‘Pioneers’ helped break Marines’ color barrier

Congressional medal to honor, recognize Montford Pointers

In the decades since World War II ended, they’ve never once looked back on their service in the U.S. Marine Corps with bitterness.

And now the men who broke the color barrier in the last branch of the military to admit blacks will soon be awarded one of the nation’s highest honors.

As they think back on their service as Montford Point Marines with pride, not sure what to make of the years it has taken to get to this point, Theodore R. Britton Jr., John R. Hill Jr. and John B. Brown Sr. agree it is an honor long overdue.

Britton, Hill and Brown are among a few hundred surviving members of the 20,000 men who served as Montford Pointers, including 10 living in metro Atlanta.

Unlike better-known military units that helped end racial segregation such as the Tuskegee Airmen of the U.S. Army Air Forces and the Army’s Buffalo Soldiers, the Montford Point Marines had been overlooked. But last summer Gen. James F. Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, announced plans to highlight their service to the Corps. And in November, President Barack Obama signed legislation awarding them the Congressional Gold Medal, putting them in the company of Winston Churchill and Rosa Parks. On June 27, they will be awarded bronze replicas of the gold medal at a ceremony in Washington.

And so here they sit in a first-floor apartment in downtown Atlanta, eager to relive memories that won’t fade, to bear witness just as the Tuskegee Airmen and the Buffalo Soldiers have done before them.

They were still in school in 1941 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt banned race-based exclusion from the military, thus opening the door for them and other blacks to join the Marines. What they hadn’t counted on, the men said, was how quickly the Corps adopted a policy of racial segregation. Indeed, the next year a separate training camp for blacks was built at Montford Point, about five miles from all-white Camp Lejeune, near Jacksonville, N.C.

Britton, 86, volunteered for the Corps in 1944 during his senior year in high school.

“I had a pioneer spirit,’’ he said. “We were so gung-ho and patriotic, we weren’t concerned at all about what we were going to do. We just wanted to get in there and fight.”

The men took buses and trains to North Carolina from every corner of the country, only to discover that there would be no fighting for African-Americans — at least not initially. They delivered ammunition and other supplies to combat troops and later evacuated the wounded from the front-lines.

“We didn’t know what we were getting into,” Brown said. When he learned black Marines were not permitted to engage in combat, “I wanted to get out and go back home,” he said, “but that wasn’t near possible.”

Eventually, Britton said, some went into combat as reinforcements to white Marines in Guam and Saipan, earning commendations for their bravery from Gen. Alexander Vandergrift, the Marine Corps’ first World War II hero.

Britton would go on to spend two years in the South Pacific, where he served until May 1946. Brown was assigned to the all-black 52nd Defense Battalion and in August 1944 headed to the Russell Islands in the South Pacific with the 29th Depot Company, and then on to Korea. After spending time at Camp Pendleton, Hill went to Korea, where he saw action at Chosin Reservoir, one of the Marine Corps’ greatest battles.

Although each of them felt the sting of segregation, their experiences were as unique as their personalities.

Britton said he never felt overt discrimination but was disheartened by the stories he read, including those of blacks who were unfairly flunked in officer candidate school.

But Brown, 88, said he didn’t know what real discrimination was until he arrived at Montford Point in 1943.

“When I got to North Carolina, I was baptized,” he said.

However there were occasions when white people stood up for him and other black Marines, Brown said.

He remembered once being packed like sardines in a train car en route to North Carolina with 80 other black Marines. When the conductor came through, Brown said they could see the car ahead of them was empty except for a lone white woman.

“We moved into the car; the conductor tried to get us to go back and we wouldn’t do it,” he said. “The conductor called military police when we arrived in Richmond and told him to arrest [us]. The two military officers looked at the conductor and laughed.”

On another trip, Brown said, several white Marines helped commandeer a city bus and drove him and several other black Marines back to camp when they discovered white bus drivers wouldn’t stop to pick them up.

“I’ll never forget a big white Marine from Texas told me, ‘You little S.O.B., you sit up here with me and we’re going to take this bus,’” Brown recalled. “That was the one time the bus driver sat in the back of the bus.”

Although other Montford Point Marines would go on to fight in some of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific, including at Iwo Jima, Saipan and Okinawa, they were never fully recognized for their service. Thirteen Montford Pointers were lost in World War II. After the war, most were discharged.

Seventy years later, they say their band of brothers trained them well and to this day they stand tall with chin in and chest out.

“Years later, we still have a feeling of pride,” Britton said.

Hill, who retired in 1987 as a fleet manager for the Citizens and Southern Bank, said receiving Congress’s highest civilian honor is proof “we can do whatever we have in our hearts to do.”

Fred Codes, president of the Montford Point Marine Association, Atlanta Chapter 5, said few people had heard of the Montford Pointers when he entered the Corps in 1976 — even among Marines.

“They are the pioneers who paved the way for me and other blacks to become part of one of the finest forces in the world,” he said. “I stand on their shoulders.”

For years, Brown, a retired federal law enforcement officer and ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, said he envied the recognition of the Buffalo Soldiers and Tuskegee Airman. Now, he said, “I’m pretty happy.”

Britton, a former U.S. ambassador to Barbados and Grenada, said the most gratifying part of the renewed interest in the Montford Point Marines was the hearty welcome they received last summer from Commandant Amos.

“To me,” he said, “it was the final evidence of true acceptance of all black Marines into the Marine Corps.”