EYEWITNESS NEWS (WBRE/WYOU) — In June of 1941, President Roosevelt issued an executive order establishing the Fair Employment Practices Commission, banning discriminatory employment practices in World War II. This led to one of the biggest changes in the military but it didn’t happen overnight.
On this week’s Veterans Voices, the executive order by FDR may have banned discrimination, but for the marine corps recruits in a North Carolina base, there were still hills to climb.
It was August 1942, the first African-American recruits enter the U.S. Marine Corps. Their training site was Montford Point, a corner of land near Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
“Someone had to start, and these were the individuals who opened the door for black folks to come into the Marine Corps.”
But initially, Montford Point was anything but equal. Training was segregated, black Marines’ duties included carrying ammunition to their white counterparts. It was only years later that African Americans were awarded leadership roles. Marine First Sgt. Jack McDowell says his first experience with all-white troops was anything but normal.
“That was actually the first time in 1950 that I served with white troops. All of a sudden overnight I was in charge of 28 of them. Most of them didn’t even know black guys were even in the Marine Corps,” said retired First Sgt. Jack McDowell.
In 1974 they renamed Montford Point ‘Camp Gilbert H. Johnson’ to honor the camp’s first black drill instructor. Its retired Chief Warrant Officer, Houston Shinal’s job, was to preserve this chapter of Marine Corps History.
“One thing about the Marine Corps, they teach us history. They teach us, why we should be proud of being Marines. It’s called instilling. They ensure that by the time we get that first anchor in San Diego, they’ve changed us from being a civilian to having the heard of a Marine,” explained Houston Shinal, retired Chief Warrant Officer.
It’s not black Marine history, it’s Marine Corps history, and that’s the big story we’re trying to get at.
The Montford Point Marines got their first taste of battle in 1945 in the invasion of Okinawa where the first black Marines fought alongside their white counterparts against the Japanese.