“You had to be good….you had to be better.” These words were spoken by Mr. John Richard Johnson, Jr., reflecting on his days as a Montford Point Marine, the first African Americans to serve in the United States Marine Corps. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to speak with Mr. Johnson recently in Chesapeake, Virginia.
An affable host, Mr. Johnson was, at the time of the interview, just shy of his eighty-eighth birthday. He was born in 1926, on the 31st of October, or “Goblin Day,” as he humorously refers to it. A native of Scotland Neck, in Halifax County, North Carolina, he’s the son of John Richard Johnson, Sr., and Sallie Mae Arrington. He was pleasantly surprised that I knew Scotland Neck; I told him I’d studied my family’s genealogy for many years and had ancestors from various counties in North Carolina, including Halifax, Warren, Vance, Hertford, and Franklin. Smiling, he went on, and told me about his mother and father. John Richard Sr., “a deeply religious, praying man” as described by Mr. Johnson, was the son of Burgess and Rosetta Davis Johnson. His mother, Sallie Mae, was one of seven children, with four brothers and two sisters. The family lived next door to Ephraim Mutts, Jr., who was an undertaker for the community. Mr. Mutts had two daughters and two sons that were about Mr. Johnson’s age growing up.
While he was still young, “about eight or nine” Mr. Johnson recalled, the family relocated north to Ahoskie, in Hertford County, North Carolina. Mr. Johnson was coming of age in the Depression era, when it was very difficult to find work. His father, John Richard Johnson, Sr., provided for his family at various times working at odd jobs and as a custodian. When he was little older, Mr. Johnson went to school to learn the art of brick masonry, and after the United States entered World War II, he decided to enlist.
At first, Mr. Johnson stated, the recruiters tried to persuade him to join the Navy, but he refused; he wanted to be a Marine. So, he was off to Raleigh, North Carolina, and beyond…to the southern edge of Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina. His destination was a recently developed area near New River called Camp Montford Point. The year was 1945, and Mr. Johnson had reached the location where the first African Americans allowed to enlist in the United States Marine Corps received their basic training.
Before Mr. Johnson’s enlistment, the Armed Forces were experiencing a momentous change. There had been a long history of African American participation in the United States’ armed conflicts, from the American Revolution, through to World War I. Yet discrimination persisted, and African Americans, once denied the opportunity to fight, often had to serve in segregated units, or given menial duties. Some of this changed with the issuance of Executive Order 8802, by then President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, on June 25, 1941. This order established the Fair Employment Practices Commission, which read, in part, that “all departments of the government, including the Armed Forces, shall lead the way in erasing discrimination over color or race.” With this order, African Americans were able to enlist in the Marine Corps, which was the last military branch resistant to integration. Complete desegregation of the Armed Forces would not be fully realized until 1948 with President Harry Truman’s issuance of Executive Order 9981. Because of existing segregationist policies in the Armed Forces until 1949, African American men who had enlisted in the Marine Corps were not allowed to train with their white counterparts at Parris Island, South Carolina, or San Diego, California. Instead, Camp Montford Point was developed for their training in 1942. In August of that year, Howard P. Perry, of Charlotte, North Carolina, although not the first to actually enlist, became the first African American private to arrive at Montford Point. Thousands of men, including Mr. Johnson, would soon follow between 1943 and 1946, becoming a total of nearly 20, 000 by 1949, after segregation in the Armed Forces was officially abolished.
It was in the month of March, 1945, that Mr. Johnson began his basic training at the Montford Point Training Camp. He can vividly picture all of the pine trees that were onsite when he arrived with the other recruits. There were 33 other men in his platoon, and he prides himself on being one of the fastest. On the day of our interview, his television was on at a low volume. Glancing at the set, he said, “there was none of that.” But there was the heat, and a lot of local wildlife: mosquitoes, snakes, alligators, muskrats, and, at one point, a particularly tenacious (often excitable) skunk that hung around the barracks, drawn by the food. There was the rigorous training regimen the men endured, and drills in the early morning hours long into night. Duck walking up and down hills.
The men were housed in corrugated metal huts without running water. Mr. Johnson remembers the large, pot belly stoves the recruits used for heating the barracks at night, and the coal chutes just outside for fuel. At a point, he remarked that one thing that saw him through the hardships of training was his Bible, a habit he picked up from his father. John Richard Sr., had been a deacon in the family’s churches: Shiloh Baptist Church, in Scotland Neck, NC, and later, Calvary Baptist in Ahoskie, NC.
After basic training, Mr. Johnson served in World War II as a Steward’s Assistant, as African Americans were not allowed to serve alongside white soldiers, their counterparts, during this time. Later, he served at Camp Catlin, just outside Honolulu on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. He was a part of a segregated unit that functioned primarily as support staff, separated into sections such as reclamation and salvage and ordnance. He rose to the rank of Corporal after one year and was honorably discharged in November 1951. Mr. Johnson later re-enlisted, and soon after married Miss Eula L. Harrell, of Cofield, Halifax County, North Carolina. Later on, he was promoted to Sergeant, and received another honorable discharge in 1954.
