Foreman arrived at Montford Point during the spring of 1943, as the drill instructor corps was changing from the whites who opened the camp to the blacks who were among its first graduates.

"The black drill instructors were harder on us than the white ones," Foreman remembered. "They wanted to make us the cream of the crop. … You wouldn't think the human body could handle that sort of torture."

But when the Montford Point Marines completed boot camp, they were assigned to support roles. Foreman and Wells spent the duration of the war in Hawaii, packing supplies for troops in combat.

In that way, retired University of North Carolina, Wilmington historian Melton A. McLaurin says, the Marines were following the lead of the other branches.

"With the 20th century and the rise of de jure racial segregation, the Army adopted a policy of basically putting their black units into service work," said McLaurin, author of "The Marines of Montford Point: America's First Black Marines."

"The Marines were doing essentially what everybody else did," he said.

Williams did see action. His ammunition company was tasked with retrieving misfired shells on Kwajalein, Okinawa, Saipan and other islands that had been taken by other Marines. On some, they would run into Japanese soldiers who still were fighting.

The United States won the war in the Pacific. But Williams, 87, of Randallstown, says an integrated force would have been stronger.

"I'll tell you, a lot of guys paid the price because of segregation," he said. "The Japanese knew no color, no nothing. They wanted to kill, kill, and that was their focus.

"But the American concept was 'Black guys, go here; white guys, over there.' And you could stand back and see where you had opportunities to provide protection and leadership to possibly protect people. But that was crossing a line."

Williams says relations among black and white Marines varied by individual.

"My relationship with some of the combat whites was beautiful," he said. "We were brothers in arms. Slept together, we stole food together, we did everything."

But after the war, he says, the black Marines "were almost shooed out" of the service.

"There was never any recognition of your combat service, your meritorious service," he said. "When we would read in the papers a Naval letter of commendation or a presidential unit citation, we never did get that. And we supported those units."

He added: "You cannot win a battle unless you have logistics. I don't care who is providing it, whether it's black, white, Chinese whatever. No infantry is going to win unless he can be supported with petrol and ammo and food."

The Montford Point Marines say they did benefit from their time in the corps. Williams attended Virginia State University on the GI Bill and became a schoolteacher; he would retire from the Baltimore City Public Schools as director of instructional equipment.

Wells joined and eventually ran the family printing business. Foreman worked for the federal government.

Being a Marine, Foreman said, gave him the experience of "working together and feeling a passion for humankind." Wells spoke of the discipline it instilled.

Williams said the Montford Point Marines lived a kind of "dual life."

"You know, we love the Marine Corps," he said. "But we understand the segregated conditions in which we had to live."

McLaurin, the historian, said the first black Marines — like the Tuskegee Airmen and the African-American Army soldiers who fought in Italy during World War II — helped make the eventual integration of the military possible.

President Harry Truman ended segregation in the military by executive order in 1948. In Korea two years later, black and white soldiers fought side by side in integrated units. The first black Marines to fight there were alumni of Montford Point.

"Certainly they did a lot to convince both officers in the Marine Corps and the general public that African-Americans could come into the military and contribute a tremendous amount," McLaurin said. "They made that contribution of helping change the majority opinion about the role of African-Americans in the military and in the larger society."

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

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