Oak Bluffs Montford Point Marine shares Congressional Gold Medal
Photo courtesy of John Donnelly
A visitor to Martha's Vineyard who stops in at the information booth in Oak Bluffs may meet C. J. "Cee Jay" Jones, a short man with a quick wit and a sparkle in his eye. The tourist would be unlikely to guess that Mr. Jones is 95 years old. He looks, thinks, and talks like a much younger man. Mr. Jones has staffed the booth on weekends from 9 am to 1 pm since it first opened in 1992.
On Tuesday last week, Mr. Jones travelled to Washington to participate in a ceremony honoring him and almost 20,000 other African-American United States Marines who trained at a segregated boot camp at Montford Point, near Jacksonville, N.C., between 1941 and 1949. The Montford Point Marines received the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation's highest civilian honor for distinguished achievement. The medal is considered equal to the Presidential Medal of Freedom, but has been awarded far less often.
During World War Two, the black Marines served with courage and distinction and were not only instrumental in the integration of the United States armed forces, but after their military service they contributed materially to the civil rights movement, becoming mayors, ambassadors, educators, lawyers, ministers, and doctors. Mr. Jones still keeps in touch with fellow recruit David Dinkins, ex-mayor of New York City, the only black mayor the city has ever had.
Prior to his departure, Mr. Jones told The Times that about 400 veterans of Montford Point are still alive. About 380 planned to attend the ceremony.
The history of Montford Point
On June 29, 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, which forbad discrimination in the armed services. The prospect of the coming war meant that more soldiers, sailors, and marines would soon be needed, and one suspects that the President's wife would have also supported this order as the right thing to do. However, 8802 did not end prejudice and segregation in the military. The Marines had to accept black recruits, but they didn't have to treat them as equals. Montford Point, a part of the Marine training base at Camp Lejeune, N.C., was set aside as a segregated boot camp for the new men. There were no black officers or any plans to create them. The facilities were inferior to the regular facilities at Camp Lejeune. The barracks were little more than huts. The black recruits experienced discrimination and scorn, both on base and off. One commandant told the recruits, "I'd rather have 5,000 white marines than 250,000 black marines." After two years at Montford Point, in his farewell address, he apologized for his initial bias. "You are the finest men I've ever served with," he told them.
In the first two years, the drill instructors were white, charged with training black drill instructors. When Cee Jay Jones arrived in 1943, he was among the first to be trained by black drill instructors. According to the Montford Point Marine Association, the black drill instructors were tougher on the recruits than the white ones had been, because they wanted the men to prove they were as good soldiers as whites, or better. Mr. Jones remembers one, Bill Henderson, whom he considered an important mentor. "He pushed us hard, but he knew just how far to push us. I saw some men give in when if they had hung on a little longer, they would have been fine." Mr. Jones said Bill Henderson taught him, "Don't ever give up. Give a little extra effort, and you'll be surprised what you can do." A lesson that has served him well all his life.
Although boot camp trained the black Marines for combat, they were usually assigned to support units as cooks, stewards, warehousemen, and deliverers of ammunition to the front ranks. However, battlefield conditions do not foster discrimination; support troops have to fight. Montford Point Marines proved their courage in epic battles in the Pacific theater such as Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. Perhaps in part because of the example of the Montford Point Marines, in July 1948 President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9881, ending segregation in the armed forces, and Montford Point was closed in 1949.
On November 23, 2011, President Barack Obama signed into law the bill to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the Montford Point Marines.
Cee Jay Jones
Born in 1917, Cee Jay Jones was raised in Winston Salem, N.C., where his father was successful in real estate. Jim Crow Jacksonville in 1943 was no surprise to him. He well remembered the "coloreds" and "whites only" signs in Winston Salem. As a young man, Mr. Jones had been drawn to the North, living in New York City and visiting Saratoga, Watch Hill, R.I., and other places where excitement could be found. At first he had a little money from his father, but later survived by working and, he told The Times, considerable skill with a pool cue. In 1943, he was operating a fork lift in a government warehouse in New York City. President Roosevelt's order made blacks eligible for the draft, but the government job gave Mr. Jones an exemption. After 30 days on the night shift, an unfair supervisor assigned him to another 30-day rotation. The night shift was seriously interfering with Mr. Jones's social life, and he threatened to quit. The supervisor warned him that if he quit, he'd see to it that Mr. Jones was drafted. He did quit, and soon found himself at a New York City induction center, where he faced three desks: the Army, the Navy, and the Marines.
Someone asked him which branch he wanted. He said only, "I'm here to serve."
The Marine recruiter said, "Come on over here."
One couldn't be drafted into the Marines, but Mr. Jones's enlistment discharged his responsibility as a draftee. He went through boot camp at Montford Point, but he did not see the action in the Pacific that many black Marines did. His military service was in Philadelphia in "salvage and redistribution" of used military equipment. He lived with a roommate in housing that cost him $1.50 a week, and took the train to New York almost every weekend, a ride that cost $2.50 round-trip, which was an expense he was easily able to afford with his winnings at the pool table. It was not a bad life, and for a time he considered making the military a career.
PFC Jones was discharged from the Marines on May 18, 1946, as a corporal. After the Marines, he worked for a postal service as a driver of trucks and tractor trailers, and then became a clerk, because he wanted to be inside even though it paid less than driving semis. He became a supervisor in 1960 and retired in 1982.
Today, Mr. Jones divides his time between Oak Bluffs, Florida, and points in between. Still a peripatetic adventurer, he finds the Vineyard rather dull in winter and drives his car from the Oak Bluffs home he owns to the house he rents in Florida, taking a few weeks on the trip to visit friends along the way. He spends Christmas in New York City, New Years in Washington, and continues to visit down the East Coast.
Although Mr. Jones has kept no other souvenirs of Montford Point, he showed The Times a wicked-looking combat knife with a blade seven inches long. Though the leather sheath is battered, he has kept the knife itself in mint condition, and he proudly showed The Times how he was trained to use it, including striking with the steel knob at the end of the handle. Next to the hilt on one side is etched "USMC."
For more information, visit The Montford Point Marine Association at www.montfordpointmarines.com. There is a very moving 54-minute video, narrated by Louis Gossage Jr., at www.montfordpointmarines.com/History.html.