinguished guest, Major General Henry L. Larsen, who had
taken command of Camp Lejeune after returning from the South Pacific.
During an informal talk, he made what he considered a humorous remark,
but his audience interpreted it as an insult. According to one of the
black Marines who was there, the general said something to the effect
that when he returned from overseas he had seen women Marines and dog
Marines, but when he saw "you people wearing our uniform," he knew there
was a war on. The off-hand comment may have served, however, to bring
the men of Montford Point even closer together.
Oddly enough, a white officer came the closest to
capturing the isolation felt by blacks in segregated North Carolina.
Robert W. Troup, in peacetime a musician and composer who had played
alongside black performers, accepted a wartime commission and reported
to Montford Point, where he made a lasting impression. One of the
African-American Marines, Gilbert H. Johnson, considered him a "topnotch
musician, a very decent sort of officer," and another, Obie Hall,
described him as "the sharpest cat I've ever seen in my life." Bobby
Troup's song "Jacksonville," the unofficial anthem of men of Montford
Point, included the heartfelt plea:
Take me away from Jacksonville, 'cause I've had my
fill and that's no lie.
Take me away from Jacksonville, keep me away from
Jacksonville until I die. Jacksonville stood still, while the rest of
the world passed by.
While assigned to the 51st Defense Battalion
(Composite), the African-American defense battalion authorized in 1942,
Troup doubled as recreation officer, organizing baseball and basketball
teams, arranging the construction of sports facilities, and staging
shows using talent available at Montford Point. Perhaps the most popular
performer was Finis Henderson, a private who had sung and tap-danced in
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer films. As the star of one of Troup's shows,
Henderson sang "Jacksonville" while stage hands threw bits of brown
paper into the airflow from a pair of electric fans to simulate the dust
blowing down the street of that much-despised town. In December 1944,
Troup took command of the black 6th Depot Company the second unit
with that designation which deployed to Saipan and handled
supplies at the base there.