Righting past wrongs: Honoring Black Marines, 70 years Later

Jake Tapper, Richard Coolidge & Sherisse Pham
Power PlayersJuly 2, 2012

Political Punch

Largely overlooked by history, the very first African Americans in the Marine Corps are finally being honored for their service to this country — some 70 years later.

In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the United States Marine Corps to accept African Americans in their ranks. But for most of these black recruits, the rigors of Marine boot camp were made even tougher because of racism.  These men were welcome to risk their lives and pay the ultimate sacrifice in World War II, but they were forced to endure segregated, violent treatment, even during their earliest days of training.

Nevertheless, retired Capt. Edward Hicks says he wears his Marine Corps cap with pride, and is frequently stopped by other marines.

"And the first thing they ask you is what outfit you served in, where'd you go to boot camp? You tell them Montford Point -- 'Where's that?' I never heard of that,' " says Hicks.

The country's first black Marines, more than 19,000, trained at Montford Point in North Carolina. They were segregated from white Marines that trained at nearby Camp Lejeune, where black Marines were not allowed to enter, unless accompanied by a white officer -- until 1949 when Montford Point was closed and Marine training was integrated.

Drill instructors - or DI's - were white, and sometimes merciless. "Our DI's were at liberty to do anything they chose to do to us except break our legs," says retired Lt. Col. Joe Carpenter. "We got kicked, we got slapped ... we couldn't do anything except say, 'Yes, sir' and accept it."

"They would call us names," says retired Marine Clarence Hunt, "and would say bad things to us, 'You gonna be sorry the day you were born.' Sometimes they called us the "n" word."

For decades now, the Montford Marines have not received appreciation for their place in history, like the Tuskegee Airmen, black pilots who flew during World War II, or the Buffalo Soldiers, African-American units that fought during the Indian wars. But many of the surviving Muntford Point Marines came to Washington last week to be recognized, finally, for their service.

Some 400 of these surviving Montford Point Marines were  awarded the nation's highest civilian honor: the Congressional Gold Medal. These Marines fought two wars in their youth -- the one overseas for their country, and the one at home for their dignity.

"I had to somewhat hold back tears, it's a long time coming, got to be 86 years old, something you look forward to, wonder if you are going to make it to live long enough to see it," said former Gunnery Sgt. Ruben McNair.

Former Capt. Hicks says he will continue to don his Marine Corps cap with pride and he is looking forward to recognition from fellow marines.

"Now everybody will know, that's the thing right there," says Hicks. "Every Marine will know the history of Montfort Point."

ABC News' John Parkinson contributed to this report.