Local Military News

Parris Island in the 1950s: African-Americans, women begin training

Marvin Foster
Marvin Foster Submitted photo

Marvin Foster arrived at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island in 1958, just a month after graduating from high school.

Like many new recruits he was young, nervous and full of rough edges the Marines would seek to sand away.

But Foster had an added pressure. He was the only African-American in his platoon and one of only six black men among the depot's hundreds of recruits.

"They told us going in that 60 percent of (all recruits) don't make it through Parris Island," said Foster, 75, of Oceanside, Calif. "I didn't want to be dropped because I really was representing my race. I didn't want these guys to look at the only black man they had ever met who couldn't keep up. That made me work harder."

Foster was part of a new era of integration at Parris Island that began in 1949. That year, African-Americans were integrated into all aspects of the Marine Corps and the first full-time Women Marine recruit training program began. Before then, African-American recruits were trained in segregated all-black units at Montford Point near Camp Lejeune, N.C.

The addition of women and African-American Marines also helped the nation during the Korean War. In all, some 138,000 Marines graduated from Parris Island during the war.

Foster said it wasn't only his race that made it harder to fit in, but also his background as a city kid from Chicago often working with Southern recruits from the country.

Some of his friends in the city questioned his decision to join the military and train in the Deep South.

"I knew I wanted to be a Marine no matter what and I was reborn at Parris Island," Foster said. "I went in a little punk kid from Chicago, but I came out a United States Marine."

Foster clearly remembers returning home to Chicago in his Marine uniform.

"By then my friends were drooling with jealousy," said Foster, who was an active duty Marine for 29 years doing stints in Pendleton, Calif., Okinawa, Japan, and serving in the Vietnam War, among other stations.

"I recommend that anybody that wants to be something in life should start out as a Marine," he said.

Capt. Margaret M. Henderson reads the order activating the 3rd Recruit Training Battalion -- for training female recruits -- in 1949. MCRDPI

Above: Capt. Margaret M. Henderson reads the order activating the 3rd Recruit Training Battalion -- for training female recruits -- in 1949. MCRDPI photo.

In 1954, Jeanne Merk was a dissatisfied switchboard telephone operator in California.

She had long wanted to be a nurse, but her father refused to pay for school. She set her eyes on another form of service after a woman walked into her office in a U.S. Marines uniform.

"It left a big impression on me," said Merk, 81. "I leaned over to my friend and said 'Donna, what do you think about going into the Marines?'"

Jeanne Merk, right, poses with her friend and fellow recruit Donna Sillings, left, and their recruiter from the U.S. Marine Corps, Claire Lamb, center, in Los Angeles just after returning from boot camp at Parris Island in 1955. Photo courtesy Jeanne Merk

So Merk decided to make a cross-country train trip to join the Corps and start a new life.Becoming a Marine was a new option for women following the 1948 passage of The Women's Armed Services Integration Act.

As a result, Parris Island introduced the 3rd Recruit Battalion where all of the nation's women recruits were trained. The battalion was operated by five women Marine officers, 15 enlisted women and 15 enlisted men, who served as drill instructors and guards.

Merk was trained on military history, drills, orders and the military code of justice with her fellow women Marines.

"I remember having to learn how to shine shoes, how to really scrub floors, how to take orders," she said. "It was hard, hard work."

Following her time at Parris Island, Merk worked as a switchboard operator for the Corps. Rules at the time limited women Marines to administrative roles.

She found herself ensnared by the rules again a short time later after she married a fellow Marine and became pregnant. She had to leave the Corps because women Marines were barred from having a baby while on active duty.

But she still cherishes her time in the Marines. Merk has lived in Las Vegas, Nev., for the past 48 years after moving around the country for years to follow her husbands' military career.

"You learn discipline. You learn to work for something bigger than yourself," Merk said.

And she appreciates the evolving roles of women in the Marines and other military branches. She has seen it through her daughter who enlisted in the 1970s and was trained at Parris Island as well as her granddaughter who joined the Army in the 1990s. Now her great granddaughter is considering enlisting.

"I think it is a world different now for women, with more jobs open, different training," Merk said. "It's fantastic to watch it all happen."

But one thing hasn't changed since Merk's Marine days: All women recruits are still trained at Parris Island.

"It is a place that I feel like a lot of us were truly formed," Merks said. "I will never forget it."