George J. Johnson proudly served as a U.S. Marine Corps military policeman during World War II in the early to mid 1940s.
Like many veterans from that time, however, the 101-year-old Lauderhill resident never discussed his service much. In fact, many in his family never even knew he was a veteran at all.
“Six years ago was the first time we heard he was a Marine,” Grace King, Johnson’s cousin and caretaker, said.
Not only was he a Marine, Johnson was a Montford Point Marine, one of about 20,000 men who were pioneers in the Corps — the first Black men allowed to become part of the storied “few” and “proud” after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued an executive order in 1941 prohibiting the armed services from barring African Americans from military duty.
Montford Point was their segregated training base located where the Marine Corps’ main East Coast infantry operations are located in Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
While it would still be another eight years before the U.S. military branches would become fully integrated, the bigoted notion that Blacks weren’t worthy enough to die for the country was slowly eroding.
The Montford Point Marines proved themselves in basic training and most went on to defy the racist naysayers at the time and distinguish themselves — some overseas in fierce battles like Peleliu and Iwo Jima.
But, compared to the famed Tuskeegee Airmen and other Black fighting units that broke color barriers during World War II, the accomplishments and service of Montford Point Marines have attracted far less attention.
“It’s very sad. This is a part of history that went unrecognized for so long,” King said.
They not only bore the same physical and psychological wounds of combat and endured the same everyday rigors of military service as their white brothers in arms, they also paid a lifelong price for being the first to have to work twice as hard and take twice the punishment as white recruits.
“It was not pretty,” said Mallorie Berger, a Coral Springs woman who’s become a Montford Point Marines historian and advocate for the few remaining surviving members and their families since discovering her grandfather was one while conducting research in November 2021.
“Set aside what the Marine Corps does to build you up,” she said. “That wasn’t it. It was trauma. It was abuse. It was very ugly.”
‘Why is dad not the same?’
The first wave of Montford Point Marines were trained by white drill sergeants when they arrived in 1942. By the end of the war in 1945, all Montford Point drill instructors were Black, according to a Military.com article on the men.
But, eager to show their dedication to the Corps, the Black drill sergeants were just as tough and brutal as the white instructors, Berger said.
The son of a drill sergeant Berger met through her investigations told her that his father returned home from service suffering from post traumatic stress “before that was even defined.”
“And, people didn’t understand, ‘why is Dad not the same?’ ‘Why did Grandpa change after he came back?’ And, that’s what they were struggling with,” Berger said. “There’s just so much that we’re learning about these men.”
Berger discovered by accident her grandfather, Maurice Burns, was a Montford Pointer. He died in 1996, and although she knew he was a veteran, she assumed that he — like her father and uncle — was in the Army. That was because like many other Montford Point Marines, he simply never really discussed his service.
“But I didn’t know about it because he didn’t talk about it. And, as I’m learning through my journey of trying to find the families of descendants of Montford Pointers, it’s the same story. They didn’t talk about it,” she said.
Congressional Gold Medal
Berger became determined to find out more about Montford Point after reading a 2017 article about the veterans. She learned that President Barack Obama signed a law in November 2011 awarding the men the Congressional Gold Medal.
“And at the end it said that if you know someone who served at Montford Point, they would be eligible for the bronze replica of the Congressional gold medal, and here’s the email, contact address, and so on and so forth,” Berger said.
While going through Maurice’s things, she found what looked like a high school yearbook. It was his “blue book” that contained photos of his training class. Berger was astonished to now know about her grandfather’s actual service background since learning about the historical significance of his time in the Corps.
“These men are living legends,” she said.
Berger contacted the Montford Point Marines Association and the process began to get Pvt. Maurice Burns his long-overdue medals.
She also found letters her grandfather wrote to the Veterans Administration in the 1970s trying to get medical benefits for injuries he sustained as a Marine.
Unlike most recruits who were in their late teens or early 20s, Maurice was in his thirties when he enlisted. The rigors of intense training Marines are known to endure took their toll on his body, leaving him with pain he would bear the rest of his life.
“He had written to his drill instructor from Montford Point, saying, ‘Hey, I need your help getting medical coverage. I endured such treatment that caused back problems for me in 1944,’ Berger said. “You all were forcing me to do things I could not do. You were expecting me to do things a 17 year old, 18 year old could do, and when I couldn’t do them, I forced my body into these positions I couldn’t normally get into, and because of that, I have had back issues for the past 26 years, eventually becoming disabled.’”
Reading the letters breaks Berger’s heart to this day.
“I thought, ‘oh my God, he lived 26 years in excruciating pain.’ I knew that, and to find out that the VA is not going to give him medical coverage to deal with this,” she said.
‘You see me.’
Berger became adept at the type of detective work it takes to navigate through the military bureaucratic maze to track down the service records for families of other Montford Point Marines. It’s become almost a full-time job.
Her mission now: Get the rest of the men their medals they earned.
Immediately following a segment Miami television news station Local 10 did on Berger’s work with the Montford Point Marines last month, the station received a call from King saying that her cousin was an alumnus.
Berger went to Johnson’s home to speak with him the next day.
“It was probably one of the best stories I’ve experienced. He’s got this Florida A&M sweatshirt on, and a World War II Veteran hat on,” Berger said.
She looked at him sitting in his wheelchair and said, “You’re a Montford Point Marine.”
“And, he looked at me and said, ‘You know?’ And, we looked at each other and he sat straight up,” Berger said. “He looked at me like, ‘Oh my God, you see me.’”
She then showed Johnson a copy of the Blue Book from his time at Montford Point.
“He just sat there and stared at it. He would just stare into the faces of these Black men. And, he just said, ‘the memories are coming back.’”
Johnson is scheduled to receive his Congressional Gold Medal Monday at noon during a ceremony at the African American Research Library and Cultural Center in Fort Lauderdale.
He could not be interviewed for this story because his health is deteriorating, King said. But, she said he is aware and proud he will be receiving the Congressional Gold Medal.
“At least he will receive this before he departs,” she said.
The family of another Montford Point Marine, Cpl. Moses Williams, who died in 1970, will also receive his medal.
A number of dignitaries are expected at the event, as well as three other living Montford Point Marines — Cpl. Allen Williams from West Palm Beach, Cpl. George McIvory from Jacksonville and Platoon Sgt. Charles Foreman from Orlando.
Berger continues to track down the few living veterans of Montford Point and their relatives. There are 25 families confirmed to attend a medal ceremony at the Montford Point Marines Association Museum in Jacksonville, North Carolina, on Aug. 25.
“We probably have another in the pipeline. We had 11 last year,” she said. “So, we’re looking at another 45, so by the time June rolls around, I expect to have probably 100 families to go to Jacksonville.”
She doesn’t plan to stop looking after that.
“We’ve got to tell these men’s stories and get them recognized,” Berger said. “If we don’t, the stories will die with history, and we can’t allow that to happen.”
©2023 Miami Herald. Visit miamiherald.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.