BENJAMIN A. PATTERSON
August 11th, 2005
Corporal Benjamin Patterson, a Baltimore native, joined the Corps after graduating from high school in 1942. He served with the 51st Defense Battalion in the Ellice Islands and left the Corps at the war's end. He returned to Baltimore, where he lived and worked for the remainder of his life. He died in 2005.
INTERVIEWER: Sir, these questions that I'm about to ask you are questions we have asked of, uh, over 50 Marines right now, 50 Montford Pointers. You made it the 60th, huh. Yeah, you made it, we, we've been really interviewing...
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: Been busy.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, sir. And, um, we, we're just trying to establish a pattern so that when we review the clips and so forth we can take, take them and put them in the right place. Um, and I'd like to start off by asking you to state and spell your full name.
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: Benjamin A. Patterson, B-E-N-J-A-M-I-N, A, P-A-T-T-E-R-S-O-N.
INTERVIEWER: And, state today's date, which is August the 11th, 2005.
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: August 11th, 2005.
INTERVIEWER: Okay, sir, uh, can you tell, uh, me a little bit about your background before you joined the Marine Corps?
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: Uh, I was in high school, I graduated from high school in, uh, 1942, June '42, I was 17 years old and I was 18 in October and naturally that, at that time it was a draft and I was drafted. So, I passed the physical, the guy says where do you want to go? I says, well, I'll try the Marines, (LAUGH) and that's how I got in the Marine Corps.
INTERVIEWER: Okay. Um, a little bit about your, uh, a little bit about your family.
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: Family, I come from a small family, my, I was, my mother and father weren't married, my mother, uh, did day's work to take in and support the family. When I'm in the Marine Corps didn't make much difference because the pay wasn't that good, it wasn't that much, but I was proud to serve because when I went in the Corps, I was the first one in the family to come out, to have completed high school. And, my daughter will be the first one to go to college. And, right now, my daughter's a federal mediator for the government.
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: (CONTINUED) So, she's a, I think she's in New York at the present time. But there isn't too much tell about my family life because I grew up in Baltimore which was a segregated town and schools were segregated at that, that time. And now the school that I went to was called 110 in Wasis Street. The front of our school faced the back of a White school, which was right across the street. But it was segregated. Things were so bad in, in, in the, in the city at the time, you couldn't play on the playgrounds, we had no place to play. So, we made a deal with the janitor in the school, sad that we could, see if we could play in the schoolyard.
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: (CONTINUED) We played in the schoolyard, if we broke a window, the next morning we had the money we paid it, and he, he replaced the windows. And, that's, (LAUGH) the, that's how, that's from, predominantly how things went in those days.
INTERVIEWER: When you, uh, when you joined the Marines, uh, you know, there were other opportunities you, other avenues you could have gone, could have gone in the Army, gone in the Navy, why did you choose Marines?
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: Ah, very interesting question, I liked the Marines because as you said, I wasn't sure what it was going to be like and I loved that uniform. (LAUGH) That dress blue was terrific. I remember when I first came, when I first, our first, first furlough that I came home, uh, I was going with a girl who was in high school at the time, and I went up to her school, and they were out for lunch, you should have seen the kids come running, what are you? I said I'm a Marine. They'd never seen a Black Marine before. And, from her graduating class I know half a dozen guys joined the Marine Corps.
INTERVIEWER: Um, when you, when you joined did, were you aware of the fact that, uh, that the Marine Corps had never admitted African-Americans and if you did, did that knowledge, that have anything to do with your decision?
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: I was aware of the fact that there were no Black Marines. Yeah, I had this one guy said, let's get down and see what it's like. I was young at the time, adventurous, as a matter of fact, I'd never been away from home overnight before until (LAUGH) I got on that train going to Montford Point. (LAUGH)
INTERVIEWER: Okay. Speak, speaking of that, um, that just lead me right into my next question, uh, tell me about your trip down, I mean, from the...
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: Oh.
INTERVIEWER: ...the time you left home and, you know, got on the train and the guys you met, met up with, any, any kind of problems you had along the way.
