Sgt. Maj. Gilbert “Hashmark” Johnson was probably the single most influential person to determine the success of integrating the United States Marine Corps. Johnson was the first black USMC drill instructor. He wasn’t just training Marines – he was training the Marine Corps. Johnson ensured that the new recruits were well trained, and prepared to succeed in military life.
He wasn’t just training Marines – he was training the Marine Corps.
Gilbert “Hashmark” Johnson
Nobody was better qualified for the task. He got his nickname, “Hashmark,” because he had more hash marks (indicating enlistments) than chevrons (indicating rank) on his sleeve. He had enlisted in the Army in 1923, and again in 1926. He mustered out as a corporal, spent four years in civilian life, and then enlisted in the Naval Reserves and eventually in the regular Navy.
Not only was the Navy segregated, but it also restricted black Americans to service only in the Steward Branch. Six months before Pearl Harbor, while Johnson was serving aboard the U.S.S. Wyoming, on June 25, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802. “I do hereby reaffirm the policy of the United States that there shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government because of race, creed, color or national origin.”
When Gilbert Johnson learned about Executive Order 8802, he requested immediate discharge from the Navy so he could enlist in the Marine Corps. His request was granted immediately. He had six years of Army experience in a combat unit, and nine years as a Navy Steward, when he joined the Marines.
Johnson’s transfer to the Marine Corps entailed a great sacrifice. His service in the Navy had earned him the rank of officer steward first class, equivalent to a Marine Corps gunnery sergeant. He had to give up both rank and pay in order to become a Marine. He did it, entering the Marine Corps as a private. His prior service showed, however, and he was promoted four times in his first year.
The first class of black Marines were sent to Montford Point, a separate training facility in North Carolina near Camp Lejeune. Most of the recruits were like Johnson. They had prior military service, but wanted to join the elite fighting brotherhood of the Marines. Finney Greggs, the director of the Montford Point Museum, said, “[Johnson] was willing to do whatever it took to become a member of this elite organization.”
The brotherhood did not come together easily at first. There was racial tension between the black Marines and the white business owners, shopkeepers, and bus drivers in the local community. There was also tension at first between black and white Marines, which erupted at times into brawls.
By the end of the first year, however, the Marines had begun to stick together. When white bus drivers refused to carry the black Marines back to the base, the white company commander sent trucks to bring them back to the base. Eventually, when a white bus driver tried to force a black Marine to the back of the bus, white Marines would tell the driver to “shut up and keep driving.” If the driver continued to balk, the Marines would kick him off the bus and drive it to the base themselves.
After the first year, the white drill instructors were replaced by African Americans. Gilbert Johnson was among the first. He was not gentle. Looking back on his service as a DI, he described himself as a bit of an “ogre.”
These young men had to be prepared not only to fight the enemy, but to fight for recognition as equals in the uniform.
“I was a stern instructor, but I was fair. Ultimately, my goal was to produce in a few weeks, and at most a few months, a type of Marine fully qualified in every aspect to wear that much cherished Globe and Anchor.” Gilbert Johnson had learned from his many years of prior service what it meant to be a black man in the military, and what it would take to survive.
These young men had to be prepared not only to fight the enemy, but to fight for recognition as equals in the uniform. Some of them would have to fight their own fellow Marines, until they gained respect. He taught them how to earn that respect, demand it, and hold it.
Johnson prepared them to survive, and he prepared them to prosper. He knew what he was about. He wasn’t just training Marines – he was training the Marine Corps. He was creating a career path for countless young men and, eventually, women to become Marines. They had to show self-discipline and courage, and stand their ground in the face of opposition.
Training the Corps
The Camp Lejeune News reported that Johnson joined the 52nd Defense Battalion as its Sergeant Major during World War II. While they were in Guam, he saw that black Marines were being assigned to labor details rather than combat patrols. He persuaded the commanding officer to change the policy. Then he personally led 25 separate excursions into the jungle.
“The objective was to qualify you with loyalty, with a devotion to duty and with determination equal to all: transcended by none.”
Sergeant Maj. Gilbert “Hashmark” Johnson died of a heart attack at the age of 67 in August 1972 while speaking at a Montford Point Marine Association luncheon. In that last speech of his life, he told his former Marines, “The objective was to qualify you with loyalty, with a devotion to duty and with determination equal to all: transcended by none. As I look into your faces tonight, I remember the youthful, and sometimes pained expressions at something I may have said. I had a job to do – I brainwashed you.
“But I remember something you did. You measured up, by a slim margin perhaps, but measure up you did. You achieved your goal. That realization creates within me a warm appreciation of you and a deep sense of personal gratitude.”
Two years later, Camp Montford Point was renamed Camp Johnson, in honor of the crusty old DI who had shaped so many Marines. Over 22,000 black Marines were trained in that camp, and they went on to shape the future of the Marine Corps. Sgt. Maj. Gilbert “Hashmark” Johnson, RIP. Semper Fidelis.