Serving while segregated: Celebrating the first black Marines who had to ‘walk on water’

montford point marines Serving while segregated: Celebrating the first black Marines who had to walk on water

Montford Point Marines, Stanley Porter (left) and James Reynolds (right) await the beginning of a veterans recognition ceremony sponsored by the Illinois Department of Veteran Affairs. (Photo Credit/ Kaylah Jackson)

By: Kaylah Jackson

75 years ago, hundreds of black men who dreamed of becoming Marines weren’t allowed to train at Parris Island, alongside their white counterparts. Riding on the back of buses, they were sent to Montford Point, a segregated training camp created specifically for men of color.

“When we got off the train in Warsaw, North Carolina and I saw the signs that said ‘black and white’ drinking fountains and restrooms I said ‘uh oh’, my mom and dad told me about this stuff and I’m experiencing it,” Capt. Eddie Hicks said.

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Retired Capt. Edward Q. Hicks recounts his early experiences in the Corps as a Montford Point Marine. (Photo by Lance Cpl. Chelsea Anderson)

Hicks, inspired by older family members who had joined the Marines, signed up while he was finishing up high school in 1948. After initially being denied enlistment by the U. S. Navy four times for an alleged heart murmur — a condition his family doctor repeatedly denied — he ventured to the Marine recruiting office instead.

“I said ‘well, what are we doing here, we’re going to Parris island?’ The [train] conductor said ‘no son, you’re going to Montford Point.’ I thought maybe they were sending us there for an orientation,” said Hicks. “But I got on the bus and the driver said, ‘sit in the back boy where you belong.'”

At Camp Lejeune, the recruits quickly noticed they all looked the same. And not only the recruits but the drill instructors as well, who took special care to educate the men on how to succeed in a segregated military organization — be better than everyone else.

“If you want to get anywhere in the Marine Corps, you don’t have to be a good Marine, you don’t have to be an excellent Marine, you have to be like Christ… you have to walk on water. You gotta be better than any white Marine,” Hicks said.

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Candidates at Montford Point, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina immediately begin in-processing procedures upon arrival to the base. (Photo courtesy of of Joseph H. Carpenter, United States Marine Corps Archives & Special Collections)

From that point on, Hicks reported to Guam and Korea, where he served in all black units and in Vietnam as the only black officer in Marine Air Group 13.

While he enjoyed serving with his fellow men, he also experienced challenges, having overheard a lieutenant say that Montford Point Marines wouldn’t receive wartime promotions, but their white counterparts would. Contrary to that rumor, Hicks rose up the ranks as a “Marine Mustang,” a phrase for a junior enlisted becoming an officer. He retired as a captain in 1972, one of the few black Marines to become a commissioned officer.

In 1946, the Marine Corps stopped recruiting black men after sizing down from WW2 and were depending on the ones that were already in to sustain the ranks. After many separated, they reopened the camp and that’s when Sgt. Henry Wilcots entered Montford Point as part of the 30th platoon for boot camp.

“It was nighttime, dark and people screaming at you and calling you all sorts of names and words you had never heard before. Even though I knew a little alley speak, I used to get my mouth washed out with soap by my mom, but that was quite the experience. This went on for several hours,” Wilcots said.

After his initial training, Wilcots struggled to find an opening for his next assignment. He even volunteered for an exposition to Antarctica, after realizing many posts around the United States didn’t want blacks stationed there.

“Finally an opening took place for an ammo depot in Earl, New Jersey and we went there for guard duty. You finally got to sleep in a real barrack, you didn’t have to stoke the fires at night to stay warm.”

Harry Truman signed an executive order in 1949 that abolished racial discrimination in the United States and officially integrated all Armed Forces. By this time, Wilcots had completed his contract and had been discharged, but wasn’t sure if he was ready for a school environment. He enlisted in the inactive reserves, and that year North Korea invaded South Korea, resulting in his deployment for the Korean War.

“When I arrived in Korea, seeing those guys coming down the hill, with dirty bandages and just really looking scrubby and I’m going up the hill, clean dungarees, that’s a moment that stayed with me,” he said.

In Korea, Wilcots met many who had never seen a black Marine before, but wartime relegated the racial division of black versus white to be vastly unimportant when it came time to being in a foxhole together.

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“Lieutenant Colonel Frazier, Commanding Officer, Montford Point Camp, presents the World War II Victory Medal to members of the Montford Point Camp, and the 51st, and 52nd Defense Battalions.” (Courtesy of Joseph H. Carpenter, United States Marine Corps Archives & Special Collections)

“When I went in, you could almost count the number of [black] first sergeants in the Corps. You may not know them personally but you did know someone who did know them. In my day, there was one [black] lieutenant. It was a very tight group,” he said.

Even after enduring adversity during training, overseas and coming home, that didn’t diminish the service of the Montford Pointers, who no matter when or where they trained, will always be a apart of the Corps. As Wilcots says, his favorite thing about being a Marine is “being a Marine… Period.”

In June of 2012, the Montford Point Marines were presented with the Congressional Gold Medal to recognize their sacrifice, courage and service and today, the National Montford Point Marine Association, chartered in 1966 works “to promote and preserve the strong bonds of friendship born from shared adversities and to devote ourselves to the furtherance of these accomplishments to ensure more peaceful times.”

Connect: @Kaylahchanel | Kaylah@connectingvets.com

 

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