May 9, 2016 --
Ask any Marine to discuss the significance of the “yellow footprints” and more likely than not there will be a range of responses, but the most unanimous reply is “the beginning” of boot camp and the transition for a lifetime membership into an exclusive fighting force—the Corps.
There is one such local Marine who was there at the very beginning of a historically pivotal point for African-American recruits inducted into the Marine Corps on a mandate by then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Henry L. Jackson, a World War II veteran and retired U.S. Air Force master sergeant, was one of the 20,000 African-American Marines to attend basic training at Montford Point, North Carolina, during the period between 1942 and 1949.
Jackson, a Congressional Gold Medal recipient, discussed the mandate, which prompted his enlistment in the Corps as well as some of the challenges and experiences during his two-year service as a Marine.
“It was mandated that 20,000 Blacks be entered into the Marine Corps between 1942 and 1949,” Jackson said. “I was a teenager when I made the decision to (enlist) in December 1946. I took my basic training at Montford Point, Camp Lejeune, (North Carolina).
“I caught pneumonia and was hospitalized (shortly after that),” he recalled. “By the time I got out, (my platoon) was already on the firing range; I shot a perfect score, hitting every target, when I did get out there.
“After basic training, they wanted to start (recruits) off in another field,” Jackson reflected. “Everyone didn’t get the chance to start (in their fields) because they were (offering) an early out due to World War II ending. I decided to take that early out and return to high school.”
According to Jackson, he served one year active duty in the Marine Corps and one year as a reservist during that period before making a career move. After graduating high school in 1949, he joined the Air Force and retired with 22 years in that branch, in addition to the two years he served in the Corps.
“As a Montford Point Marine and receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor, I enjoy telling other Marines about (the experience). I’ve attended a lot of meetings, even talked to other military (service members) at the American Legion. It’s good to let people know about the history of the Montford Point Marines.
“I don’t remember standing on yellow footprints when I came in,” Jackson added. “But, I still love talking to young Marines who are in the Corps now. They’ve learned a lot when they came in, because basic training (teaches) them good (values). I just give them advice, like (what) they have to do if they want to make a career of it.”
A present generation recruit, who actually stood on the traditional yellow footprints at the beginning of his Marine Corps career seven years ago, is Sgt. Frederick Graham, heavy equipment engineer maintenance chief, Organic Maintenance Unit, Marine Corps Logistics Command.
Graham said, his standing on the yellow footprints, where thousands of Marines had stood and made history before him, gave him a sense of the beginning of a new chapter in his own life.
The young sergeant, who was recently selected as LOGCOM’s Noncommissioned Officer of the Quarter, admitted he felt like he was “meeting history face-to-face,” and said he was “in awe” during his recent encounter with Jackson, a Marine who had lived that very history roughly 65 years before Graham enlisted.
Reflecting to a time in his Marine Corps history when he learned about the first African-American Marines’ enlistment at Montford Point, Graham told of the relevance and impact that period, decades ago, has had on his active-duty career.
“I know (from history), the Marines were segregated at that time,” Graham said. “They went through a lot and they were not given a lot of privileges, but (the president was) trying to get some African Americans into the military.
“Time is the overseer of all things,” he continued. “From 1946 to 2016 is a big gap. That being said, when I did meet Mr. (Henry) Jackson, it was like meeting 1946 face-to-face. It is a statement of saying how far Marines have come and for me to be able to wear this uniform.
“It all started with those 20,000 Marines,” Graham noted. “Because (Mr. Jackson) did make that step, it was a mark in history where it made the rest of the Marine Corps the way it is now and (why I am) where I am today—leaving my own legacy.”