Being in the presence of Cpl. Averitte Corley and Sgt. Johnny Washington is being in the presence of history itself. Both of these men are Marines. They were both proudly part of a special place in history, shattering glass ceilings and leading the way for change in the US military. For they were members of the Montford Point Marines, the first black Marines.
Before Corley became a Marine, he felt so strongly the desire to serve his country that he dropped out of Crispus Attucks High School, lied about his age, and joined the Air Force. At the USAF reception center on the grounds of Fort Benjamin Harrison, Corley saw a peculiar sight – a unit of Japanese Americans training. Corley would later find out that this unit (the 100th battalion of the 442nd regimental combat team) fought alongside the 92nd Buffalo Soldiers in Italy and Europe, becoming one of the most decorated units of the war.
Speaking with the awe of a curious youth, Corley speaks of meeting a Tuskegee Airman in Ft Wayne while he was loading C47s. Corley was impressed that the Airman had access to the officers quarters and was truly inspired by him. Shortly thereafter, the USAF discovered Corley’s true age gave him an Honorable discharge. Corley then began working on the family farm in Hamilton County until he was of age to reenlist, this time with the Marines.
Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina had a separate camp for blacks, this was Montford Point. Corley shares that their black drill Sargents were tougher on them than their white drill Sargents. “They wanted us more prepared, tougher, stronger and more focused than any other Marines and we had to be – given what was ahead, we needed the strength and moral character to lead.”
Corley was part of the group that relieved the soldiers of the 52nd on Saipan. There he was part of the group guarding Japanese POWs. “I was in charge of feeding 7 of the largest and meanest Japanese soldiers I’d ever seen. They only wore loincloths and had murdered and cannibalized a family of locals and were to be hanged.” In another recollection, Corley describes an interesting situation en route to chow line, for walking toward him, seemingly leaving the mess hall were three men. US soldiers were flanking a Japanese officer who had come out of hiding and was walking alongside the soldiers. Corley pulled his gun on him and told him hands up, to the surprise of the oblivious soldiers on either side of the new prisoner.
For his actions, Corley was given a promotion and transferred over to Guam where he was over 4 other Marines and was issued a vehicle for transport. At the time, this was against the segregated protocol of the Marines. Corley received little if any friction for his new promotion. He was treated respectfully in his new position.
Corley was honorable discharged as a 1st Lieutenant in August of 1947. In 1949, Averitte Corley graduated from Jackson Central HS (later named Hamilton Heights HS) and using the GI Bill, attended Purdue University where he majored in Agriculture. Corley then went to IU for a masters degree in Counseling. Corley spent a long career with IPD, retiring as a Sargent and then worked for the US Postal Service.
Sgt Major Washington made a career for himself in the Marines, for he served for 30 years before retiring, having served in not just WWII, but also Korea and Vietnam. Not many soldiers can claim all of those on their record and live to tell. Washington states, “Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina, was my home that I would come back to repeatedly for 30 years.”
“The Marine Corps is the story of my life”, says Sgt. Major Washington, “starting with boot camp where the civilian life is erased, establishing a military foundation.” Being a Marine established such a strong foundation for Mr. Washington that he claims he couldn’t get enough of it. Few soldiers lived in as many different locations around the world and in the United States than Washington has.
When Washington and his platoon were preparing for Korea, the experience was different from the 1940s, for this was the end of segregation in the military. Washington states, “Color was never a problem with the Marines. All blood is red.” After 12-15 mos of combat in Korea, Washington returned to Lejeune, which was his home sweet home that he and his family would return to every few years.
Sgt Major Washington is one of the most-decorated Montford Point Marines, having served in (3) major wars and has been rewarded for his acts of bravery. He was also a no-nonsense platoon commander who was the toughest on his men. “I would be given the rowdiest, laziest group of boys and turn them into one of the best platoons of soldiers. Boys to men is what they would become under my command. The troops didn’t like it, but I did my job.” Regimental Sgt. Major Washington would spend his final months in active duty working along with the Inspector General.
“I’ve seen more than my share of combat and I still miss it” says Washington.
Not long after this interview, I spent some time with current Camp Lejeune Marines. Having shared my conversation with Washington and Corley, a soldier asked, “What was it like being in their presence?” These heroes/soldiers/men of valor invoke awe with Marines today.
These brave, pioneering soldiers are the stuff of legend. Punching through the glass ceiling, their generation paved a smoother path for minorities and women serving proudly around the world. Corley and Washington are members of a small, exclusive club of Proud Montford Point Marines. Both are now living quietly in the Ft. Ben area, close to military and family ties.
“Once a Marine, always a Marine.” Says Sgt. Major Washington. “Oorah!”