The Center for Diversity & Inclusion at UWG hosted their Living Legacy Series event on Tuesday, Feb. 26. The organization invited former U.S. Marine James Pack to speak about his experience as a Montford Point Marines, the first African Americans to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Recently, the Montford Point Marines have started receiving the recognition given to Army Buffalo Soldiers and Air Force Red Hawks. Pack and 400 other Marines were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal last June, the highest civilian honor, for their trailblazing efforts.
Pack said he enlisted in the Marines because they “were the toughest men around.” At the time of his enlisting, the Marine Corps. were the last of the military branches to undergo integration. Finally, in 1942, President Roosevelt established a presidential directive giving African Americans the opportunity to serve in the Marine Corps. They were not, however, fully integrated into the Corps. For training, they were sent to a separate training facility, Montford Point. Pack said that when they arrived at Camp Lejeune(where Montford Point was located), they thought “My, what we’re up against.” He said that the all-black drill instructors were determined to make them “as good as anyone,” meaning they were going to be just as good as any of the white Marine units.
He said he never thought about the fact that they were making history. “I had no idea. All of us figured ‘let’s go and fight the Japanese and get it over with.’”
When the Montford Point Marines were done training, they were assigned to all-black depot companies, transporting ammo to the front lines, and wounded back to the ships. Pack noted that although they were assigned to support units, they were soon in the thick of the Pacific island battles. He fought in the battle of Saipan, June 15, 1944.
“All hell was breaking loose…it was touch and go for a long time; in fact, it was tough that first day,” said Pack. At times, he became emotional during his recitation of his war exploits. He noted the death of two officers during the battle of Saipan. He spoke of the Japanese Kamikaze planes’ suicide attacks on other ships in his fleet during the Battle of Okinawa.
“When we left Oahu on the USS Pierce, there was part of the First Battalion 25th Marines (white Marines) on that ship, and you’d have thought we were all brothers together,” said Pack. “There was nothing derogatory, no segregation. We played cards. We did everything together, all of us. When we hit the beach, in fact, one of those white Marines jumped in the foxhole with us. When you get in battle, color is gone. All you think about is trying to protect yourself, and trying to protect your buddies.”
During the war, Pack was injured, breaking his leg in three places. He wanted to continue on with his unit to China, but was sent home. When he left the Marine Corps., he continued on with the Montford Point legacy, joining Marine Corps. organizations. In Detroit, he went through all of the officer positions of The Montford Point Marines, an organization keeping the history of the unit.
Pack and the other Montford Point Marines have inspired those who followed. One of the audience members stood up and addressed Pack. “It was guys like you who encouraged people like me. If it wouldn’t have been for guys like you, who were the vanguards, we’d have never made it. During Vietnam, we wanted to be the best that we could be and have a legacy of our own. I just want to thank you for what you did.”
Pack now serves at the Carrollton branch of The Marine Corps. League as Adjutant/Pay Master.