Montford Point Marines talk discrimination, earning Congressional Gold Medal
It was the sudden silence of a Marine occupying a nearby foxhole, as Japanese gunners sundered the Saipan Island beach where the two men hid, that brought a stark truth to Pvt. Vincent Long during World War II.
Racial segregation in the Marine Corps had barred him and other black troops from joining the Corps' hero-producing combat units.
But Jim Crow rules that limited black Marines to less heroic service roles -- cooks, drivers, supply workers and the like -- would not spare them from combat's deadly hand.
"There was one guy, I think his name was Tibbs, who was no farther from me to you," Long, 87, recalled of the foxhole, his voice an agitated sigh. "All of a sudden, I realized he wasn't talking anymore. He'd been hit. I never saw him again."
"It was tough going and everything was coming down on us," said Long, of Hempstead. "I picked up a Browning automatic [machine gun] and started shooting like everyone else. Until then, I'd never had anyone's blood on me before."
Long is among the last of the Montford Point Marines, GIs who became the first black Americans to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Barred by racial discrimination from the Corps' training facilities at Parris Island, S.C., and San Diego, some 20,000 black recruits were sent to a segregated boot camp at Montford Point, N.C., between 1942 and the facility's 1949 closing.
Of the thousands who trained at the facility just outside the Corps' base at Camp Lejeune, only 730 are believed to still be alive, according to James Averhart Jr., national president of the Montford Point Marine Association, which promotes the legacy of black Marines.
Montford Point recruits participated in some of WWII's most storied battles. Black Marines were on Iwo Jima during the iconic flag raising on Mount Suribachi. In 1944, a Time magazine war correspondent wrote: "The Negro Marines, under fire for the first time, have rated a universal 4.0 on Saipan."
But Montford Point graduates never gained the prominence held by the Tuskegee Airmen, black WWII aviators who were collectively awarded the Congressional Gold Medal -- the nation's highest civilian honor -- in 2007.
Last year, Congress took a step toward rectifying history's oversight when it bestowed the Montford Marines with a Congressional Gold Medal of their own. Long traveled to Washington for the award ceremony, as did Richard P. Warren, 86, of Roosevelt, and Charles Anderson, 89, of Westbury. The only other Montford Marine known to remain on Long Island -- Robert Harding, 84, of Roosevelt -- had been too ill to travel.
Warren, who served on Saipan while U.S. troops were tracking down Japanese holdouts there in the months after Tokyo's WWII surrender, said the awards ceremony was humbling and pride-filled.
"It was unbelievable," he said. "There were some [Montford recruits] in wheelchairs, on crutches. Some had to be escorted. But they were determined at all costs to be there that day.
"We had seen great change in America," added Warren, a 1944 draftee who later joined the Air Force and rose to the rank of master sergeant before retiring in 1969. He eventually opened a private investigator business, which he still operates. "But we never thought we would be recognized for our role in integrating the Marines."
Averhart, a chief warrant officer 4 stationed in Chesapeake, Va., credited the Montford troops with clearing a path for other black Marines -- himself included -- to follow.
Marine historians identify an escaped slave from Delaware named John Martin as the first black to serve with a Continental Marine force during the Revolutionary War, in 1776. He died the next year in the wreck of the brig Reprisal.
But racial attitudes hardened with the birth of the American nation. When Congress established the Marine Corps in 1798, Maj. William Ward Burrows, the first Marine Commandant, instructed a South Carolina recruiter in a letter, saying, "You may use Blacks and Mulattos while you recruit, but you cannot enlist them."
The Army and Navy were employing small numbers of black troops, mostly as porters, cooks and stevedores, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered all armed services to admit black recruits in 1942.
But the prospect of integrating the Corps' all-white fighting force spread indignation throughout the chain of command. Major Gen. Thomas Holcomb, then the nation's top Marine, told a Navy staff meeting in Washington in April 1941: "If it were a question of having a Marine Corps of 5,000 whites or 250,000 Negroes, I would rather have the whites." His comments to the Navy Board in January 1942 were even more exclusionary: "Their desire to enter the naval service is largely, I think, to break into a club that doesn't want them."
For black recruits who began arriving when hastily constructed Montford Point opened Aug. 18, 1942, the hostility was palpable.
"Discrimination was open," said Anderson. "You couldn't go into restaurants in town, and we couldn't even go onto the main base where the whites were allowed."
Anderson left the Marines in January 1946, but re-enlisted that September for an additional year. He was recalled to the Corps in 1950, during the Korean War, and rose to sergeant before being honorably discharged in 1952. He worked for the NYPD from 1954 to 1976, then worked at the Roosevelt Raceway until it closed in 1988.
Though the Montford recruits ushered in a new era for the Marines, even now, only 4.8 percent of the Corps' 19,700 officers are black. And although blacks make up 22.4 percent of Marines, none has ever reached the rank of four-star general, a Marine spokesman said. The nation's highest ranking Marine, three-star Lt. Gen. Willie J. Williams, is scheduled to retire this summer after a 40-year career.
For many black Americans, the success of the Marines at Montford Point was seen as crucial to the early civil-rights movement. Some Montford recruits had even resigned from higher ranks in other military branches to join, including Gilbert "Hashmark" Johnson, one of Montford's most revered drill instructors.
Long, the Brooklyn-born youngest child of a chef and a stay-at-home mother, was drafted in July 1943. The thought of going to war excited him as he boarded a train to Montford Point, he said. His encounters at boot camp left him giddy at the prospect of shooting a rifle. But combat confronted him with death's grimmer reality. An estimated 3,400 Americans were killed in the monthlong struggle to wrest Saipan from Japanese troops. One of them was Pvt. Kenneth J. Tibbs, 19, of Columbus, Ohio, the first black Marine to die in battle.
"You're 18 and you get hopped up shooting paper targets; I had the feeling I'd never get killed," Long said. "But then it's the real thing.
"You're running onto the beach and there's nothing but bodies. You knew you had to get the supplies through because you knew they [Marines on the battlefront] could only last so long. But the blood, you never get rid of that feeling."
Long served on Saipan from June 15, 1944, to July 10, 1944. He also served in Okinawa in 1945 and with U.S. troops in northern China until early 1946.
After being honorably discharged in 1946, Long got a job with the former Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation, and raised a daughter and two sons. He retired in 1980 as a yard master at the MTA's Coney Island Yard.
But it was not until last year, as preparations for the Congressional Gold Medal award were being made, that Long realized history had not fully overlooked the Montford Point Marines.
Harding had the same realization.
He left the Marines and joined the Air Force, retiring from the military in 1969. He then worked as a Grumman engineer, testing control systems for the A-6 Intruder attack jet. He retired in 1990.
"It means a lot to me that we were recognized," Harding said of the award.
Being honored has brought Long a measure of pride.
"Everybody hears about the white units who got the glory, but nobody hears about the guys who supported them," he said. "It makes me feel proud to know I was a Montford Point Marine."