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From Segregation to a Single Corps of 'Green Marines'Coral Anika Theill for Salem-News.com
“Joining a segregated Marine Corps in 1947 was quite a change for me, but I am happy that things have worked out so well and that I am now a part of an integrated Marine Corps.”
(QUANTICO) - In the Corps, as in our societies as a whole, some individuals still have problems accepting people of color in position of authority. Senior leadership in the Corps are taking a hard look at their history and asking questions about why the Corps has fallen behind other service branches in minority recruitment and what can be done to eliminate the last traces of racism.
Seventy years since the first African American Marine recruit reported to train at the segregated camp called Montford Point at Camp Lejeune, N.C., the Montford Point Marines are finally getting the recognition they deserve. (Article: WWII Montford Point Marines Receive Congressional Gold Medal)
In the Corps, the sense of honor and duty runs deep. Honor means going into battle.
Master Gunnery Sergeant Robert E. Talmadge, USMC (Ret) reflects on stories of the past:
There were senior Marines who felt that segregation was wrong and should be corrected, but we still had people in high places who were fighting it.
In 1994, when Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Kalus, (USMC, Ret), first organized our Aloha Chapter of the Chosin Few, International, one of our members was retired Lieutenant General Alpha L. Bowser. General Bowser, as a Marine Colonel was the G-3 planning officer for the Inchon Landing and other 1st Marine Division operations for the following year, including the historic battle of the Chosin Reservoir.
The three of us became good friends and the general would invite Tom and me over to his house in Kailua, and we would talk story. One particular evening the General related this story of how, in 1949, he traveled from the Fleet Marine Force Headquarters at Pearl Harbor (it would not move to Halawa Heights until 1951) to Camp Pendleton, CA to conduct a Force Inspection of units there.
One key feature of Headquarters Marine Corps Inspections, and Force Inspections, is that any Marine can ask for an audience with the senior inspector without telling anyone what he wanted to talk about.
When it became time for (then) Colonel Bowser to hold this request mast, he was settled into one office at a particular unit and asked the unit’s First Sergeant to send the first man in.
The first man entered, a Marine of African ancestry, and after Colonel Bowser asked him a few questions in small talk, he said, “Now you obviously have some thing that concerns you, would you tell me what it is?”
The young Marine, in green dress uniform, said, “Sir, I want to be a Marine!”
Chuckling a little, General Bowser said, “Well, you are a Marine, aren’t you?”
Whereupon, the young Marine said, “Yes sir, but because I am black, I cannot be a Marine like other Marines. I want to be a fighting Marine, like white Marines are, but I can only work in the warehouse and handling supplies.”
After talking a while longer on the subject, Colonel Bowser told him that he would put this information in his official report, and then he told the young Marine he could go and asked him to have the First Sergeant send in the next Marine.
The second Marine was also of African descent and with the same request.
The Colonel repeated basically what he had told the first man, dismissed him and told him to ask the First Sergeant to send the next man in. Another Marine of African descent entered.
Colonel Bowser stopped him and said, “Would you step back outside a minute and ask the First Sergeant to come in and see me?”
When the First Sergeant came in and closed the door, Colonel Bowser asked him how many more black Marines he had waiting, and the First Sergeant replied, “Fifteen Sir!”
Robert E. Talmadge was born and raised in New Haven, CT. “I went to school with and lived in the same area as blacks, and never witnessed, nor had bad relations with any of the immigrants for racial reasons. When my friend and I decided to join the Marine Corps in 1947, we carried no racial baggage with us, but during one of our first interviews, the Marine Recruiting Sergeant tossed in the piece of "chum" that, "in the Marine Corps, you would not have to serve with ‘those people,’ [Blacks] as they could only be cooks, bakers and candlestick makers - not his exact wording, but his words carried that intent.”
“We had no racism, per se, when I was growing up, although the bulk of the black people in New Haven lived in the Dixwell Avenue area, on the other side of town,” Bob explained.
This was neither by design nor racism, but due to the fact that all immigrants coming to New Haven settled down in areas of their own race. Earlier the Irish, Italians and Polish people had done the same. All of his wife's Italian relatives settled in the Hill Section of New Haven.
While attending elementary school in 1938, Bob recalls singing the song “Jump Jim Crow.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jump_Jim_Crow
He did not know the meaning or reference to “Jim Crow” until he was in the Marine Corps.
“We ran right smack into Mr. Jim Crow http://americanhistory.si.edu/brown/history/1-segregated/jim-crow.html when we boarded the Atlantic Coastline Railroad car in Washington, D.C. on November 21, 1947. No blacks were to be seen in our Pullman car except for the porters and servers. We never even thought about “racial problems (or incidents) in the Corps in boot camp, in which our platoon had not a single Marine of African Ancestry.
“It was in North Carolina, where I was sent for schooling after boot camp, that Mr. Jim Crow jumped out and said “hello” once more,” Bob recalls. “We were in formation for a Commanding General's inspection on a Saturday morning. Everyone was there and in formation, except that there was a long open space between our Supply School personnel and the Headquarters Battalion that had me wondering. I was stunned at my introduction to the personnel of our Montford Point boot camp. I had never heard of anything like this.”