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: Well, to begin with, the trains at that time, all Blacks were right behind the, the car. The tender. All the smoke from the train, from the engine came in that car and we all, all the Blacks were, as I say, in one car. But we had, I didn't have any problems going down because I knew what the situation was, and we got down there, they had, they gave us sandwiches for box lunch and everything, I met a few guys from Baltimore which I, who I didn't know.
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: (CONTINUED) And, matter of fact, most of then were, are dead now. And, uh, when I got, when, when we got to Montford Point we got on the bus and went into camp, and at that time I think they'd finally put up the old, the Quonset huts had come up. The guys ahead, ahead of us had been in tents, so I was in a Quonset hut. So, uh, we got, went into training, I was in the 50, 50, 53rd Platoon. Had guys from all over the, guys from, had guys in our group from as far away as Seattle, Washington, Chicago, Alabama, Texas, and, uh, it was very interesting because I, I'd never, as I say, I'd never been away from home overnight before. And, it was quite an experience for me. I love it.
INTERVIEWER: When I went to, uh, well I went through Officer Candidate School... (TECHNICAL)
INTERVIEWER: (CONTINUED) Sir, when you, when you got to the base, you gave a little description of what the camp looked like, when you got to the base and you got of that bus, how did you life change in that moment?
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: Well, when you got off the bus they guy says, all right you, you shit birds line up over there. (LAUGH) I said, what he say? Get it on over there. I think it was, was a little guy named Sergeant Ingram, and, uh, we got in line and, and he says, anything you got in your pockets get it together because we're going to, they're going to come and take all your clothes, everything goes back. So, we went in and we were issued our clothing, and, uh, said that, now this is your barracks over here, Quonset huts, stove in the middle.
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: (CONTINUED) If you weren't (LAUGH) in, in the summertime you didn't want to be up near that heat anyway, but in, this was, this was in, in, it was cold and, uh, I was lucky enough to get a stove, a, a bunk up near the heat. So, it wasn't bad, but, uh, going through boot camp was a little tough. I think I, I can't remember my, my drill instructor, now I think his name was Harry, no Bryant, I think, I knew his name would come, the name was Bryant, old, older guy.
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: (CONTINUED) And, uh, we were drilled night and day. Five o'clock in the morning you got up for, for breakfast, no, you got up for formation, for roll call, then you went to breakfast, then from then until four o'clock in the evening you were on that drill field, other than your break for lunch. It was tough. But, uh, I enjoyed it, as I said, for me it was quite an experience, and had, not having been away from home, and I met a few guys, which we later became very good friends.
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: (CONTINUED) And, everything was, for me it, Montford Point was, it was tough, but there was one incident down there I would like to, I would like to bring up, but, right by Jacksonville. Jacksonville was a little town, it was, I don't know what, what it was, and the first time I was on liberty I went to Jacksonville. Got in a fight with some White Marines. Got put in jail. I, in the brig rather, in the brig, and I was up for a promotion, so I lost my stripe. I never went to Jacksonville again other than coming home, because the town was not for me.
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: (CONTINUED) And, we had a, an officer on, on our, was connected with, with the group there, after, after the boot camp and was with, I think his name was Otis Sooter he was, used to play with Benny Goodman or no, Tommy Dorsi's band, he was the music director now and he, he wrote a song about Jacksonville and some of the words were this, Jacksonville stood still while the rest of the world passed by.
INTERVIEWER: Uh, in your, your training day at Montford Point, I, I know you, you, you describe some of the things you did that you, you ran and spent the whole day drilling and that kind of thing, but you, you took some specialized training, there was marksmanship training...
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: Oh, yeah.
INTERVIEWER: ...and there was, uh, hand-to-hand combat training, can you talk to us a little bit about those...
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: Now, with, uh, we had a guy there named, I think it was Gaslo I think he was from Canada, he taught us the hand-to-hand combat, we went through that with, you know, regular judo stuff and everything, taught you how to defend yourself, then went, then was the rifle range, the worst place I've ever been because the mosquitoes were terrible. If you didn't have a good, uh, good net on your bunk, you were nothing but a, but a mound of, of hills the next morning.
