During my formative years at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C., the principles of honor and service were deeply ingrained in me – a vital aspect of becoming a “man for others.” Yet, the origins of these principles extend beyond my schooling, reaching back to an exceptional person who I am proud to refer to as my late-grandfather, Reuben McNair, a Montford Point Marine. The experiences of my grandfather and his corps colleagues embody a compelling narrative of how honor served as a robust and unwavering compass, directing their actions and choices, even in the face of the most formidable situations.
As we usher in November, a month deeply resonated with gratitude and remembrance, we take the time to commemorate the National Football League’s (NFL) “Salute to Service” Month and celebrate Veterans Day, honoring the brave individuals who have served in our armed forces. My thoughts turn towards the numerous servicemen and servicewomen, whose courage and dedication persistently inspire us. Among these heroes, the Montford Point Marines stand as a towering beacon of resilience, bravery, and honor.
From Segregation to Valor: The Journey of the Montford Point Marines
From 1942 to 1949, African Americans, for the first time, joined the U.S. Marine Corps, enduring racial bias and poor living conditions during their training at the segregated Montford Point Camp in North Carolina. Despite these challenges, their unwavering sense of duty, honor, and patriotism shone through during World War II and the Korean War. Initially excluded from combat roles and advanced infantry training, these Black Marines were assigned to support units such as depot and ammunition companies. Even so, they distinguished themselves in Pacific battles like Saipan, Tinian, Guam, Peleliu, and Iwo Jima, often directly engaging the enemy while performing their support duties.
Peleliu’s “Black Angels”
In the face of significant opposition and after enduring a period of exclusion from armed combat, African-American Marines were finally granted the right to fight. They proved their mettle in some of the harshest conditions and battles, including the Battle of Peleliu. The National Museum of the Marine Corps described this battle as “the bitterest battle of the war for the Marines” (Wheelan, 2023). This was a test of both their physical prowess and their unwavering courage.
The Montford Point Marines showcased their tenacity and bravery during this battle and McNair, assigned to the 7th Ammunition Company, found himself entrenched in a ferocious firefight. His duties ranged from transporting ammunition to engaging in direct combat, rescuing wounded allies, and persistently returning to the frontline.
In “Love and War: Beneath the Southern Cross,” Edward Andrusko provides a vivid depiction of how the Montford Point Marines earned the nickname “Black Angels.” When the tide of battle grew dire, the 7th and 11th Marine Ammunition Depot Company volunteered to support the front lines. They tirelessly worked to evacuate the wounded and fallen, often holding a casualty stretcher in one hand and a firearm in the other (Andrusko, 2003). Their heroic efforts earned them heartfelt gratitude from a severely wounded white Southerner, giving rise to the moniker “Black Angels” — a testament to their valor and selflessness.
Beyond the Battlefield: The Montford Point Marines’ Struggle for Equality
During a period marked by stark racial divisions, African American Marines grappled with segregation in facilities and services. They found themselves battling not only enemy forces on the battlefield, but also the ingrained racism within the institution they pledged to serve. These Marines experienced isolation from their white counterparts, including during overseas deployments, highlighting a stark incongruity with their mutual commitment to service. Nonetheless, in the face of such glaring inequality, they persisted, their dedication to their duty never wavering.
When the war ended, their trials didn’t. The Montford Point Marines returned home, not to a hero’s welcome, but to continued discrimination. The respect and recognition that should have been their due were often withheld, bestowed freely to their white counterparts instead.
Yet, in the face of these formidable challenges, the Montford Point Marines stood tall. They upheld their honor, served with distinction, and broke down barriers. Their legacy was not merely in the battles they fought overseas, but in the path they forged for future generations of African American service members.
The G.I. Bill and Economic Empowerment
Following World War II, the G.I. Bill, officially the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, offered a variety of benefits for returning World War II veterans. These included affordable mortgages, low-interest business start-up loans, educational grants, and unemployment compensation.
