MARINE CORPS LOGISTICS BASE ALBANY, Ga. --
The House of Representatives recently awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor, to African-American Marines, who attended basic training at Montford Point, N.C., from 1942 to 1949.
Henry L. Jackson, a local Albany resident, is one of these Marines and he said he is proud of the tradition that he represents.
“I think we should receive (the Congressional Gold Medal) because of the way things were back in those days,” he said. “When we were finally allowed to join the Marine Corps they wanted to keep us segregated. I think something should be given to them because of the hardship that we went through.”
During World War II, and shortly after, 20,000 African-American Marines graduated from basic training at Montford Point. They made their presence known by setting new records in regards to marksmanship, physical fitness and other training criteria, contradicting the preconceived notion the introduction of African-American Marines would lower the quality of the Corps, according to Montford Point Marine Association literature.
Shortly after Jackson’s rendezvous with a Marine Corps recruiter, he found himself at Montford Point now referred to as Camp Johnson, N.C. Montford Point was the first training facility ever established by the Marine Corps solely to train African-American recruits. The training facility, which was little more than a hacked-away part of forest in a corner of Camp Lejeune, was hastily created by the Marine Corps to meet the new requirement, according to Montford Point Marine Association literature.
“It was pretty desolate. We had coal furnaces to heat the barracks and the barracks were cold. Being so far away from home I didn’t really expect anything different,” Jackson said. “Of course, I didn’t let anything bother me. I just took my training like a man.”
Jackson states that while he was there, although his drill instructors were African-American, all of the officer staff was Caucasian.
“I don’t remember really experiencing any racism while I was in the Marines, but then again I remember that we were all restricted from leaving the base because of all of the segregation issues that were taking place out in town. Overall though, I feel that the Marine Corps has made a lot of progress since then. I don’t get a sense that there is much racism in the Corps today and I’ve spoken to numerous people who have served throughout the years.”
After the Monfort Point recruits became Marines they joined units that provided support functions such as ammunition resupply, motor transport and food services, to name a few. African-Americans were not allowed into combat specialties during this time period, according to Montford Point Marine Association literature.
Jackson served in the Marine Corps for seven months before receiving an honorable discharge. This was common during this period of time as the Marine Corps offered personnel an “early out” due to force reductions; reductions that took place due to the fact that World War II had ended and the additional personnel were no longer needed. The service first offered the honorable discharges to those who volunteered to take them, according to Jackson.
“I spent all seven months at Montford Point, and right after the training I took leave and went back home. When I got back, all the Marines were trying to decide what schools to go to. For instance, they would ask for truck drivers and other support jobs. I got picked to go to baking school, but to be honest I don’t remember doing a whole lot of baking.”
After receiving his discharge, Jackson re-enrolled in Monroe High School and graduated in 1949. From there he joined the Air Force as an administrative supervisor, an occupational specialty he maintained until his retirement from active duty 22 years later.
Wearing his Montford Point Marine Association garrison cover and a suit jacket emblazoned with the eagle, globe and anchor, one would never guess that Jackson also spent 22 years in the Air Force.
“My original ambition was to join the Air Force,” Jackson said. “I used to mess around with model airplanes. My dream was to be a pilot, but I knew I couldn’t get into the Air Force without a high school education. So when a Marine recruiter approached me I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to join the Corps. It wasn’t like how it is today, back then you didn’t have to have a high school diploma to join.”
Overall, Jackson stated that his experiences in the Marine Corps prepared him for two decades of success in the Air Force.
“The experience really helped me in the Air Force. It taught me a lot of discipline and that has stayed with me ever since I finished training,” he said. “I believe if I had waited to join the Marine Corps after graduating high school I would have stayed in for 20 years.”
While serving in the military, Jackson met his wife Gertrude. They have six children, 21 grandchildren and 13 great grandchildren. Most of his children and some grandchildren continued in Jackson’s footsteps by serving in various branches of the armed forces.
“I have a military-oriented family,” Jackson said. “I have some in the Air Force and the Army. I found out one of my grandchildren had been a cadet at the Military Academy at West Point,” he added.
After his military career was over, he returned home to Albany, Ga., to create Jackson’s Income Tax Service, a business that remains in Albany although it has long since been sold to someone else.
Jackson also served as chief of security for Albany’s Southwest Georgia Regional Airport. He retired from the airport in 1990 at the rank of colonel. He has also established a lawn business that currently has a contract with the local post office.
In an addition to being a member of the Montford Point Marine Association, he has also been active in both the American Legion and the Air Force Sergeants Association, which he was president of for three years.
Jackson feels that there is a lesson to be learned from his experiences as well as the experiences of other African-American Marines who spent time at Montford Point. He feels these lessons should send a message to young Marines who serve today.
“They should be proud of the ones who paved the way for them,” he said. “I get respect from anyone who knows that I’m a Montford Point Marine. They’re glad to shake my hand and I can tell that they have a lot of pride in being Marines also,” Jackson said.