For Memorial Day, we offer an excerpt from James Campbell’s moving new book “The Color of War”
When the train pulled into Jacksonville, North Carolina, Edgar Lee Huff, along with four other black recruits he had been traveling with, got off. At the Jacksonville station, a white corporal waited in an idling truck with his arm resting on the window. When Huff walked up and gave his name, the corporal flicked his cigarette onto the ground. “Alright,” he said, “Let’s go then.”
Huff and the other four walked around to the back of the truck, stepped on the bumper, and climbed under the canvas flap. The corporal stuck his head out the window and looked back. “What the hell do you think you’re doing? Get out.” When Huff and the others jumped out, he gunned the engine, splattering dirt and stones in their direction. “Follow me,” he yelled.
Choking on the dust stirred up by the truck, Huff tried to keep pace. Eventually tall pine trees flanked a narrow road. After a mile, the road ended at a large clearing – what would eventually be called the intersection of Montford Landing Road and Harlem Drive — that looked as if it had been hacked out of the jungle. Soaked in sweat, with the sun bearing down on him, Huff shaded his eyes. So this is home, he thought.
Home was Montford Point (originally Mumford Point), located on the western end of Marine Barracks, New River. Montford Point was the Marines’ lone boot camp training facility for African-Americans, the equivalent of Great Lakes’ Camp Robert Smalls. Not long after it opened in late August 1942, Edgar Huff was the only black recruit from the state of Alabama, the product of Marine Corps Commandant Thomas Holcomb’s reluctant decision to accept “colored male citizens of the United States between the ages of 17 and 29.” Holcomb had his orders straight from the President of the United States and the Secretary of the Navy, and by fall 1942, he was expected to have the 1200 recruits needed to man a black defense battalion, which would be in charge of protecting the bases that made up America’s supply line in the Pacific.
Late that afternoon, a heavily muscled corporal started to yell. “All right you black maggots. Fall out here on the road. Now move, move, move.” When he screamed “Tenshun,” Huff knew enough to stand ramrod straight. The corporal checked the muster roll and then walked up to Huff, the cords of his bull neck straining against his khaki shirt, the blood rushing to his eyes in anger. At 6 feet 4 inches, and well over 200 pounds, Huff was hard to intimidate. But the corporal had worked himself into a state. Just inches from Huff’s face – Huff had never been that close to a white man before — he spat, “Boy, I just know you know how to say `Yes, Sir.’ You been saying it all your life. Can you teach the rest of these assholes how y’all say it back down in Alabama?” Then the corporal marched the recruits to the edge of a nearby woods. There he told them they could stand and shout “Yes, Sir,” until hell froze over.
The big trees hid it, but the recruits knew it was there, just a few feet into the woods, a bug and snake-infested bayou. As near as Huff could tell, the camp was nothing but dark sloughs and thick woods. In fact, it was little more than 5 ½ acres of swamp and flooded timber bound by Scales Creek on the east and the New River on the west. Most of the white Marines, on the other side of the river, did not even know that Montford Point existed. The two worlds could not have been more different. On one side of the river, young white Marines worshipped Betty Grable and participated in a tradition that was almost two centuries old. One the other, young men dreamed of Lena Horne and of becoming the first black Marines ever.
As the sun fell, and the sticky day turned into night, the air hummed and buzzed with the sounds of millions of insects. The air was so wet that Huff felt as though he needed gills to breathe. While mosquitoes preyed on them, and frogs piped incessantly, he and his fellow black recruits yelled, “Yes sir” until they were hoarse, until their voice boxes ached and their legs grew wobbly. Hours later, the corporal returned. “You turds ain’t gonna to make it. I’ll see to it personally.” Then he added, “I will see to it there will never be a black-ass Marine.”
On his second night of boot camp, the white drill instructors rousted Huff and the other black recruits from their beds at 1:00 A.M., and ushered them outside. The men stood, arms stiff, chests thrown out, legs spread slightly, stomachs in. “You may as well go over the hill,” one of the DIs snickered. Another drill instructor chimed in, “The best thing you people can do is sneak out of here after the lights go out. Nobody’ll miss you. Hell, no one even knows you’re here. Why try to play ball on a team that doesn’t want you? Just leave quietly and shove the hell off for home. You may as well pack up your shit and git. You shitbirds ain’t gonna make it.”
The NCOs sent the recruits back to their huts. Scared and disillusioned, many of them started packing. The college boys and the Army Reserve officers who had resigned commissions to become Marines were really pissed off. They didn’t have to take this shit! Who in the hell did these uneducated, red-necked, moonshine drinkin’ motherfuckers think they were?
Huff had always relied on his size and physical strength to prove his worth. He had never been an outspoken man, but now he cleared his throat, and searched for the courage to say what he felt.
The day he entered camp, the DI had tried to intimidate him and chase him back to Alabama, but Huff was not going anywhere. He had arrived at Montford Point with holes in his shoes, nothing more than a quarter in pocket change, and in clothes he had worn for five days straight. In Gadsden he had grown up without running water, using an outhouse with seed books as toilet paper. And now the DI was telling him that things were going to get worse? How much worse could they get?
So Huff spoke up. “They want us to fail. Don’t let anybody push you out of the Marines. I’ve found a chance to be a man and I am going to hold to it like a dog on a bone. I ain’t leaving unless I’m in a pine box. I’m going to stay and take whatever they dish out.” Two other men joined Huff. Then Huff added, “You want to leave, you’ll have to go through us.”
The next morning when the drill sergeant blew his whistle, and screamed, “Hit the deck, you black bastards,” men came pouring out of the green, pre-fab huts. He had them line up and counted them in formation. All black recruits were present. Not a single one – not the college boys or the reserve officers — had left in the middle of the night.
Angered by their impudence, the sergeant stared coldly, “I’m going to make sure you wish you had never joined the Marine Corps.”
Photos courtesy of the author.
James Campbell is a native of Wisconsin. He received his B.A. from Yale University and M.A. from the University ofColorado. He has written adventure travel, environmental, and military history pieces for Outside, National Geographic Adventure, Islands, Backpacker, Audubon, Coastal Living, Field and Stream, Sports Afield, Military History and many other magazines and newspapers.
His book The Final Frontiersman, won a nonfiction prize for the 2006 Midwest Booksellers Choice and was named by Amazon as the #1 Outdoor Book of 2004 as well as one of the Top 50 titles of the year. The Ghost Mountain Boys wonthe 2008 RR Donnelley Literary Award, given for the highest literary achievement by a Wisconsin author.
He lives in Wisconsin with his wife and three daughters.