MARINE CORPS AIR STATION CHERRY POINT, N.C. --
When he received his draft letter into the Marine Corps in 1943, Turner Blount had no idea what he was signing up for.
The retired master sergeant said he originally thought about going into the Army during his junior year of high school, but after unsuccessfully job hunting with a friend, Blount entered the draft.
“I had a friend. We were pretty close, so one day he said, ‘Let’s go get jobs,’” said Blount, one of the first African Americans to train at Recruit Depot Montford Point. “We couldn’t find jobs, so I said, ‘Let’s just join the Army.’ Then he said to me, ‘We should be Marines, they are the toughest thing going.’”
From 1798 to 1942, the Marine Corps practiced a discriminatory policy, not allowing African Americans into their ranks, making them the last of all the military branches to finally do so. The policy wasn’t changed until more than two decades after they began allowing women to join their elite ranks.
On June 25, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802; the elimination of racial discrimination from federal departments, agencies and the military. From 1942 to 1949, more than 20,000 black men trained on the hallowed grounds of Montford Point.
After enlisting in 1943, Blount was unable to escape the harsh realities of the time period. Even military members were affected by segregation. The whites at Montford Point were strict, but the black drill instructors were harsh, he said.
“Our training was intense,” said Blount. “Our drill instructors did not want us to fail. They wanted us to prove that we deserve to be Marines, so they expected more from us.”
Upon completion of boot camp, Blount headed to Hawaii with the 19th Marine Depot Company. Shortly after forming up there, he headed to the island of Saipan in the Marianas Islands to assist with the invasion. As soon as Blount reached the island, he was put in charge of about 30 men.
While the Tuskegee Airmen and other notable all-black military units were making history during WWII, the Montford Point Marines were also paving the way for future service members. Many of these courageous Marines fought alongside their brothers-in-arms during conflicts on the Marianas Islands, Saipan, Tinian, Guam, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Japan and China.
During his military career, Blount saw action during three conflicts, World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam. He recalled an experience when he dropped an oil drum on his toe and was taken to a makeshift field hospital.
“I couldn’t cry or show any weakness even though they cut my whole toenail in half and removed it,” he said, chuckling. “They didn’t give me any anesthesia. Everyone was watching me, expecting me to be tough because I’m a Marine.”
Blount, a quiet man, said he cherished the 26 years he spent serving in the military, despite the adversity he faced while coming up in the ranks. Blount never let that discourage him or taint his Esprit de Corps.
“I don’t know why, but when asked if he would do it all over again, he said he wouldn’t change a thing,” said his wife, Sadie.
Blount said because of his experiences in the military, he was inspired to give back to the community and military families. While in the service, he worked part time at Sears and a local Jacksonville, N.C., apartment complex run by his church. Photos of him while in the service are on display for visitors to see in the Montford Point Museum aboard Camp Gilbert H. Johnson in Jacksonville, housed in one of the original buildings from the era.
“He went on to become a city council member in Jacksonville, N.C., a city that originally didn’t even want him,” said Blount’s daughter Dorothy. “Black service men couldn’t even carry their weapons in the city. They had to take a boat to Camp Lejeune when they had training to do at the rifle range, and they even had to be guarded whenever they went in town. But he still wanted to make a difference, serving on the city council for 17 years.”
Blount has received many awards and accolades over the years, the most memorable is the Congressional Gold Medal placed around his neck. When the Montford Point Marines were awarded the medal, their legacy was etched permanently in history alongside other recipients like Rosa Parks, Frank Sinatra and the Dalai Lama.
As he looked down, Blount said he doesn’t regret any part of his journey; his only regret is not being able receive his Congressional Gold Medal from President Obama.
“My medal was given to me by a very excited Marine who happened to be a general,” he said. “I was really hoping President Obama was going to be there. I just wanted to shake his hand. People always stop me and thank me for my service; I want to thank the President for everything he’s done.”
Although Blount will not be there, The Montford Point Association will host a Black History Month celebration at the air station theater Friday at 10 a.m.