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Montford Marines: Few, proud and black

By Moni Basu, CNN
  • In 1942, African Americans began joining the Marine Corps
  • They trained at a segregated facility at Montford Point
  • They fought racism at home and a war overseas
  • Not as well known as the Tuskegee Airmen, the Montford Marines hope to preserve their legacy

(CNN) -- Edwin J. Fizer got off the train to report for training at Montford Point, North Carolina in the summer of 1942. He, like all proud Marines, had to prove his mettle.

Except, Fizer had another tough hurdle. He was black, and until then, the U.S. Marine Corps had been all white.

But in June, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an order that began to erase discrimination in the armed forces. The Marines were the last to open up and the next year, Fizer was among 18,000 young black men who trained -- not at Parris Island -- but at a segregated facility in Montford Point, North Carolina.

"It was one of the worst times of my life," said Fizer, in Atlanta Saturday for the annual gathering of the Montford Point Marines. "I was fighting the war on racism and Jim Crow and at the same time getting ready to fight a war overseas."

The history-making Marines never received the same recognition as the famed Tuskegee Airmen, African-American pilots who fought in World War II. But the few Montford Marines who are still alive reunite each year at their convention and hope to spread the word about the path they paved.

This year, they are focusing on preserving their legacy with a monument at Montford Point and supporting a bill that would grant Congressional Gold Medals for the first black Marines. On Saturday, Commandant Gen. James Amos will meet with the Montford Point survivors and begin a month-long effort to pay tribute to them.

But almost always, their conversations begin with memories and sheer marvel at how times have changed.

For Fizer, it's important to be among others who can understand the sting of discrimination while serving the nation.

"They treated us poorly. We heard the 'n' word a lot," he said.

It was an experiment of sorts to see whether black men had enough steeliness to fight as a Marine, Fizer said. Their weapons and equipment were inferior but the tests of physical fitness twice as difficult.

If a drill called for a 10-mile run, the black recruits were ordered to run 20.

At times, the humiliation was tough to endure.

First Black Marines honored

Fizer remembers being off-loaded from the train to make room for German prisoners of war. They were the enemy but they could go places Fizer was not allowed. They were treated with more respect than the black Marines, Fizer said.

"I've often talked to young white people who say, "If I were in your shoes, I would be very angry,'" Fizer said. "I tell them that it takes strength."

The ill treatment from his white superiors hardened Fizer's resolve. Even under the circumstances, he said, the Montford Point Marines broke records. They were determined to serve their nation, even if it did not see them as equals.

Ted Britton, another Montford Point Marine, said the African Americans supported each other like family.

"We wanted to fight," Britton said. "As long as we were together, there was a lot of camaraderie. We trained together and suffered together."

Fizer's platoon fought a grueling war in the Pacific. He returned to carve out a life in New Orleans. In 1965, he and the other Montford Point Marines formed their association, lest they be forgotten in the pages of history.

Two years later, a New York Times story -- "Negro ex-Marines open rally here" -- said the black Marines were "dedicated to unqualified support to our democratic, constitutional form of government."

By then, the armed services were integrated and civil rights legislation was starting to open new doors for African Americans.

James Averhart, born shortly after that convention, grew up to join the Marine Corps in 1987. He did not have to report to a separate training camp for blacks. He did not have to bear racial slurs from his white drill sergeants.

Averhart served in the first Persian Gulf War and eventually took the helm as president of the Montford Point Marine Association. He didn't want the courage of his predecessors to go unnoticed.

"If they had not done what they did, I would not be able to do what I do," Averhart said. "That's why I have an obligation."

With most of the Montford Point Marines in their 80s or 90s, the obituaries go up online all too frequently.

Richard Henry Cornick died in May; Herman S. Hamilton in April; Lloyed E. Privott in February.

They are names that represent not just black history or Marine Corps history, Averhart said. They are American history.

CNN's T.J. Holmes and Barbara Starr contributed to this report.