By Mark Cantrell
They’re old men now, their backs bent against the years, faces leathered with age. Many are in wheelchairs. On a hot summer afternoon in Washington, D.C., nearly 400 of their number assemble outside the historic Marine Barracks for a ceremony in their honor. They cut fine figures in their suits and ties, despite the heat. They don’t mind; they’ve experienced worse. They are, after all, the Montford Point Marines.
Although African-American soldiers already were serving in the Army by 1941, the Marine Corps still was resisting integration. But June 25 of that year, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, establishing the Fair Employment Practices Commission, and racial discrimination by government agencies became illegal. The historic presidential order forever would change the face of the armed forces.
To say the order was met by resistance from Corps leadership is an understatement, but with war looming overseas, America needed every war fighter it could get. Work began on a blacks-only training facility on a swampy peninsula of the New River in North Carolina, not far from Camp Lejeune, and June 1, 1942, the recruiting process got under way. On Aug. 6, the first black recruit, Howard Perry of Charlotte, N.C., arrived at what then was named Camp Montford Point.
Welcome to the swamp
Marine Corps bases are never luxurious, but Montford Point was an especially tough billet. Because of the camp’s remote location, surrounded by deep forests and crisscrossed by brackish creeks, the new Montford recruits found themselves fighting off mosquitoes and deerflies while drilling in temperatures that often exceeded 100 degrees in the summer. They were forbidden from setting foot in Camp Lejeune without a white escort. “We had nothing,” recalls Norman Preston, now 90, who arrived at Montford Point in 1944. “If you tell people what we had to go through and how we had to live, they would not believe they could treat a human being like that.”
John Peoples disembarked at Montford Point on New Year’s Day 1945. “I was just 18 and wasn’t sure what was going on,” he remembers, “but I was just anxious to get going.” At the time, all drill instructors (DIs) at the camp were white and lived at Camp Lejeune. The tough, seasoned Marine Corps instructors would arrive at 8 a.m., drill the recruits all day, and return to their quarters at 5 p.m. But it was decided the camp needed its own DIs, which is how Peoples found himself in DI school.
When Peoples assumed his position as instructor, however, he soon was called on the carpet. “I thought I was supposed to mainly teach military science, how to use the M1 rifle and so on,” he says, “but the senior NCO told me my men had no snap, so he took over and took them down into the bay and had them drill up to their necks in water. Then he told me to take over or he was going to put me out there too. I toughened up in a hurry.”
Peoples saw some other DIs physically striking their recruits, something he refused to do. “They weren’t coddled, but I wasn’t trying to hurt them either,” he says. “I did my share of yelling, though, and I’d punish them by having them duckwalk for maybe 25 or 30 minutes, which is rough on your knees. I’d have them march five or 10 miles with their packs filled with sand. And I’d wake them up at 2 in the morning and make them clean the barracks with toothbrushes,” he says with a chuckle.
James Rundles, another DI who shared a hut with Peoples, explains they worked their men so hard because they wanted to exceed the Marine Corps’ requirements. “Many of the brass thought that Negroes could never be trained to be ‘real Marines’ and that their induction would hurt the Corps,” he said in an interview with The Jackson (Miss.) Advocate. Rundles and the other DIs were determined to prove them wrong.
A crucial assignment
One day, Rundles learned Gen. A.A. Vandegrift, commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, was coming to Montford Point for an inspection. “They were trying to decide whether to keep it or close it,” says Rundles. “After his inspection, the general was to have us pass in review while one sergeant stood six feet in front of him, shouting commands to 1,200 Marines. Master Sgt. Gilbert H. ‘Hashmark’ Johnson was to decide which sergeant it would be.” Rundles ended up with the make-or-break assignment.
Three days later, Rundles stood on the parade ground, calling out commands to the troops while the general looked on. The Marines began to march, carrying out their maneuvers like a well-oiled machine. As they approached the reviewing stand, the “Marching 100” band struck up the Marines’ Hymn. “I was proud of them,” says Rundles. “It was beautiful to watch the pride and precision those men executed.” After the last man passed, Rundles swiveled on his heel and saluted Vandegrift, who returned the salute and said with a grin, “Good show, sergeant. Good show.”
