"Montford point Marines"

William Foreman, Sr., Charles Wells, and Howard Williams were all "Montford point Marines" during WWII and all helped integrate the Corps. (Gene Sweeney Jr./Baltimore Sun / June 4, 2012)

When the train full of Marine recruits from Baltimore reached Washington, the blacks were made to move to the back. At boot camp in North Carolina, they were forbidden to step onto Camp Lejeune without a white escort.

But the worst of it, Howard "Chappie" Williams says, came when training was over. It was the height of World War II, and these first black Marines were kept from the fight.

"A lot of good talent was lost as a result of that," said Williams, who drove a truck in an ammunition company during the war. "A lot of men's lives could have been saved had it not been for the warped concept that America had at that time."

Now, seven decades after President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the Marines — the last whites-only branch of the military to accept African-Americans, Williams and other pioneers are being recognized for their service.

The Montford Point Marines, named for the segregated camp near Lejeune where they trained, have been featured in books and documentaries. The Navy has named a new troop-landing ship the USNS Montford Point.

And this month, those who are still alive will gather in Washington to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation's highest civilian honor.

"Every Marine from private to general will know the history of those men who … fought not only the enemy they were soon to know overseas, but the enemy of racism and segregation in their own country," Gen. James F. Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps, said after Congress approved the award last year. "My promise to you is that your story will not be forgotten."

William Foreman Sr., one of a handful of Montford Point Marines in the Baltimore area, called the attention "long overdue."

"We fought a dual war," said Foreman, 87, of Catonsville. "We should get the same recognition as the other members of the armed forces."

Montford Point Marines say that recognition has been slow in coming.

"I think they were trying to get us all to die first," said Charles Wells, 86.

The Army and the Navy had accepted black soldiers and sailors into their ranks since the Civil War. But in 1941, as civil rights leaders pressured Roosevelt to integrate all of the armed services, then-Marine Corps commandant Maj. Gen. Thomas Holcomb objected.

"If it were a question of having a Marine Corps of 5,000 whites or 250,000 Negroes," he said, "I would rather have the whites."

Holcomb's opposition notwithstanding, Roosevelt issued an executive order on June 25, 1941, prohibiting racial discrimination by the armed services, and a year later the first recruits arrived at the new boot camp for black Marines at Montford Point.

Wells, who trained at the camp on the North Carolina coast in 1944, remembers a mosquito-infested outpost in woods populated by snakes and bears.

"They fenced it in to keep the wild animals from eating us while we slept," the Gywnn Oak man said.

Lejeune, where the white recruits trained, had permanent barracks and paved streets. Montford Point was constructed with particle-board huts and mud tracks. The camp's white commanders arrived in the morning and left at night.

"That was the norm at that time," said Foreman. "We had a divided country. The whites were in one section, the blacks were in the other section. ...

"The guys from the North were the ones that suffered mostly. They weren't used to it."