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: (CONTINUED) And, after that coming out of, after, after, after, after I finished boot camp I was lucky because I got put in a, they were forming the 51st Battalion. I was put in the 51st Battalion and I was in the 90-millimeter group, I was in D Battery, and I'd had some machinery experience, so I was sent to Aberdeen to school to Ordinance School. But when I got to Ordinance School it was still a bit of segregation there. Blacks were over here and the Whites were there, but we all went to the same classes for the ordinance, training and everything. And, uh, we had a close order drill every day, every morning, and I got a kick out of it because the soldiers weren't using to hearing cadence called as we called in the Marine Corps.
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: (CONTINUED) So, they said, so they elected me, he said, you do the drilling every day. I met a lot of guys and, and, and after that, the next thing I knew, no, I, I'm getting a little ahead of myself. We went to Onslow Beach to, uh, for training down on Onslow Beach with, with 90-millimeters, 120's etcetera. We broke all existing records in the Marine Corps, we shot down every target they put up in the air, 51st Battalion did. Then, as I said, then what I was, then when I was there, that's when they called me and sent me to Aberdeen.
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: (CONTINUED) But it, it was quite an experience and I, there was one guy killed down there during training, it was Fraser, and he was a guy that, that, I think he'd been at Virginia State University, quite a basketball player, and I was there when he was killed. And, uh, that sort of got to them because I, I'd seen him play. And, after I come back from Ordinance School, on the ship, over, heading to California. Up in, uh, I think we went to 29 Palms or somewhere up, up in the mountains, I can't remember exactly where it was.
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: (CONTINUED) Then, and we were out there on the field one day and I, this, this, I think it was Colonel Getless (SP?) coming from overseas to take over our group and he says, when I came back here and saw you people in this uniform, I knew we were at war. And, I said, this is the guy we're going to serve under, and they said, yeah, the next thing I know, we're on the ship heading for the South Pacific.
INTERVIEWER: Where did you go when you went over there and what did you do?
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: Well, our first, our, our first stop was Ellice Islands, went to a little island called Fonafuti. And, we got there and we, we, they, the other group hadn't left, so we slept out in open field at night, ready roll, and so the, the other, the other group left, we went to take over the guns and everything. The first thing that happened to me, the natives walked up to me and said let me see your tail. The White Marines had told them that all Black people had tails.
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: (CONTINUED) The natives come and say, let me see your tail. I said we don't have tails. I said, feel back there, then he feels, oh, that's not what we hear. I said, no, we don't have tails. Quite an experience believe me.
INTERVIEWER: Did you see combat over there?
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: Uh, no, I, my buddy downstairs said Pat, we over there all that time we didn't get to see combat. I said, Bus, we, we lucky, because a lot of guys that were not, that went, went through with me, went, saw combat and they're not here anymore. But no, we didn't get to see any combat. Now, we had one experience they said a, a Japanese sub was out, out, around the island somewhere. So, our 120's fired, fired, I'd say, 50, 75 rounds out in the ocean there, and we don't know whether we sank the sub or not.
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: (CONTINUED) And, after we left, uh, Eneewtak, no, no, after we left, uh, Fonafuti we went to Eneewtak, Ellice Islands and there it was about the same. TB's on one end, now this, this guy Felder he, he, his gun group was down at the end of the airport and we were up at the other end. But by me being in the ordinance I was attached to the headquarters. So, it, it, it was quite an experience because we still did our, we didn't do any drilling, but we maintained those guns strict order, everything spit and polish in those days, everything had to be right. And, we had a... (TECHNICAL)
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: (CONTINUED) Yeah, we, we left, uh, Fonafuti and went to Eneewtak, and we got settled there, and, uh, as I said, we didn't see any action, but we were constantly on duty, we went through the drills every day as if, as, as if we were, fired a few rounds, and like, we had a trouble with a couple of guns up, up on, on one of the other islands, so we flew, my sergeant and I flew over, we went repaired the guns and come back.
