This article by Cpl Rebecca Carstens was originally published by Leatherneck Magazine
Editor’s note: The following article received an honorable mention in the 2019 Leatherneck Writing Contest. Major Richard A. “Rick” Stewart, USMC (Ret) sponsored the contest, which is open to enlisted Marines, through the Marine Corps Association and Foundation. Entries for the 2020 contest can be submitted to leatherneck@mca-marines .org. Deadline is March 31.
Peaceful. Warm blue ocean waves roll throughout the harbor, leaving traces of lacy white foam on the sunlit sand. Pervading the postcard scene, a small hum begins to fill the island air, steadily increasing to a scream as the water’s clear reflection of the sky is shattered by a swarm of Japanese aircraft. The ship’s deck sways in battlefield rhythm beneath you, adrenaline racing through your blood while bullets strike in harsh static percussion. Enveloped by chaos, your initial shock evaporates, giving way to a hardened resolve to survive and fight. This is how the morning transpired for many young servicemen on Dec. 7, 1941, at the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
The news spread quickly that Pearl Harbor was attacked by Imperial Japanese forces, marking the United States’ first direct involvement in World War II and the immediate end of the U.S. isolation policy. One young African-American Sailor, receiving the news while aboard USS Wyoming (BB-32), made a decision that would change his life forever. For out of the destruction, heroes rose to create a stronger military force than ever before, truly exemplifying the words, “for all men are created equal.” That Sailor grew to become Sergeant Major Gilbert “Hashmark” Johnson—one of those heroes.
Johnson’s thriving enthusiasm and magnanimous greatness of spirit enabled him to overcome many challenges and lead others on the same paths to excellence. At the time Johnson began his military career, African Americans were not allowed to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps. Consequently, he enlisted in the U.S. Army 25th Infantry Regiment in the fall of 1923 and served six years honorably. He later enlisted in the U.S. Navy, where he served in the “Steward’s Branch”—a segregated portion of the service that was in charge of menial tasks—and attained the rate of steward second class.
On June 25, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, “reaffirm[ing] 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.” This order finally ended the restrictions upon African-Americans enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps. At the time of the issuance of this order, Johnson was 37 years old and had already served his country for several years in two other branches of service. Despite this, after the Pearl Harbor attack, he requested a branch transfer. He knew that leaving the Navy and entering the Marine Corps would result in the reduction of his rank, a wage decrease and the loss of all that had been familiar to him over the previous 10 years. Unselfishly, he chose the less traveled road, so that he might bear the title “Marine” and forge the path for future generations to follow.
Though motivation is the word commonly used when speaking of the inner drive that Marines have to excel and succeed, discipline is the enduring foundation upon which needed change is truly wrought and plans are carried to full fruition. On Nov. 14, 1942, Johnson re ported for training at Montford Point, lo cated within Camp Lejeune, N.C. There, he earned his lasting nickname, “Hashmark,” denoting the three service stripes on his uniform that represented his previous service in the Army and Navy, outnumbering the absent rank on his shoulders as a newly enlisted Marine Corps private.
Johnson quickly demonstrated his eadership experience and dedication to the mission, and was promoted four times in the next year, pinning on the rank of staff sergeant in August of 1943. He became one of the first African-American drill instructors, demanding the utmost from every recruit he trained. Serving as one of the first African-American men to lead desegregation in the Marine Corps was a difficult task fraught with racial prejudice and many obstacles, on top of the already numerous rigors of military service. Johnson truly embodied the Marine Corps motto, “Semper Fidelis” to all around him with his refusal to ever give anything less than his best, nor to accept that from anyone elsegive anything less than his best, nor to accept that from anyone else
Quickly advancing through the enlisted ranks, Johnson became the sergeant major of Montford Point Camp in January of 1945, the same place he had reported to as a recruit only three years prior. It would later be renamed “Camp Gilbert H. Johnson” in honor of him. Later that year, he was reassigned as the sergeant major of the 52nd Defense Battalion, a unit that was serving on Guam in the middle of WW II. Upon his arrival, Johnson discovered that the African-American men of the unit were being assigned to labor details and held exempt from combat patrols. Knowing that these men did not join the Marine Corps to be kept away from combat, he spoke to the commanding officer of the unit and had the exemption revoked. Once again leading the charge, he went on to lead 25 combat patrols into the jungles of Guam, proving many times over that courage knows no race or creed. Because of his initiative, he continued to be a dynamic force within the Marine Corps, revoking a restrictive policy and granting credibility to his decision by being at the forefront of the danger.
Following the disbandment of the 52nd Defense Battalion in 1946, he served the remainder of his enlistment in Korea, beginning with 1st Shore Party Bn. During the rest of his career, he was often the highest-ranking enlisted man in units comprised largely of Caucasian men. Never one to shy away from a challenge, he continued to thrive in diversity, mentoring young Marines and providing guidance that only his years of experience could give. His final tour of duty was with 3rd Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division. He retired in 1959 after completing his 33-year military career, the last 17 years of which he spent as a hard-charging Marine.
Johnson died in 1972 of a heart attack at the age of 67 in Jacksonville, N.C. In his final speech, he spoke of his time leading Marines and the essence of his personal ethos, “devotion to duty and determination, equal to all and transcended by none.”
Johnson’s courageous willingness to take the initiative and enthusiasm for always going above and beyond the call of duty elevated his life from the rest and established his legacy in our history books. In America’s time of need, he was a guiding light for many to follow, overcoming adversity not only in war but on the home front as well. He led by example tirelessly—earning the eagle, globe, and anchor, going on to train Marines who would fight honorably in WW II, and effecting change at all levels through his leadership in every clime and place.
Author’s bio: Corporal Rebecca Carstens was born in Los Angeles, Calif. She entered the Marine Corps in 2016 and now serves as an aviation ordnance-man aboard Marine Corps Base Hawaii.