Bob also recalls taking a trip to Florence, South Carolina in the late 1940’s. While waiting at the station in his Marine Corps uniform for the bus to arrive, he asked a group of white men where he could find a restroom. They directed him to the back of the station. He entered the restroom and soon realized he was in the “for colored only” men’s restroom. Bob added, "I was shocked to learn about the segregation of restrooms, water fountains, dining and transportation. The memory of this trip and the Jim Crow laws he was exposed to in the South haunts him to this day.
Camp Pendleton – 1949
Later, after Bob had been transferred to Camp Pendleton, California, he learned that in addition to blacks in the mess halls, they had segregated units, one in particular was the Combat Service Group. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Combat_service_support_(United_States)
This was not a division unit, as there were no black Marines assigned within the division. They all shared the same mess hall, which did not bother Bob, he explained, but some of the white Marines would get up and leave without eating, if a Combat Service member chose to sit at their table.
Joining a segregated Marine Corps was quite a change for Bob, but he is happy that things have worked out so well and that he is now a part of an integrated Marine Corps.
Master Gunnery Sergeant Robert E. Talmadge, retired from the Corps in 1974 after 26 1/2 years of service. He left the Corps, but the Corps never left him. Now, at 82, he spends his time giving talks on the Korean War to younger Marines, and recently gave a talk on Korea to Navy Midshipmen aboard their ship at Pearl Harbor.
MGySgt Talmadge believes the best thing the Marine Corps ever did for him was to give him orders to be an instructor at Marine Corps Supply Schools, a tour of duty that would turn into four years of walking the boards, combined with Toastmaster Training. The experience transformed him from a somewhat introverted young man, to an (unpaid) public speaker and a TV personality.
With his past experiences of enlisting in a segregated Marine Corps in 1947 and seeing the transition of the Marine Corps changing from a reluctant participant in the desegregation of the Corps to a leader in the services on integration, Bob has a great deal to offer as a guest speaker and historian.
On January 17, 2012, Robert E. Talmadge was also guest speaker in honor of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., luncheon, on Marine Corps Base, Hawaii, at the dining facility named in honor of Medal of Honor recipient (Vietnam War) James Anderson, aavw.org/served/homepage_janderson.html the very first Black Marine to ever receive the award.
Bob walked over the Octogenarian threshold on April 6, 2010, and was promoted from senior citizen to “Village Elder.” Bob believes in the “golden rule” – do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
“The two smartest things I ever did in my 82 years was to enlist in the Marine Corps and marry the former Rose Marie Pascale of Adeline Street in New Haven, CT - not necessarily in that order,” Bob says proudly. Bob and his wife, Rose, celebrate their 60th anniversary this year.
He has recently had to deal with several health challenges due to cancer. Bob quotes the old Marine Corps story: always another hill or beach to storm and we will take this one too. Bob and his wife, Rose, have lived in Kane`ohe, Hawaii for the past 42 years. They have two daughters, two granddaughters and one grandson. Bob Talmadge can be reached at: email@example.com
After all of them entered, Colonel Bowser discussed the matter with them and told them that there seemed to be a common problem here, and he assured them that he would include it in his report to the Commanding General, Fleet Marine Forces Pacific.
A few days after returning from California, Colonel Bowser was asked to report up to the Commanding General’s office. The Commanding General pulled out the Colonel’s inspection report and said, “Al, I’ve read over your report and know where you are coming from, but I have to tell you, this will not fly at Headquarters Marine Corps!” He then opened his bottom drawer, put the report into it and closed the drawer. Case finished.
In 1952, the former Commanding General, FMFPac, Lieutenant General Lemuel C. Shepherd, was transferred to Washington, D.C., and assigned as the Commandant of the Marine Corps.
Once in office, he realized that desegregation was going to happen, and as Marines do in a situation like that, he grabbed the bull by the horns and set out to make desegregation in our Corps a reality.
Orders went out to Marine Corps commanders to set up General Military Subject classes, in racial integration, throughout the Marine Corps. I was an instructor at Marine Corps Supply Schools, located in the old quarters formerly containing the segregated boot camp at Montford Point. It would later be renamed Camp Johnson, in honor of the first American Marine of African Ancestry to achieve the rank of Sergeant Major in the United States Marine Corps. I sat through numerous classes on desegregation, as the Corps worked to become a single Corps of Green Marines.
Montford Point and Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, in the spring of 1948
Upon completion of our leave time and our return to Parris Island, we reported in to Casual Company, 2nd Recruit Training Battalion, where all returning recruits went until their permanent duty station assignments were issued. When our listing was finally posted on the barrack’s bulletin board, I saw that mine, in typical military talk, stated that I was being transferred to MCSS, MCB, CLNC for duty.
Actually it was only temporary duty, as I was being transferred to Marine Corps Supply Schools, Marine Corps Base, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, for schooling in the Basic Supply Administration School. My friend George had a similar assignment, although his was to the Personnel Administration School, there at Parris Island.
