WASHINGTON — Soon after finishing boot camp at Montford Point in 1949, John Phoenix joined other new Marines on a visit to nearby Jacksonville, N.C. Dressed in their newly pressed khaki uniforms, they proudly strolled off the train. They’d taken only a few steps when they were confronted by a large sign.
The roughly 10- by 8-foot, black and white billboard with big block letters clarified any misconceptions the new Marines might have. The color of their uniforms didn’t supersede the color of their skin.
“No blacks on this side of town,” it read.
The reception wasn’t much warmer at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., where the 19-year-old high school track star and other black recruits were placed in a segregated camp. They were trained harder and worked longer hours than their white counterparts. Phoenix never once met a black officer. “We went through hell and brimstone at Montford Point,” he said.
“It was no playpen there.”
Phoenix, who’s now 83, served 22 years in the Marines, including combat in Korea and Vietnam, before retiring and settling in Burlington, N.C. He never really got over those feelings of not being fully a part of the Corps. Until now.
Seventy years after African-Americans broke the military’s final color barrier, Phoenix and other surviving members of the Montford Point Marines will gather today on Capitol Hill to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
More than 400 Montford Marines, including more than 30 from North Carolina, are expected to attend the ceremony, where they’ll each receive a replica of the medal. They’ll be good company: George Washington, Mother Teresa, the Wright brothers and Thomas Edison also earned the honor.
From 1942-49, nearly 20,000 African-Americans went to Montford Point, a blacks-only boot camp at Camp Lejeune. Most soon were shipped off to war, with the majority heading to the Pacific theater during World War II. They served as members of the 51st and 52nd defense battalions in support roles for white troops. Others, like Phoenix, also served in Korea and Vietnam.
The trailblazers finally will receive the recognition they deserve, said Sen. Kay Hagan, the Greensboro, N.C., Democrat who led a bipartisan effort to grant the Montford Point Marines the honor. “When this took place, these Marines were not allowed on the base at Camp Lejeune without a white escort, and yet they served side by side in our military,” she said.
Sen. Richard Burr, a Winston Salem, N.C., Republican, said the Montford Point Marines led the way for future generations of African-Americans who’d risen to the highest levels of our military’s leadership. “Their bravery, service and sacrifice should serve as an example of patriotism and loyalty despite the significant challenges they faced,” said Burr, who introduced a resolution to establish “Montford Point Marines Day” and was a co-sponsor of Hagan’s bill.
The Marines were the last branch of the military to allow blacks to
join when President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order in 1941. It was met with strong opposition.
“If it were a question of having a Marine Corps of 5,000 whites or 250,000 Negroes, I would rather have the whites,” the then-Marine Corps commandant, Maj. Gen. Thomas Holcomb, said at the time.
Most of the Montford Point Marines have since died. Only about 500 of them are known to be alive, including 39 from North Carolina. But they’re dying rapidly. Three North Carolina members have died since Congress announced the award last November. Their family members will make the trip on their behalf.
The Marines are paying for every surviving member and a guest to come to Washington for the congressional ceremony at the U.S. Capitol.
Gen. James Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps, said it was time that the Montford Point Marines were properly written into the 236-year history of the Corps. He’s ordered new recruits and senior officers to learn about their first African-American members.
“Every Marine, from private to general, will know the history of those men who crossed the threshold to fight not only the enemy they were soon to know overseas, but the enemy of racism and segregation in their own country,” Amos said last summer at a gathering of Montford Point Marines.