RALEIGH — At the dedication of a memorial Friday honoring the first black U.S. Marines, John Spencer imagined his mind would recall what it was like to become a Montford Point Marine.
“I’ll think about the trials and tribulations we went through to prove that we were good Americans and that we loved our country and were willing to fight for it,” said the 88-year-old Spencer, who served 20 years in the Marines and 10 years in the reserves.
Spencer is one of 45 Montford Point Marines who planned to attend the dedication of the national Montford Point Marine memorial at Lejeune Memorial Gardens at the Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune. The $1.1 million memorial includes an anti-aircraft gun and a bronze statue of a Montford Point Marine.
About 600 people attended the dedication, an organizer said, and each of the Montford Point Marines present received a commemorative pin.
About 20,000 men trained at the segregated Montford Point camp from 1942 to 1949 following President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s executive order that led to the desegregation of the Marine Corps, the last branch of the U.S. Armed Forces to admit blacks. In 1948, President Harry Truman signed an executive order that officially ended segregation in the military.
In 2012, Montford Point Marines received the Congressional Gold Medal for their role in desegregating the military.
Spencer was just 15 years old when he left his home in Hyde County in 1943 and lied about his age to join the Marines. He rose to the rank of staff sergeant as he served in World War II and the Korean War. The Montford Point Marines weren’t allowed on “mainside,” or Camp Lejeune proper, and they slept in huts, not barracks, Spencer said. Training was different, too, Spencer said in a phone interview from his home in Jacksonville.
“We had training comparable to white Marines, and it went one step further,” he said. “They were a little bit harder on us because they didn’t want us anyway.”
The inclusion of black Marines was seen as an experiment, and “they didn’t have any idea of keeping us in the Marine Corps,” Spencer said. “But before the war ended, they understood we were just as good or better as the present Marines.”
Norman Preston, 94, left Selma, Alabama, when he was 17 years old and moved to Ohio, where he worked for the Pullman Car Co. He was a military police officer at Montford Point who ended up working at Pearl Harbor.
Even as a military police officer, he was not allowed onto Camp Lejeune, Preston said. He didn’t want to talk more about the experience training at Montford Point.
“That’s history in the past,” said Preston, who lives in Wallace. “You forget it.”
The gun and statue are the first phase of the memorial. Lawmakers provided $330,000 in their most recent budget so a second phase, costing a total of $500,000 and including benches and brick pavers, can be finished, said Sen. Harry Brown, whose district includes the Marine base.
In 1974, Montford Point Camp was renamed Camp Johnson in honor of Sgt. Major Gilbert Johnson, a Montford Point drill instructor. It’s the only Marine Corps installation named in honor of an African-American.