World War II vet presented highest civilian award
Posted: Monday, November 12, 2012 9:10 pm
U.S. Marine Corps vet-eran Herbert Johnson Jr. of South Fulton paved the way for his fellow soldiers.
While serving his country in the early 1940s, he was essentially fighting two wars — World War II and the civil rights battle.
Johnson, 87, is one of the Montford Point Marines, hundreds of African-Ameri-cans who helped integrate the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II at a time when segregation was an everyday reality.
The Montford Point Marines were recently presented the Congressional Gold Medal — the highest civilian award in the nation — and Johnson was honored with a bronze replica of the medal during a Veterans Day program Saturday morning in Fulton.
On June 25, 1941, Pres-ident Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order establishing the fair employment practice that began to erase dis-crimination in the armed forces. In 1942, he established a presidential directive giving African-Americans an opportunity to be recruited into the Marine Corps.
These African-Americans from all states were not sent to the traditional boot camps of Parris Island, S.C., and San Diego but instead were segregated — experiencing basic training at Montford Point, a facility at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
About 20,000 black soldiers received basic training at Montford Point from 1942 to 1949.
In July 1948, President Harry S Truman issued an executive order ne-gating segregation and, in September 1949, Mont-ford Marine Camp was deactivated — ending seven years of segregation.
Johnson, a South Fulton native known by the nickname “Who Rally,” enlisted in the U.S. Marines in July 1943 at age 18 and was sent to Montford Point. He said training there was rough because it was many recruits’ first time experiencing boot camp and their instructors were white.
“Our drill instructors told us, ‘You people want to be in the Marines, I’m going to make Marines out of you dead or alive,’” he recalled.
After boot camp, Johnson said he was sent overseas to the South Pacific, where he served guard duty and remained for about 21⁄2 years. He departed Guam for San Diego in December 1945 and was honorably discharged at the rank of corporal in early 1946.
He came back to South Fulton to make his home, working for both Illinois Central Railroad and later Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. He is a member of Greater Antioch Missionary Baptist Church and now helps out part-time at Heritage Bank in Fulton.
Johnson told The Messenger he saw a lot of changes in the Marine Corps after it was finally consolidated. He noted that even when he served overseas during the war, the black Marines were kept separate from the white Marines.
He is excited about the Montford Point Marines receiving the Congressional Gold Medal — for perseverance and courage which inspired social change — and he said the honor is long overdue.
The Congressional Gold Medal was presented to the Montford Point Marines by Gen. James F. Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, during a ceremony June 27 at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. The original gold medal is on display at the Marine Corps Museum in Quantico, Va.
Where honor is due
Johnson is one of several Montford Point Marines receiving bronze replicas during ceremonies around the nation. His medal was presented late Saturday morning during Marshall Alexander American Legion Post 72’s annual Veterans Day dinner at Pontotoc Community Center in Fulton.
The Fulton and South Fulton post currently has 50-plus members from all branches of the military, according to post commander Don Robertson of South Fulton, who welcomed an impressive crowd.
Robertson said the post was proud to make the presentation to Johnson “to give some honor where honor is due and hadn’t been gotten for a long time.”
Johnson received his medal from his friend and American Legion post member Robert Vanderford of South Fulton before an audience that included veterans of World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, as well as those from Operation Desert Storm.
A number of officials were on hand, including South Fulton city manager Debra Craig, Fulton Mayor Elaine Forrester, Obion County Mayor Benny McGuire and Obion County Commission chairman Ralph Puckett of South Fulton, as well as a representative from Congressman Stephen Fincher’s office.
Johnson also received special commendations from South Fulton and Fulton.
“Dr. Martin Luther King said the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in a moment of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy, and I believe that Mr. Herbert Johnson has had to endure times of challenge and controversy,” Mrs. Craig said in making South Fulton’s presentation.
Retired Marine Gunnery Sgt. Leroy Mack of Clarksville — one of the original Montford Pointers and a member of the Louisville (Ky.) Chapter 22 Montford Point Marine Association — attended Saturday’s presentation to pay honor to Johnson.
“There are only a few of us left and I’m glad to be one of those few left,” Mack said. “I enjoy seeing old, old Montford Pointers, because there are only a few of us left. ... Today is a special day, because it’s been a long time coming.”
Mack, 85, said the Montford Point Marines struggled through some hard times in seeing desegregation of their branch of the military.
“We strove all those years through the hard times. We were there when we couldn’t go to the main side (of the base). You had to have an officer with you to go to main side,” he said. “We struggled through the hard times when I was the only black in the outfit. We struggled through the hard times when I was the senior man in the outfit. Those were the hard times, but we made it through, and today is going to be the culmination of our hard struggles.”
Mack told The Messenger the early black Marines fought two battles — “the prejudice of the South and the prejudice of the Marine Corps.” He was one of the final Marines to leave Montford Point when it was shut down in 1949 and he, too, saw a lot of changes during the 23 years he served in the Marine Corps before retiring.
“We had to work harder to be accepted, and that makes the receiving of this medal more monumental because we really, really had to go through some hard times,” he said. “I’m so glad that I lived this long to be able to see this.”
Published in The Messenger 11.12.12