Within a few days, I and others who were assigned to the Supply Schools, were taken to the nearby Beaufort Marine Corps Air Station and flown up to New River Air Station at Camp Lejeune, properly pronounced “Lerh-zherne”, the French pronunciation for General John A. Lejeune’s French surname. It was the first time I had ever flown. Some of my buddies would be assigned to Motor Transport School, Disbursing School, etc. I and others would go to Basic Supply Administration School, where, among other things, I would be taught touch typing, something I have always fully appreciated, as it has proven to be a great asset to me.
I did not really appreciate being sent to a school, as in my junior year, I had dropped out of public school and was not keen on going back into a classroom. Actually I wanted to be an Infantry Marine, in the style of old-time actor, John Wayne, but at that point in time the Marine Corps had a need for administrative supply Marines and I had no choice. But through the years I have learned that the Marine Corps had placed me properly, as I learned to like what I was doing and also learned that Supply and Administration and Personnel Administration (where George was assigned) were the two best occupational fields for promotion, as supply men and administration men were needed at every post and station the Corps had throughout the world.
And while I was there attending supply classes, I was to learn why we had not seen any Americans of African descent at Parris Island while going through recruit training. We, the other recruits assigned to supply training and I, arrived at Camp Lejeune in late February of 1948. In April, the Marine Corps Base Commanding General, Franklin A. Hart, scheduled a commanding general’s inspection on the parade ground just a block down the street from our barracks. When the day arrived, we fell out as the Supply Schools Battalion, with its various companies, Supply, Motor Transport, Disbursing and Food Service.
When formed up, we were marched down the street to the base parade ground and into ranks with the other base units, Headquarters Battalion, Service Battalion, Engineering Schools Battalion and others. As soon as our units were ready, I noticed that to our left, between our Supply Schools Battalion and the Headquarters Battalion, there was an extremely long open space. I wondered why we were not closing it up as it was almost time for the arrival of the commanding general and the start of the inspection.
Suddenly I noticed that to our right, coming down the main highway, was a long convoy of vehicles led by Military Police vehicles with their emergency lights flashing. As the convoy drew closer, I noted that it contained a number of Cattle Cars. (Cattle Cars were semi-trailers, with windows, doors and folding bench style seats, used to transport large numbers of troops).
I could see as they passed, that these vehicles were loaded, as standing troops could be seen through the windows, but not in detail. The convoy passed by on the highway, went almost up to the flag pole at the circle, then turned left, came on to the parade ground and proceeded down the front of the formation until the lead vehicle stopped in front of us, just to our right. A Black Marine Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) got out of the jeep, let out a roaring command and the doors to the Cattle Cars opened and nothing but black Marines came out, hundreds of them, falling into formations in front of us. They were then marched to our left and filled in that long opened area of my earlier concern. I was stunned!
I would later learn that these Marines were from the segregated black boot camp at Montford Point, Camp Lejeune. http://www.marines.mil/unit/tecom/mccsss/Pages/Camp%20History/default.aspx
Camp Lejeune had a number of smaller camps within it: Court House Bay, Montford Point, New River Air Station and others.
When they socialize, they polarize, as one Marine Sergeant said at a forum in Washington, D.C. in the mid-1950s.
by MGySgt Robert E. Talmadge, USMC (Ret)
Analysis: After 60 years, Black Officers Rare http:///www.marinecorpstimes.com/news/2008/07/ap_militaryblacks_072308/
Black Officer's Becoming Extinct in Today's Corps
SPECIAL THANKS: James E. Stewart, Jr.
http://www.mpma28.com/intro_to_web_pages.html President of Montford Point Marine Association Maryland Chapter 28, and National Montford Point Marine Association Hall of Fame Recipient, introduced me to MGySgt Robert E. Talmadge, USMC (Ret) in 2010.
Coral Anika Theill, reporter and advocate, is author of "BONSHEA: Making Light of the Dark." Her published works address abuse, trauma recovery and healing from post-traumatic stress and most recently, wounded Marines, the Warrior Games and Montford Point Marines. Her writings have encouraged and inspired numerous trauma victims and wounded Marines/soldiers recovering from PTS and TBI. Coral's positive insights as a survivor have also earned the respect of clinical therapists, advocates, attorneys, professors and authors. BONSHEA, has been used as a college text for nursing students at Linfield College, Portland, Oregon. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
"Those who serve may already know the toll of having to kill or be killed, but civilian society should also recognize that those who go into battle defending our way of life pay a price. I feel a deep gratitude to our servicemen and women and believe our society needs to do more to respect, understand and support those returning from deployment in conflict zones.” – Coral Anika Theill
The Commandant of the Marine Corps on Post-Traumatic Stress and Traumatic Brain Injury and Invisible Battle Scars: Confronting the Stigma of PTS and TBI http://www.woundedwarriorregiment.org/documents/pao/Leatherneck_Oct_PTS_TBI.pdf
Some of Coral's past military reports:
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