One of the first African American Marines to integrate the ranks of the Corps died Feb. 2 in Birmingham, Alabama, at the age of 92.
The all-black unit based at Montford Point Camp began training in 1942 — separately from their white counterparts at Parris Island, South Carolina — following the June 1941 signing of Executive Order 8802 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which was designed to provide opportunities in the defense industry to everyone “without discrimination because of race, creed, color, or national origin.”
The order came much to the chagrin of then-Commandant of the Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Thomas Holcomb, who, following the signing, infamously said, “If it were a question of having a Marine Corps of 5,000 whites or 250,000 Negroes, I would rather the whites.”
There would be “a definite loss of efficiency in the Marine Corps if we have to take Negroes,” he added.
The Montford Point Marines would go on to distinguish themselves in combat throughout the Pacific theater — most notably on Okinawa, where approximately 2,000 saw intense action. Their battlefield success prompted the Marine commandant who succeeded Holcomb, Lt. Gen. Alexander A. Vandegrift, to correct his predecessor with the adamant declaration, “The Negro Marines are no longer on trial. They are Marines, period.”
Williams, meanwhile, followed up basic training by joining the first integrated Marine units at Onslow Beach in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, to train in anti-aircraft combat. He would go on to spend much of his enlistment as a military police officer at the Naval Ammunition Depot Marine Base in Earle, New Jersey, according to AL.com.
The New Orleans native left the Corps as a corporal and returned to his hometown, where he used his Montgomery GI Bill to attain multiple degrees at Xavier University of Louisiana.
After a brief stint as a teacher, Williams was hired by NASA to oversee operations at the New Orleans-based space command center at Michoud Assembly Facility, AL.com reported. The Marine then put all seven of his children through college before settling in Alabama.
In 2012, Williams became one of nearly 20,000 Montford Point Marines to be honored by former President Barack Obama with the Congressional Gold Medal when he was presented the award at the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve building in Huntsville, Alabama.
“I was so surprised to see many people come here and celebrate this moment with me,” Williams told WHNT news at the 2012 ceremony.
“I am proud to be a Marine.”
Despite the presidential distinction, fewer than 2,000 Montford Point Marines have actually received their medals, Joe Geeter, spokesman for the National Montford Point Marine Association, told Marine Corps Times in 2019.
In 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981, putting an end to segregation in the Marine Corps. The Montford Point Marines were dissolved one year later.
J.D. Simkins is a writer and editor for Military Times, and a USMC veteran.