Montford Point Marines remember a segregated Marine Corps

By  | 

In this moment in Black History, we meet two of the men who are called the Montford Point Marines.

They trained aboard Camp Lejeune's military base in the 1940's. They were segregated from the white Marines, but when it came down to fighting the war, they said they were one United States of America.

"I was one of the first African American Marines to go into battle," says John Spencer. "I was one of the first."

Norman Preston was one of two of the first African Americans to desegregate the Marine Corps.

"One of the few. A group of the very first," he remembers. "When the war started in 1941, they had what they called a draft. I was drafted." said Preston.

Preston was from Selma, Alabama. He had to leave his wife and two young daughters to serve our country.

John Lee Spencer of Hyde County, not even 18 years old, says he lied his way into service.

"I ran away from home and said I would join the Marine Corps," said Spencer.

These men were among the 20,000 who came to Montford Point, a satellite of Camp Lejeune. It was the only boot camp for black Marines in 1941. While Marines were separated for training, they served together on the battlefield.

"Everyone was fighting for one cause. You didn't have a white or black cause. You had one cause and that was to protect the United States of America," said Spencer.

Preston, meanwhile, became a military police officer. He didn't engage in active battle like Spencer, but endured being an officer with little power as a black man.

"The only blacks on the base at Camp Lejeune was working people. Even I was a military police man and I wasn't allowed over there," says Preston.

Montford Point served as a black training base for seven years. It was then renamed Camp Johnson in honor of the late Sgt. Maj. Gilbert H. "Hashmark" Johnson. Johnson was one of the first African Americans to join the Corps and became a drill instructor. He was a veteran of both WWII and Korea.

Retired Sgt. Maj. Johnny Young Jr. is the President of the Montford Point Association, which has turned the old mess hall into the Montford Point Museum.

"It is a part of Marine Corps history and we should never let that die," he says.

Despite their segregation, the mission for those who served was always clear.

"In the four years I spent in the Marine Corps, I don't regret one day of it," said Preston.

"It learned me the meaning of togetherness. Semper Fi meant something," said Spencer.

In 2012, the Montford Point Marines were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, honoring the legacy of the black Marines. Spencer and Preston were in Washington, D.C. to get their medals.