Integrating the U.S. Marine CorpsBy JOSHUA CAMPBELL,
The few. The proud. The Marines. That slogan takes on a different and more profound meaning when it comes to Theodore “Ted” Peters and the Montfort Point Marines.
By executive order in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt prohibited racial and employment discrimination in the military, which established the Montford Point Marines, an all-black division that integrated the Corps in 1942.
When Peters, who turns 97 in April, went to enlist he wanted to join the Army. He was turned down and told he should join the Navy. He told the recruiters, “No, I’m not going.” After going back and forth, they told him he couldn’t just choose where he wanted to go.
“They told me I’d wind up in jail. I told them, ‘I haven’t sworn to nothing. I’m not in nothing. I do know that much.’ I was only 19 years old, but I knew that much,” he said with a laugh inside his spacious Sandy Hook home.
Thankfully a Marine sergeant was sitting over in the corner and witnessed the exchange and told the recruiter to send Peters his way, and the rest is history.
Peters went through boot camp at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C., more specifically Montford Point, where he was among the very first of 20,000 black Marines that trained there from 1942 until 1949. They had to build their own camp on swampland, and Peters said he had never seen so many mosquitos in one place before.
“Everything we did we had to do it ourselves because segregation was in control during this time,” he said. “There were a lot of things we couldn’t do because the people didn’t want us in the Marine Corps. We didn’t let that stop us.”
Peters said they were trained harder by white officers in an effort to get rid of them, but instead they just made better men out of the Montford Point Marines. They even had issues with the regular civilians and couldn’t go anywhere in public either.
“We were fighting the Japanese and segregation,” he said.
Some of the black Marines at Montford Point had never experienced segregation until they went to North Carolina, but Peters, who was born in Marion County April 16, 1923, was well versed in it and was able to help them through it. He told them, “That’s just the way it is, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” Peters knew if they failed then, it would have been another 15 or 20 years before the Marine Corps tried to integrate again.
After they finished training, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox came down to the beach where Peters and company were doing maneuvers and they beat every record in the Marine Corps.
“He was very, very impressed. He said, ‘These guys are ready.’ That’s when they shipped us out overseas.”
The Montford Point Marines were never recognized nationally for their service or for integrating the Corps until General James F. Amos worked with lawmakers to give them their due. A final authorization was signed Nov. 23, 2011, and Peters and the Montford Point Marines were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2012. Peters said it felt really good to finally have that recognition.
His first trip overseas was to the Ellice Islands, now known as Tuvalu, a Polynesian island nation south of the Marshall Islands and north of Fiji. His battalion island jumped from place to place in the Pacific. Peters’ division was an anti-aircraft group that was supposed to shoot down any planes that crossed over the islands. However, thanks to the Battle of Midway in June 1942, there weren’t many Japanese planes left.
“We didn’t get to see much action because of Midway 1942. The Navy and the Marine Corps shot down most of them, and we could hardly find another plane after Midway,” he said. “Since we were anti-aircraft, we really didn’t have much to do.”
In the Battle of Midway, 248 Japanese aircraft were destroyed and 3,057 Japanese soldiers died. America’s losses were far less with 150 aircraft destroyed and 307 killed.
He said the closest he ever came to getting killed was actually when he was watching a movie. They had a device that would allow them to pull water from the ocean and purify it, and it had to be guarded 24/7. One night he was supposed to be guarding it, but he traded with a friend so he could watch the movie that night. During the movie, the device was bombed and both of the Marines guarding it were killed.
The most dangerous time for Peters was actually after the war had officially ended. Many Japanese soldiers on the Pacific islands didn’t know fighting had ceased so when Peters’ battalion would arrive they had to try to prove to them it was over.
“Would you like to go on an island where they didn’t believe nothing the United States said?”
They even had Japanese soldiers traveling with them from previous islands they visited trying to convince those who didn’t know the war was over that fighting was unnecessary.
“That had to be done over and over so that was a dangerous job,” he explained. “Some of us got killed during that when the war was already over.”
In fact Peters’ cousin, who lived on the land Peters occupies to this day, was one of the people who was killed after the war was over. Peters said it didn’t matter if America occupied an island because there were Japanese soldiers who would go underground and stay there.
While he has a hard time remembering the names of the islands he visited, especially because they all have names that are difficult to pronounce to begin with, Peters said he went through the Marshall Islands and Mariana Islands after Tuvalu.
Peters did have an injury during the war, though. His division was training on the beach, and the first round fired that day caused something metal to go into his eye. It almost cut his retina in two, and he struggles to see out of his right eye to this day.
Peters said he’s glad he served, but during the time he was in the military and at war he would rather have been any place else.
After returning from the war in 1946, Peters took care of some property his family owned for a few years before going to work with a transit company in Chicago. Although he didn’t have any education past high school, Peters never missed a day in 13 years and was promoted to supervisor. He remained in that position until he retired at 63 years old and eventually moved back to Marion County. He now lives with his sister.