PARRIS ISLAND, S.C. --
When an 18-year-old, healthy, patriotic man from Baton Rouge, La., walked into a Marine Corps recruiting office, he never expected to be turned away for being black.
However, it was 1941 when LaSalle Vaughn was told he couldn’t earn the right to be called a Marine. Only a short time later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, known as the Fair Employment Act, which required the Department of Defense to stop discriminating based on race.
The signing of this act allowed for Vaughn to become one of the first 20 black Marines to receive their training at Camp Montford Point, N.C. in 1942.
When Vaughn arrived at Montford Point, he was greeted by five white, combat-hardened drill instructors, who were veterans of Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands.
Vaughn said there was plenty of racial tension during his time at Montford Point, and the recruits were not even trusted to practice marksmanship.
“They were scared to give us a gun at first,” he said. “We had to use a 21 gun, with 21 shells,” he explained, referring to the blank ammunition used when riflemen fire a 21-gun salute. He said the drill instructors told him they could not trust recruits with live ammunition.
Though the drill instructors were tough on the recruits, Vaughn said he still learned a lot from them. He said one of his drill instructors helped teach him how to swim, and used to go out to the water with him frequently. “He wanted me to succeed,” he said.
After Vaughn’s time at Montford Point, he was sent to his first duty station, Parris Island, where he served as a cook.
Upon arriving on the Depot, Vaughn learned that blacks still lived separate lives from their white counterparts when he discovered his new home was a tent.
“It was winter time here, and as God is my witness, it was five degrees in those tents,” Vaughn said.
Vaughn said that the island later built one building for all black Marines to live in.
“There were a lot of places we couldn’t go,” Vaughn said. “We had our own PX in the building, because we weren’t allowed at the main PX.”
His wife, Catherine Vaughn, said the way they were treated began to improve in 1946, when they married and had their first of seven children.
“We were able to start using the same hospitals,” explained Catherine Vaughn. “Our first son was born at the naval hospital.”
Throughout his time in the Marine Corps, Vaughn experienced segregation and unfair treatment, however, he said from the time he joined the Corps to the time he retired as a staff sergeant in 1962, discrimination became less of a problem.
“It took a long time for things to change, but they did,” he said.
The evolution of race relations in the military mirrored the changes taking place in American society.
During his 20-year career, the American Civil Rights Movement was gaining popular support and many discriminatory practices changed, including the passage of Executive Order 9981 in 1948 by President Harry S. Truman, calling for the end of segregation in all branches of the military.
Camp Montford Point was closed as a result, ending the era of separate training facilities for blacks. New recruits were all sent either to MCRD Parris Island or San Diego.
At first, black recruits were trained in their own platoons, however, the commanding general of the Depot, Maj. Gen. Alfred H. Noble, integrated platoons in late 1949.
Marines who served in the 1960s said they prided themselves in treating every Marine as a brother, regardless of race.
“When I came back from Vietnam, I went to (Camp) Lejeune, and the Marine Corps at that time was not prejudiced,” said retired Gunnery Sgt. Aulton Kohn, of Jacksonville, Fla. “They used to say that there was no black and white, there was only one color and that color was green,” He said.
Kohn said he never experienced racism in the Corps, and for that, he’s thankful.
“Back then, [the Montford Point Marines] took the brunt of the racism, but as time went on, it got better and better,” Kohn said. “It was bad back then, but today it’s barely seen. I don’t think my chances as a Marine would’ve been as good if it hadn’t have been for the Marines [who served] before me,” he said.
Since the 1940s race relations have greatly improved in the service, and for the third time in history, a black Marine holds the rank of Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps.
“Seeing blacks in the Marine Corps who are in a powerful position, pushes me to want to do great things,” said 20-year-old Pfc. Clifton Davis, a supply clerk with Organizational Clothing, who hit his one-year mark in the Corps, Jan. 5. “For them to have the motivation to pave the way after all they went through just so I can do what I do now, I have great respect for them,” said Davis, of Atlanta.
“I want to set a new higher level and standard, so I can pave the way for future Marines.”