It was the dress blue uniforms that drew John Thompson to join the U.S. Marines, where black men were not welcome, so he could defend a country that denied him the rights he wanted to fight for.
“I said, ‘Wow, that’s a real pretty uniform,'” recalls Thompson, now 94.
It took President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 executive order banning discrimination in government and defense industry employment because of “race, creed, color, or national origin” to give the teenage son of black South Carolina sharecroppers a chance to serve as a Marine during World War II.
Just not alongside whites.
The first African Americans admitted to the Marine Corps after Roosevelt’s order were put in segregated units, starting with their training. At a swampy, bug-infested camp called Montford Point, adjacent to but separate from Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, they endured indignities — but they also paved the way for others who came after.
Thompson, who enlisted in 1943, was among them. The Marines were the only military branch for him, after he saw their uniforms on newsreels at the black theater where he sold popcorn and after two of his friends joined the Corps themselves.
“The Marine Corps is an elite group. I wanted to belong to an elite group. That was my feeling,” said Thompson, who lives in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Thompson, now a retired teacher, is one of an estimated 400 still living from among the approximately 20,000 men who trained at Montford Point.
In Jim Crow-era Kannapolis, North Carolina, where Thompson was raised, black men were mostly relegated to low-paying jobs at a textile mill and black women weren’t hired at all, he recalled. Blacks had to go to a restaurant’s back door to be served.
As his friends were drafted, one by one, Thompson told his father he wanted to join the service.
“There had been only two blacks in town to go to the Marine Corps, and that had been within the last five or six months before I first started talking to my dad about it,” he recalled.
But racial segregation ruled out Marine training for black recruits at Parris Island, South Carolina, where whites were trained.
“During that time, they didn’t want blacks to belong to elite groups,” Thompson said. “I wanted to belong to an elite group because, at the time, I didn’t think there was a teenager anywhere in the nation any more physically fit than I was.”
Thompson and the other black would-be Marines were sent to Montford Point. Separated from Lejeune by railroad tracks that they weren’t allowed to cross, Thompson said it was like the racial separation back at home.
“Mind you, I was in a segregated society,” Thompson said. “I knew nothing else. It was a way of life.”
The new recruits’ fatigues weren’t folded and didn’t fit, Thompson said. When their first day’s training was done, they had no real barracks either.
“We had huts to live in. The walls were one board thick, and they looked as if you could ram your fist through a wall,” Thompson said. “In the middle of the hut was one oil stove. We had to supply that stove with buckets to keep that stove going.”
When their training began, the black recruits served entirely under the command of white men.
“We had white sergeants … Most of them were Southerners with heavy accents. We only had two or three sergeants from the North,” Thompson said. “It was because they wanted to treat us less than any white person who had ever been in the Marine Corps.”
Thompson said the sergeants didn’t use outright racial epithets, but they would often refer to the black recruits as “you people,” which he considered “subtle expressions” of racism.
Yet in a training course notorious for weeding out all but the strongest, Thompson endured their rough tutelage and even thrived.
“This training lasted for two months,” he said. “I was made a squad leader. I never did have to do any KP while I was in the service because I was a squad leader and squad leaders didn’t go to the kitchen.”
He said he and his comrades helped one another stay strong in the face of challenges. When off duty, they would compete against each other on the drill field to see who was fastest.
“I always tried to outdo the other guys,” Thompson said.
But even a Marine uniform won a black man no respect.
“Everything was done separately. At the bus station, we would get in line to get on the bus. We had to go all the way to the back of the bus,” he said. “We never could sit up front unless the bus was completely full of black people.”
The black Marines’ duties in World War II were confined mainly to dispensing ammunition and retrieving the wounded from the front lines. Thompson didn’t see combat, but others did.
Historians say the government initially planned to discharge the black Marines after World War II. But in 1948, President Harry Truman issued an order fully desegregating the U.S. armed forces. Today the Marine Corps is about 11 percent black — still low among the services, but a seismic shift ahead of the World War II-era.
Montford Point Camp was decommissioned on Sept. 9, 1949. On April 19, 1974, it was renamed Camp Johnson in honor of the late Sgt. Maj. Gilbert H. “Hashmark” Johnson — a Marine legend and one of the first black men who eventually were trained as Marine drill instructors. Today it’s the only Marine Corps installation named in honor of an African American. A memorial honoring the pioneering Montford Point Marines was dedicated there in 2016.
In 2011, then-President Barack Obama signed a law awarding all Montford Point Marines the Congressional Gold Medal.
Some of those medals were awarded posthumously.
“We went through a lot and we realized we went through a lot,” Thompson said. “This is just a small token of what we went through.”