First Black Marines Receive Highest Civilian Honor

Nearly 70 years ago, the Marines became the last branch of the American military to accept blacks into their ranks. The first to serve at the segregated Marine base at Montford Point in North Carolina are relatively little known, compared to their fellow trail blazers in the Army's Buffalo Soldiers and the Air Force's Tuskegee Airmen — until now. Congress voted Tuesday to recognize the Montford Point Marines with the Congressional Gold Medal. Historian Melton McLaurin joins Michele Norris to discuss the black servicemen of the Montford Point Marines.

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MICHELE NORRIS, HOST:

Between speeches about jobs and the economy on the House floor today, there was a standing ovation and a unanimous vote.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: On this vote, the yeas are 422, the nays are zero.

NORRIS: The House awarded the nation's highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal, to the Montford Point Marines. They were the first black members of the U.S. Marine Corps.

And to learn more about them, we called on historian Melton McLaurin. He's the author of "The Marines of Montford Point." He says the Marines were forced to accept blacks in 1941, by order of the president.

MELTON MCLAURIN: Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order that required all branches of the federal government to accept African-Americans. It did not mean that they had to integrate those African-Americans, but they could not refuse to accept them. So the Marine Corps established Montford Point to train the African-Americans that they were forced to accept.

NORRIS: How were they viewed by the military? Were they among those segregated units that in some ways, helped the military understand the potential of men of color?

MCLAURIN: Well, they were because they served well. But I think one needs to know that the commandant of the Marine Corps, just before these men were admitted into the Marine Corps - under the objections of the corps - said that if he had a choice between taking 250,000 African-American troops and 5,000 white troops, he would prefer to have the white troops. So there was that kind of prejudice existing within the corps and - well, to be truthful, throughout American society.

NORRIS: At that point, men of color who entered the Armed Forces were often trained for specific duties. Sometimes they worked as cooks, as stewards. They worked in the supply line, and worked in warehouses and that kind of thing. What did these men do?

MCLAURIN: Well, they were originally trained in combat units. But very quickly, the Marine Corps switched them to service units.

NORRIS: So even though they didn't necessarily serve, at least initially, in front-line combat, they still found themselves at incredible points of military history - Marine history.

MCLAURIN: Well, they weren't assigned combat duty, but they actually were involved in combat. Most of the major Pacific landings - they were at Saipan; they were at Iwo Jima; they were at Okinawa; they were at Peleliu. There was an ammo company that went in on the first day at Iwo Jima. Well, when they first went in, they were not trying to move ammo up into the interior of the island. They were trying, like everybody else, to help establish a beachhead. So at that point, they were actually involved in combat.

Now, once the beachhead was secure, then they went back to doing what they were trained to do as handlers of ammo.

NORRIS: For the Montford Point Marines that stayed within that branch, were they able to rise through the ranks? Did they eventually become officers and beyond?

MCLAURIN: No. All of the units that were formed at Montford Point had white officers. Now, once the Marine Corps was integrated, after the beginning of the Korean War, then you began to see some men move up into officer position. But very few Montford Point men made it to an officer's position. They made it possible for the men who came after them, who joined the corps, to become officers. And by the 1960s and the Civil Rights Movement, the Marines had an aggressive program of identifying young African-American men to go to officer-training programs.

NORRIS: The few, the proud, the Marines.

MCLAURIN: Right. And they - and that's one thing the Montford Pointers all have in common. Of all the men we interviewed, only one had anything negative to say about the corps. Everybody else was extraordinarily proud of their service in the Marine Corps.

NORRIS: Professor McLaurin, it's been good to talk to you. Thank you very much.

MCLAURIN: Thank you, Michele.

NORRIS: Melton McLaurin wrote a book called "The Marines of Montford Point." He's a professor of american history, emeritus, at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.

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