Pack, 88, was one of the first blacks admitted into the U.S. Marine Corps in 1943 after President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order No. 8802 on June 25, 1941, establishing the fair employment practice that began to erase discrimination in the armed forces. Roosevelt established a presidential directive in 1942 giving blacks an opportunity to be recruited into the Marine Corps, the last military branch to open up its ranks to blacks. Pack, who was 19 years old at the time, enlisted on Nov. 3, 1943.
“When I got drafted, me and the others who went up there, you could pick what you wanted,” said Pack, an Ohio native who moved to Villa Rica in 2003. “I had a brother in the Navy and I had a brother in the Army, so I said, ‘Well shucks, if we’re going to fight let’s join the Marines because they’re the toughest bunch there.’ So we joined the Marines.”
Though the Marine Corps had been opened to blacks by Roosevelt, they were not allowed to attend the traditional Marine boot camps at Camp Pendleton in San Diego, Calif., or at Parris Island, S.C. Instead, they were relegated to Montford Point, a facility at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
About 20,000 black men went through basic training at Montford Point until President Harry Truman issued Executive Order No. 9981 in 1948 negating segregation. Montford Point closed the following September.
Pack and the other Montford Point Marines have been invited by the U.S. Congress to Washington, D.C., to receive the Congressional Gold Medal on June 27, followed by a commemorative ceremony held by U.S. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James F. Amos on June 28.
“It makes me feel good. It makes me feel great,” Pack said. “At the time I went into the Marine Corps I didn’t know they didn’t want us in there. Things are much better now with all the young Marines who have made officers, including several generals. They really appreciate what we did because without that they wouldn’t have been able to go through to accomplish anything.”
Pack has received several awards over the years from various Marine Corps groups he’s belonged to, but he said the Congressional Gold Medal is a special honor. Even so, being recognized as one of the first black Marines was never something he aspired to when he joined.
“Awards weren’t even on our minds at that time,” he said. “The war was going on and we wanted to do our part. That’s the only reason I joined the Marines.”
Black Marines at the time were typically assigned to the 51st and 52nd Defense Battalion that never did see combat. Others were attached to combat units in a support capacity, serving in what were referred to as depot or ammo companies. Pack was a member of the 20th Depot Company working with the 2nd and 4th Marine Divisions on Saipan and the 1st and 6th Marine Divisions on Okinawa. “Our group was the first to see combat on Saipan on June 14, 1944, the second D-Day. I’ll never forget it,” Pack said. “The first night on the beach Capt. Adams’ aide, Tibbs from Columbus, Ohio, was killed. It seems like yesterday.”
Pack’s depot company didn’t go in on the first wave, but were part of the third and fourth waves of the invasion on the second day.
Pack explained that it was his observation that once the black Marines left for their overseas duty that they weren’t treated any differently by their white brothers in arms.
“The invasion of Saipan was our first combat and we’re all on this ship together — white and black — and we all got along,” he said. “There was no separation or anything. We were all on the ship together, playing cards together. We were just all Marines. Once you get into combat, race goes out the window.”
In addition to serving in combat on Saipan and Okinawa, Pack’s unit was tapped to join the impending invasion of Japan before the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, effectively ending the war in the Pacific. Though he had friends wounded and killed, the only injury Pack suffered was a broken ankle playing in a pick-up baseball game on Okinawa. Even so, when he returned to the United States his family didn’t believe that was how he was injured.
“They never believed it and I just let it go at that,” he said. “I dodged a few bullets while I was there.”
Pack was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps in March 1946. He has since been active in various Marine Corps groups, including the Marine Corps League and the Montford Point Marine Association. There are fewer than a dozen Montford Point Marines living in the metro-Atlanta area.
“I never thought about being a trailblazer at the time,” he said. “It was years and years later before I ever thought anything about it.”