Eventually, Mr. and Mrs. Johnson relocated to Portsmouth, Virginia, and it was here that they raised a family, five daughters and one son. I met two of his daughters the day of the interview, who were just as congenial and gracious as their father. Mr. Johnson noted that his family lived near the main gates of the Norfolk Navy Yard for many years, just about where Effingham St. merges into George Washington Highway. By this time, he worked for the Norshipco-Norfolk Shipbuilding and Drydock Corp. as a heavy equipment operator, a job which he liked very much, and held for twenty-six years until his retirement. He mentioned that even during his work at Norshipco, he always carried his Bible with him, and read it when he had spare time. In 1974, While Mr. Johnson was an employee at Norshipco, the Montford Point Camp in Jacksonville, NC was renamed in honor of Sgt. Major Gilbert “Hashmark” Johnson, the Alabama native who was one of the camp’s first five African American drill instructors.
As our conversation continued, Mr. Johnson shifted to talking about additional members of his family. He and his wife, Eula, have seven grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. His son, John Richard Johnson III, served in the Marine Corps Reserves for six years, and a grandson is in the Army, currently serving in Afghanistan. I remarked on his family’s tradition of military service, and Mr. Johnson then gestured towards a box on his coffee table, something admittedly I’d had my eye on for some time. It was at this point he showed me photos of a ceremony whereby he and other local Montford Pointers were awarded with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor in the United States.
In 2011, Rep. Corinne Brown of Florida’s Fifth District (then Third District), and Senator Kay Hagen of North Carolina, introduced legislation to formally honor the legacy of the Montford Point Marines. This legislation was later signed into law by President Barack Obama. One official gold medal was minted, and issued on November 23, 2011. Past recipients of the Congressional Gold Medal include opera singer Marian Anderson, boxer Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, Nelson Mandela, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Coretta Scott King, Jackie Robinson, the Little Rock Nine, and the Tuskegee Airmen.
The Montford Point Marines were initially awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in a ceremony held in Washington D. C., in June, 2012. To award individual Marines, bronze replicas of the medal were purchased by donations from the Montford Point Marine Association, Inc. For the Marines that could not attend the 2012 ceremony, numerous, smaller ceremonies have been held throughout the country over the years, to honor each veteran for his service, and grant posthumous honors to the families and descendants for those veterans who have passed on.
Mr. Johnson was unable to make the ceremony in Washington D. C., and received his medal in a ceremony held for Tidewater Montford Pointers on August 17, 2013. The event was made possible through the efforts of Master Sgt. Curt Clarke, president of the Montford Point Marine Association Tidewater Chapter (Chapter 14), one of thirty-six nationwide. During the ceremony, Master Sgt. Curt Clarke noted that the men are “the pioneers of the Marine Corps…they are pioneers for equality, pioneers for service…. They have opened the doors for Marines like myself to join. I’m proud to say I represent the legacy of the Montford Point Marines.”
Mr. Johnson reflected back on that day, and said that although he was happy to have served his country, the medal “was a long time coming,” a situation similar to the Tuskegee Airmen, collectively awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2006, many years after their service. Mr. Johnson remarked how many of his comrades have already passed on, that the survivors are “going fast.” He thought a moment, and commented on how he’s been blessed, to have been able to be present to accept a great honor he’s happy has finally come. We then talked a bit about the memorial that is being built for the Montford Marines, in Jacksonville, North Carolina, which Mr. Johnson hopes to see one day.
As I looked through some of the other memorial items Mr. Johnson had to share, it was a humbling experience to sit and read the biographies of some of Mr. Johnson’s fellow Montford Pointers, such as William R. Davis, and Sergeant Major Gilbert “Hashmark” Johnson. All of these men had accomplished so much, and yet my host, Mr. Johnson, was so down to earth.
In one of the ceremonial brochures, I spotted a message from President Obama. Dated August 25, 2011, the 69th anniversary of the Montford Marines, it read:
Almost seven decades ago, as our Nation was at war, more than 20,000 African American men enlisted in the United States Marines Corps. After completing arduous and segregated basic training at Montford Point Camp, many of these Marines served with distinction during a number of World War II’s bloodiest struggles. Some made the ultimate sacrifice in these battles; others continued their service in Korea and Vietnam.
Despite being denied many basic rights, the Montford Point Marines committed to serve our country with selfless patriotism. Choosing to put their lives on the line, these men helped advance civil rights and influenced President Harry Truman’s decision to desegregate the Armed Forces in 1948. Embodying the Marine Corps motto of Semper Fidelis, Always Faithful, these heroes paved the way for future generations of warriors, regardless of background, to serve in the finest military the world has ever known.
On behalf of a grateful Nation, I thank you for your service and for your contributions to the cause of freedom at home and around the world. May God bless our men and women in uniform, and may God bless the United States of America.
As we concluded, I asked Mr. Johnson what he took away from his experience as a Montford Point Marine. He mentioned that he learned the true value of discipline and respect; self-respect, and the respect one should show to others. It disappoints him to see the amount of disrespect that some members of the younger generation have for their elders and each other.
I want to thank Mr. John R. Johnson, Jr., for his service and his role in helping to break down barriers for future generations, and to thank his family for inviting me into their home, allowing me to share part of their story. And what a wonderful story it is. In more ways than one, thank you.