Phillip Herout, 91, of Philadelphia, one of the first African Americans to break the color line in 1942 by enlisting in the now-famous Montford Point Marines, and who made his life's work the telling of their story, died Sunday, Feb. 12, of heart failure at Phoenixville Hospital.
After President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 in June 1941, requiring the armed forces to recruit African Americans, black recruits came out in droves to join the Marines.
One of the first to enlist on June 1, 1942, was Mr. Herout. Like his comrades, he relished the chance to test himself in what he viewed as the toughest branch of the military services.
But the corps was not welcoming. Instead of the traditional barracks enjoyed by white soldiers at the adjacent Camp Lejeune, N.C, the first 1,200 black recruits underwent basic training at the segregated Camp Montford Point. They were not permitted to visit Camp Lejeune except when accompanied by a white officer.
The recruits lived in prefabricated huts made of corrugated metal on land infested with snakes and mosquitoes. "They had huts with no toilets. They had to walk up the street for the toilet. No running water," said Joe Geeter, past president of the Montford Point Marine Association, a group that memorializes the black Marines.
Once trained, the men were deployed in World War II to the South Pacific. Mr. Herout said in a biography that "when the time came for Blacks to fight, they did so with courage and conviction."
Mr. Herout was assigned to the Sixth Platoon, 51st Defense Battalion, and trained on the Browning .50-caliber machine gun. After basic training, he was assigned to the First Marine Depot. He left North Carolina for San Diego by segregated train.
He stayed for three weeks before shipping out to New Caledonia, and from there to Guadalcanal. He was assigned to the Russell Islands, where he was in charge of the ammunition dump. He stored and transported ammunition that included heavy bombs and gasoline drums. Mr. Herout stayed on the islands for 18 months until one of the 500-pound drums fell on one of his hands while he was unloading it. He was sent to a hospital in San Diego for six months. From there, he returned to Miami where he was again hospitalized. He was honorably discharged on Sept. 7, 1944.
His daughter, Tousha Bailey Herout, said, "He couldn't use three of his fingers, but he didn't let that stop him."
Undaunted by the discriminatory treatment they received, 13,000 of the Montford Point Marines went on to fight overseas and to identify and develop their own African American leaders.
About 20,000 African Americans received basic training at Montford Point between 1942 and 1949, when the camp was closed. Despite – or perhaps because of - the discrimination the men faced, their esprit de corps did not fade after the war.
Instead, in 1965, Mr. Herout, Master Gunnery Sgt. Brooks E. Gray, and the civil rights leader Cecil B. Moore, convened a national reunion of Montford Point Marines in Philadelphia. On Sept. 17 and 18, more than 400 former and active black Marines gathered at the Adelphia Hotel. The turnout led to the establishment of the nonprofit Montford Point Marine Association with chapters in 11 cities across America. Today, it has 33 chapters.
Brooks died in 2000, Moore in 1979. With Mr. Herout's death, all of the co-conveners are gone.
Mr. Herout was a charter member of the association and its first national sergeant at arms. He also held various positions with the Philadelphia chapter. He was inducted into the Montford Point Marine Association Hall of Fame.
He traveled widely over the years with then-president Joe Geeter, giving presentations about the Montford Pointers and mustering support for the granting of the Congressional Gold Medal. On July 27, 2012, the honor was bestowed by Congress and President Barack Obama on the 368 surviving Montford Point Marines.
"He cried, and that's a hard thing for a man as tough as he was," his daughter said. "It was a milestone he had been fighting for for so long. I'm glad he was able to get that recognition."
Born in Miami to the Rev. Phillip B. and Jane Elizabeth Herout, Mr. Herout attended Booker T. Washington High School, where he played football.
After his military service, he graduated from Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Fla. where he studied mechanics. Degree in hand, he moved to Philadelphia and opened an Atlantic gas station and mechanic's shop.
He married Melva Monk in 1959; she survives, as does their son Michael. Another son, Phillip Jr., died at age 11 of sickle-cell anemia. Earlier, he was married to Carrie Smith Herout. They divorced, and she survives in addition to their daughter. In addition, he is survived by five grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.