The Marines of Montford Point

The Marines of Montford Point: America’s First Black Marines, by Melton A. McLaurin (The University of North Carolina Press, 2009, 214 pages)

In a period of United States history, when racism and segregation were a part of everyday life, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 in 1941. With the stroke of his pen, the Marine Corps—the last all-white branch of the military—was required to admit Black Americans into the service. 

Camp Montford Point, near Camp Lejeune, North Carolina served as the location for basic training for the new Black Marines from 1942 to 1949. Montford Point was designed as a segregated camp and stayed that way until President Truman’s Executive Order 9981, signed in 1948, desegregated the military. To tell the story of the groundbreaking men who trained at Montford Point, the author and his team interviewed more than sixty veterans. 

What Makes This Book Compelling

The book is not a detailed, narrative history of Montford Point., but rather one compiled from firsthand experiences told through interviews. McLaurin starts with a short summary of the history of Camp Montford Point and the men that trained there, then lets the Marines speak for themselves.  The text consists mainly of excerpts from interview transcripts organized by theme, from joining up, to training, to serving in combat in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. The use of interviews allows the text to elicit a more emotional response from the reader. McLaurin edited the transcripts as little as possible, so the reader has the experience of sitting in the room listening to the men tell their stories.  

Analysis

The stories encompass a full range of emotions. There are humorous stories about how the men joined the Marine Corps (some by “accident”) and their days in basic training. But the humor is offset by tales of the shock and anger of Black men from northern states as they first experience the more openly racist environment of southern states in the 1940s, and their surprise when they see German and Italian WWII prisoners of war held in the US had more freedom than they did in many ways. 

Some of the stories ramble a little, as the reader might expect from people recalling incidents from fifty years ago. However, the first-person point of view with minimal editing makes the anecdotes more riveting than a straight-forward narrative history.   

Conclusion

The Marines of Montford Point provides information about an important part of our nation’s military history, through the point of view of those who made it—the point of view of men who paved the way for today’s integrated armed forces . The book ends on a high note with a chapter entitled “Legacy.” Here, the interviewees discuss what their time at Montford Point and in the Marine Corps means to them and reflects on the perhaps small part they played in eliminating discrimination. The organization of Montford Point Marines, largely today composed of later members of the Marine Corps, also continues to meet to keep the memory of the original members and their achievements alive.

In conjunction with this book, the University of North Carolina Wilmington created a website devoted to the Montford Point marines. It contains the full transcripts of all interviews in the book, as well as a link to a documentary about the Montford Point marines. The documentary includes clips of several of the men interviewed, telling anecdotes, many of which were included in the book. It’s another great way to learn more about this history.  

The link to the website: https://library.uncw.edu/web/montford/

The link to the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vRvFSv7RoPY

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Stephen Lepper submitted this book review. He is a 21-year veteran of the U.S. Navy’s Civil Engineer Corps. He lives with his family in central Massachusetts and can be found on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/stephen-lepper. 

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