Black WWII servicemen ultimately recognized with Congressional Gold Medal
On June 25, 1941, more than 160 years after the United States Marine Corps was established, President Franklin Roosevelt—at the urging of civil rights activist A. Phillips Randolph and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt—issued Executive Order 8802 prohibiting discrimination in the defense industry.
Though this decree removed barriers based on race, creed, color, or national origin, it did not completely lift segregation across the U.S. armed forces. That would come seven years later under President Truman.
In the summer of 1942, the first Black Marines arrived at Montford Point Camp, a 1,600-acre wooded swamp near Jacksonville, North Carolina. The first recruits not only were tasked with clearing the land and building their own barracks, but they also had to train in the harsh conditions while their White counterparts benefited from considerably better accommodations at nearby Camp Lejeune.
Several accounts suggest the U.S. Marines, the last branch of the military to allow people of color to enlist, were initially unwelcoming to the Montford Point Marines. In fact, the commandant of the Marine Corps at the time, Maj. Gen. Thomas Holcomb, when asked whether he would want a Marine Corps of 5,000 Whites or 250,000 Negroes, he responded “I would rather have the Whites.”
During the 1940s, nearly 20,000 Montford Point Marines trained at the camp, with many of them deployed overseas, including the historic Battle of Okinawa. While history books, movies and news articles feature heroic stories about the Tuskegee Airmen and the Buffalo soldiers, it seems that the thousands of men who trained at Montford Point and literally changed the face of the Marines are oft-forgotten.
One man, Retired Marine Master Gunnery Sgt. Joseph H. Geeter, is dedicated to changing this narrative. The MSR recently had the opportunity to sit down with Geeter (JG) to hear what the Montford Point Marine Association is doing to honor the lives and legacy of the men who served.
MSR: When did the Montford Point Marine Association start, and what is its mission?
JG: We got started 20 years after WWII in September 1965, when many Montford ‘Pointers’ wanted to get together for a reunion and renew old friendships. Four hundred people showed up at the Adelphia hotel in Philadelphia—professionals, teachers and business owners.
It was such a big turnout, they decided to form the association over the course of the next year. Today we have 47 chapters throughout the United States and one in Okinawa, Japan. Our mission is simply to tell the story and preserve the legacy of the original Montford Pointers.
MSR: President Obama awarded the Montford Point Marines with a Congressional Gold Medal in 2012. What did it take to make that happen?
JG: There’s always been some friendly competition between the Tuskegee Airmen, the Buffalo Soldiers and Montford Pointers, even though the latter weren’t as well known. After the Tuskegee Airmen received their Congressional Gold Medal in 2007, the president of their association challenged me to do the same for the Montford Marines. With the help of State Senator Anthony Hill and about 50 trips to Congress, I was able to connect with the Congressional Black Caucus and find a sponsor, U.S. Representative, Corrine Brown.
Our little coalition started to grow and eventually saw our bill receive a super-majority vote in both houses. On November 23, 2011, President Barack Obama signed the law awarding all Montford Point Marines the Congressional Gold Medal.
MSR: Was there an official ceremony to award the Montford Point Marines their medals?
JG: On June 27, 2012, 400 living Montford Pointers gathered in Emancipation Hall in the U.S. Capitol and were collectively awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. The very next day, the commandant of the Marine Corps, General James Amos, hosted a parade where three-star generals placed the Congressional Gold Medal replica on all 400 Montford Pointers that were in attendance. It was an emotional and glorious day.
MSR: What progress have you made finding the remaining Marines and families?
JG: Approximately 3,000 medals have been awarded, which still leaves 17,000 Montford Point Marines and their families who deserve to be recognized. I typically process a handful of requests a day but have seen these numbers increase as we continue to get more media coverage.
If your readers know of a Black Marine who served during 1942 through 1949, they are a Montford Pointer. By all means, reach out to us at our website, montfordpointmarines.org. There are less than 400 Montford Pointers still alive and thousands of families out there that deserve this honor. We are determined to make sure every family receives this medal and is recognized for their service and sacrifice.
To learn more about the Montford Point Marines, visit montfordpointmarines.org.