Soon after finishing boot camp at Montford Point in 1949, John Phoenix joined other new Marines on a visit to nearby Jacksonville, N.C. Dressed in their newly pressed khaki uniforms, they proudly strolled off the train. They’d taken only a few steps when they were confronted by a large sign.
The roughly 10- by 8-foot, black and white billboard with big block letters clarified any misconceptions the new Marines might have. The color of their uniforms didn’t supersede the color of their skin.
“No blacks on this side of town,” it read.
The reception wasn’t much warmer at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., where the 19-year-old high school track star and other black recruits were placed in a segregated camp. They were trained harder and worked longer hours than their white counterparts. Phoenix never once met a black officer.
“We went through hell and brimstone at Montford Point,” he said. “It was no playpen there.”
Phoenix, who’s now 83, served 22 years in the Marines, including combat in Korea and Vietnam, before retiring and settling in Burlington, N.C. He never really got over those feelings of not being fully a part of the Corps. Until now.
Seventy years after African-Americans broke the military’s final color barrier, Phoenix and other surviving members of the Montford Point Marines will gather Wednesday on Capitol Hill to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
More than 400 Montford Marines, including more than 30 from North Carolina, are expected to attend the ceremony, where they’ll each receive a replica of the medal. They’ll be good company: George Washington, Mother Teresa, the Wright brothers and Thomas Edison also earned the honor.
From 1942 to 1949, nearly 20,000 African-Americans went to Montford Point, a blacks-only boot camp at Camp Lejeune. Most soon were shipped off to war, with the majority heading to the Pacific theater during World War II. They served as members of the 51st and 52nd defense battalions in support roles for white troops. Others, like Phoenix, also served in Korea and Vietnam.
These trailblazers finally will receive the recognition they deserve, said Sen. Kay Hagan, the Greensboro, N.C., Democrat who led a bipartisan effort to grant the Montford Point Marines the honor.
“When this took place, these Marines were not allowed on the base at Camp Lejeune without a white escort, and yet they served side by side in our military,” she said.
Sen. Richard Burr, a Winston Salem, N.C., Republican, said the Montford Point Marines led the way for future generations of African-Americans who’d risen to the highest levels of our military’s leadership.
“Their bravery, service and sacrifice should serve as an example of patriotism and loyalty despite the significant challenges they faced,” said Burr, who introduced a resolution to establish “Montford Point Marines Day” and was a co-sponsor of Hagan’s bill.
The Marines were the last branch of the military to allow blacks to join when President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order in 1941. It was met with strong opposition.
“If it were a question of having a Marine Corps of 5,000 whites or 250,000 Negroes, I would rather have the whites,” the then-Marine Corps commandant, Maj. Gen. Thomas Holcomb, said at the time.
Most of the Montford Point Marines have since died. Only about 500 of them are known to be alive, including 39 from North Carolina. But they’re dying rapidly. Three North Carolina members have died since Congress announced the award last November. Their family members will make the trip on their behalf.
John Thompson, 86, volunteered to join the Marines in 1943 after graduating from George Washington Carver High School in Kannapolis, N.C., near Charlotte. A fan of history, he’d read stories about the Marines being “an elite group of fighting men.”
“I thought I could do that,” he said. “And they had beautiful uniforms.”
While black recruits were barred from training with whites at Camp Lejeune, Thompson said the hardest part was the discrimination from civilians for whom he’d later go to war and protect.
“If I wanted to see a movie, I couldn’t go to the movie theater. If I wanted to eat at a certain restaurant, I couldn’t eat there. If I rode on the bus, I had to go all the way to the back,” he said. “Even if I had my uniform on.”
When Clero Florence was drafted in 1943, the officer at the Fort Bragg processing center asked him what arm of the service the Burlington teenager wanted to join. Florence, who had an older brother in the Army, said the Army. The officer looked at Florence’s paperwork. He stamped “Marines.”
“I figured he didn’t hear what I said, so I said it again,” Florence recalled. “He just waved me on and said, ‘Next.’ That’s how I got into the Marine Corps.”
Florence, 88, said the only time he didn’t feel discrimination was on the battlefield. He spent 18 months in Guam during World War II, where he helped transport ammunition to white troops and repair damaged tanks and planes. All he wanted to do was survive.
“The whole time I figured I wasn’t going to come back anyway,” he said. “You had bombs falling all around you. You didn’t know what was going to happen.”
The military made them stronger, more disciplined men, Florence and Thompson said. They survived the rigors of boot camp, war and segregation because of the military training and looking to one another for support.
“We had nobody else to relate to,” Phoenix said. “That was the big problem. We had no black officers. We had no black sergeant majors, no black sergeants, that we could relate to. And that made things difficult.”
The Marines are paying for every surviving member and a guest to come to Washington for the congressional ceremony at the U.S. Capitol. Buses have been reserved from almost every tour company around the city. Dozens of wheelchairs have been ordered, and most every handicap-accessible hotel room in the city is booked.
Gen. James Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps, said it was time that the Montford Point Marines were properly written into the 236-year history of the Corps. He’s ordered new recruits and senior officers to learn about their first African-American members.
“Every Marine, from private to general, will know the history of those men who crossed the threshold to fight not only the enemy they were soon to know overseas, but the enemy of racism and segregation in their own country,” Amos said last summer at a gathering of Montford Point Marines.
For years, Phoenix had been frustrated that the Marines had failed to confront the racism of their past.
Like the Army’s Buffalo Soldiers or the Army Air Corps’ Tuskegee Airmen, he said, it took far too long to recognize and honor the sacrifices of African-Americans who paved the way for future generations. But now that the Montford Point Marines are being recognized, he said he finally felt as if he could put his own frustrations and insecurities about not being accepted behind him as well.
“So when this come about we were finally able to get some relief,” he said. “The truth will set you free.”