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: (CONTINUED) As I said, we I was in ordinance, but in ordinance, I was supposed to be able to fix any gun we had, which at that time I could, but I couldn't tell you, do a thing with it now. I, I could take down a, a 40 millimeter, uh, machinegun, any hand weapon and, uh, at the, at the, at the time I went I think we had the 03, then it came down with back, they gave, finally gave us the M1's. But, uh, in the South Pacific I, it, it was, it was, it was a good thing because we became friends with, with the end, with the sea bees on the island, and we had a basketball tournament or, or group league there.
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: (CONTINUED) We played and, uh, and we, all, we had a, a couple of sea bees, they wanted to play with the Marines, so they played with us, but here's what's the amazing thing I, I'll never think, understand now, at the tournament for the, the Ellice Islands and the Marshall Island, etcetera, we won it, 51st Battalion won the tournament, beat everybody, they had a tournament, it seems a tournament, a playoff tournament in Hawaii, the Marine Corps wouldn't send us for fear that we might win it. We had possibility of winning the whole thing.
INTERVIEWER: GOOD GOD!
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: Yeah.
INTERVIEWER: Tell me, uh, I want to go back to one piece, uh, when you, and I don't know if you responded to this or not, when you looked out over the camp, tell me about how (UNINTELLIGIBLE) get off the bus and so forth, but when you looked out over at, at the whole camp which is Montford Point...
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: Mm-hm.
INTERVIEWER: ...what did you, what were you impressions of the camp?
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: To me, it was something I'd never seen anything like it before, as I said, it was a bunch of Quonset huts, had a PX, a movie theater, and different areas for different, different groups that were, you know, the, the training area, big training area, as I said, we had the guys who taught us the hand-to-hand, and we did the, uh, rifle range, but the most amazing thing there is, is, is they didn't have a, a road going over from Montford Point to what, what, uh, what's the other camp over there? Can't think of the name of it.
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: (CONTINUED) Anyway, we had to build a, build a bridge to go over there, snakes and everything in the water, we had to go out there, build this bridge across to get to the other side of Montford Point, because this little, little stream ran through there and was snake infested. I don't think any, any of the guys got hurt or anything, what, what was terrible then. And, when they, when they had the, the field day or anything, the colonel will come over, everyone would come over and we, as we marched, and that was, that's the only time we saw any, any officer other than White officer that, that were in our group, we didn't see any other Marines.
INTERVIEWER: Going back again to your, your journey overseas, were you, your last, left your last point, where did you go from, where do you go from there, where...
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: From Eneewtak?
INTERVIEWER: Yes, sir.
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: H-O-M-E. Heading back to the states, the war was over.
INTERVIEWER: And, then were you released from the Marine Corps at that time?
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: I was released from the Marine Corps after the war, right after the war, yeah.
INTERVIEWER: Did, while you were in, did you, did you get an opportunity to make any, uh, friendships with any white Marines?
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: No. didn't see any.
INTERVIEWER: Okay. Now, you were... (TECHNICAL)
INTERVIEWER: (CONTINUED) You, you were, uh, sir, were really a part of history, I mean, and I'm sure that when you all went, went up to Montford Point back in them days you, you didn't think anything about that.
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: No, no.
INTERVIEWER: But, but, uh, time has revealed, you know, that you really were, I mean, you, you, you were the first, uh, first African-Americans to serve in an organization which had previously been all White, uh, now I, the, the historical significance of that to me is that you all broke down barriers, you opened doors, much like those kids down in Mississippi, you know, went to the schools down there. Um, that, that's significant, and I just want to ask you if you've ever thought about that since then and, and what you, what you feel the significance of that, what you all did was?
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: I've thought about it quite often because I was out in, out to Las Vegas last year at the, at the anniversary of the Marine Corps and my daughter has a, a friend who's daughter is in the Marine Corps, she's a major, and I was out, out in Las Vegas for her wedding. And, I was, as I went in to her, I was at the table, bit reception, the table and they told the guy, they said, this is one of the Montford Point Marines. Man, I sit down at the table, the guy said, you sit down, you don't do anything.