However, due to persistent racial discrimination, many African American veterans, like the Montford Point Marines, initially struggled to fully access these benefits. They played a pivotal role in advocating for equal access to these benefits for all African American veterans. This act indirectly contributed to the rise of the African American middle class in the post-war era and laid the groundwork for the civil rights movement.
The G.I. Bill brought about significant change by providing a route to the middle class for millions of veterans, including African Americans. Access to education, housing, and business loans facilitated economic prosperity and advancement. This provision of economic opportunities played a critical role in mitigating systemic inequality and promoting economic growth within the African American community.
Acknowledgment and Legacy
In 2012, the collective sacrifice and service of the Montford Point Marines were finally recognized when they were bestowed the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor in the United States. This recognition acknowledged their invaluable contributions during a tumultuous period of racial tension.
As we stand on the brink of the NFL Foundation’s celebration of servicemembers in conjunction with the Medal of Honor Museum in Arlington, Texas, it is fitting to reflect on the legacy of the Montford Point Marines. Their story serves as a powerful reminder of the courage, honor, and resilience of our servicemen and servicewomen.
To enrich your understanding of influential figures like the Montford Point Marines, we recommend educators explore EVERFI’s 306: Black History and 306: Black History – Continuing the Story courses. A new module, sponsored by the Medal of Honor Foundation, is also available in the Character Playbook course. Focusing on courage, commitment, and integrity, these resources allow students to learn about the attributes of these figures and much more.
As we commemorate the legacy of the Montford Point Marines during this Salute to Service Month, we hope it continues to inspire and foster positive change. Explore these courses today.
Andrusko, E. (2003). Love and War Beneath the Southern Cross. Self-published.
Astor, G. (1998). The Right to Fight: A History of African Americans in the Military. Presidio.
Hazard, A. (2012). Living History: Montford Point Marines. Pass in Review, July/August/September 2012. Retrieved October 29, 2023, from https://www.barracks.marines.mil/Portals/74/Docs/PiR%20JAS.pdf
Heng, D. (2020). Walking the Blood-Stained Pave: The Experiences of African American Marines in the Second World War from Enlistment to Montford Point (Master’s thesis, Clemson University). TigerPrints. https://tigerprints.clemson.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=4312&context=all_theses
Kotz, N. (2005, August 28). ‘When Affirmative Action Was White’: Uncivil Rights. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/28/books/review/when-affirmative-action-was-white-uncivil-rights.html
Lutz, S. D. (2019). The Few, the Proud, the Black Marines in World War II. Warfare History Network. https://warfarehistorynetwork.com/article/the-few-the-proud-the-black-marines-in-world-war-ii/
MarineParents.com. (n.d.). Montford Point Marines. https://marineparents.com/marinecorps/montfordpointmarines.asp
McNair, R. (2005, June 29). Oral History Interview. Randall Library Oral History Collection – Montford Point Marines. Retrieved October 29, 2023, from https://library.uncw.edu/web/montford/transcripts/McNair_Reuben.html
Peleliu Tribute. (n.d.). Peleliu Combat Team 7 (Beach Orange 3). Retrieved October 29, 2023, from https://www.peleliutribute.com/Vets5.html
Wheelan, J. (2023, March 5). Peleliu – Inside the Pacific War’s “Bitterest Battle”. MilitaryHistoryNow.com. https://militaryhistorynow.com/2023/03/05/peleliu-inside-the-pacific-wars-bitterest-battle/
About the Author:
Erick, a Senior Manager on the Customer Marketing team at EVERFI, holds a master’s degree in Sports Management from Georgetown University. With over a decade of experience in the sports and media sector, Erick has cultivated a deep-seated passion for making a meaningful difference in marginalized or underrepresented communities. Before joining EVERFI, Erick worked for Events DC, Washington, DC’s Sports & Convention Authority. He now supports EVERFI’s sports partnerships team, spearheading marketing and event initiatives that engage students around critical topics including character education, mental wellness, and STEM.