After the general’s visit, all restrictions on admitting African-Americans into the Marine Corps were lifted, and by the end of the war, more than 20,000 men were trained at Montford Point. But before that, it was time for Rundles to put all his training to use. “Our commander decided there were only two kinds of Marines: those who had been in combat and those who were going,” he remembers. “In August 1944, we were given our last furlough home before leaving for Camp Pendleton [Calif.]”
Into the meat grinder
After training, Rundles was shipped out to Hawaii, then put aboard a ship with an unknown destination. All he knew was it was part of a huge convoy, but after refueling stops at a series of Pacific islands, Rundles finally was briefed about his destination. He and his fellow Marines were to invade the island of Iwo Jima, Japan. It would be a short mission, they were told: perhaps a week at the most. The reality would be very different.
On Feb. 19, 1945, the convoy’s battleships raked the island with shells from their formidable 16-inch guns, while aircraft pounded the Japanese fortress of Mount Suribachi with rockets. The first wave of Marines landed without incident, but as they moved inland, the Japanese opened fire from concealed bunkers and outcrops. Caught in the open, nearly 2,000 servicemembers died that day.
On the third day of fighting, it was Rundles’ turn to come ashore. As he and his 34th Marine Depot comrades approached the beach in their landing ship, he happened to look through his field glasses at Mount Suribachi and saw a glorious vision. “There she went,” he remembers. “They were raising the flag. God, what a beautiful sight, I thought.” Black or white, the Marines on Iwo Jima endured more than a month of hell before the island finally was secured. A few months later, B-29s dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese mainland, and soon the war in the Pacific was over.
The Montford Point Marines went home, proud of their accomplishments but certain their stories would be only a footnote in the epic history of World War II. Rundles received a Presidential Unit Citation for his service on Iwo Jima. Upon his return to the U.S., Preston got a job on the railroad and spent nearly 20 years there. Peoples enrolled at Jackson State University in Mississippi, earned a doctorate, and taught mathematics in Indiana before returning to Jackson in 1964 and eventually becoming president of Jackson State.
These Marines’ story still might be largely unknown had Gen. James F. Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, not attended a Camp Montford Point reunion at Camp Pendleton in 2011. He walked out amazed he had never heard of the Montford Pointers and vowed to make sure they received long-overdue recognition not only for their service but also for their role in changing society. And June 28, 2012, that’s exactly what happened.
On that steamy summer day, those who could manage it rose to their feet as, one by one, their names were called to accept the Congressional Gold Medal. Peoples remembers: “They were calling our names over the loudspeaker, and when they called the name of the guy next to me and I knew my name was next, I thought, This is really going to happen!” When the Marine general officer slipped the medal over his head, Peoples responded with a resounding “Yes!”
Preston and a fellow Montford Pointer received some due recognition even before the ceremony. Aboard their flight to Washington, D.C., the two were surprised by an announcement from the cockpit: “This is the captain. I want to let you know that we have two distinguished Montford Point Marines aboard.” The whole plane just went up in applause, says Preston. “Things like that, despite what happened before, really make you feel like you’re somebody,” he adds.
For those who couldn’t make it to the ceremony, the Marines brought it to them, wherever they happened to be. That was the case with Rundles, now 91, who was visited by a contingent of Marines in full dress uniform at his home in Jackson. A local city councilmember and Rundles’ old friend Peoples looked on as the Montford Pointer finally received recognition for his contributions.
In a statement, Amos said, “To me, they were heroic for two reasons: They fought against the enemy during World War II while they also fought for their civil rights and the respect of their fellow Americans. It is fitting that we, as Americans, honor their selfless service and sacrifice with the Congressional Gold Medal and fully embrace their storied contributions to the history of our nation at war.”