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: (CONTINUED) They, (LAUGH) they took every little, and, the, the most, the most amazing thing is that, uh, they had some souvenirs like little ashtrays, little American flag, Marine Corps flags, I says, I'd love to have some of those to take back to my guys back home. Her husband, who was a colonel went upstairs and got me a box of everything, took my, my room and I, I carried it back home. And, I gave it to my guys at home, but not, man, you talk about some guys being happy, they were thrilled. I said, we like these? I said, well, this is a, it doesn't, it doesn't depend on what you do, it's who you know, I was kidding them, you know.
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: A lot of fun, but this group that I belong to now there's, there's not too many at Montford Pointers left in it, but we try to stick together, we, there's a lot of guys, young kids at home I try to get to come and join, they say I don't know a think about it. I said, well, you don't know because you never try to find out, nobody's going to tell you these things, you've got to find out for yourself. I said, and if it hadn't been for guys like us breaking the barriers in the Marine Corps, you never would have gotten in there.
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: (CONTINUED) A lot of guys we know they come out as a, Master Gunnery Sergeant officers, and they would (WORD?) , what, what I'm saying is this, that when I was there, the highest, the highest rank we had at the time was Hashmark Johnson, you've heard of Hashmark Johnson, Hashmark was, was our, our Sergeant Major, and then I, I don't know how to explain it, but I try to tell these kids what, how lucky they are to have done this and they've been in Marine Corps, I know I know a lot of they put in 20 years, retired and got other jobs living.
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: (CONTINUED) But I tell them about, I say, now you don't know what, what some of us did for you to get that. Oh, then they say, well, I said, well, it doesn't matter, you'll find out one day, that's it.
INTERVIEWER: How, how do you think that the Marine Corps experience affected your life?
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: Marine Corps experience affected my life tremendously, I'll tell you why, I, as I said, I'd never been away from home, I got the experience of being on my own, I traveled overseas and I, I'd never been on a ship going that far, everybody was seasick, and I went to, got through that and lucky enough to get back home. When I came back home I think I was 20, 19 or 20 years old, and I married, married a girl, we stayed together six months and it's over.
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: (CONTINUED) She was, that's when I told you about I went to high school and then, and then, uh, we got married, didn't last, but it gave me an experience, it made me a man because I was in position now to say what I wanted, because before when I was home with my, with my mother taking care of me, I depended on her. And, the most amazing thing happened to me, so, my mother always gave me a card at my birthday with the, with some money in it. So, she came up to my house on day and gave me a card, I said where's my money? She says, you're a man now son. That was it.
INTERVIEWER: What are your feelings about, you've had, and you've talked a little bit about it, but are there any other feelings you have now about having been a Montford Point Marine, anything else?
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: I'm proud. I'm proud to have been a Montford Pointer and, I get a little (UNINTELLIGIBLE) now, but, uh, to me it was an experience I'll never forget and there's nothing like it. There's nothing like being a Marine.
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: I loved it. Believe me.
INTERVIEWER: I'm sorry.
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: Okay.
INTERVIEWER: Anything else you want to tell us?
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: Ah, I'd like to say one other thing that, uh, since segregation has broken down in the Marine Corps, you can see the benefits of what has happened. How the Marine Corps, had, they, they, the Marine Corps definitely has progressed, now, I think, I don't know was, was Huff, I think, Huff, Sergeant Huff, Sergeant Major Huff, he was, he was a, he was down at Montford Point when I was there, but Huff, Huff's highest mark and they, and they, some of those guys I don't know, we, they did a lot of stuff to, to, to get us to make sure we got through. And, I enjoyed it, tell you what, I wouldn't go through it again though. (LAUGH) But sure, I really enjoyed it.
INTERVIEWER: Okay sir.
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: That's it.
INTERVIEWER: We appreciate it.
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: Okay.