Newsletters & Information > "It was rough," said James Glover Jr
"It was rough," said James Glover Jr

Feb 10, 2005

They are aging and their numbers are dwindling, but 60
years ago they were among the elite U.S. Marine Corps. Few
and proud, they were the first African-Americans to be
permitted in the U.S. Marine Corps since shortly after the
Revolutionary War. Overcoming more than a century of racial
segregation, the "Montford Point Marines" struggled from a
ramshackle segregated training camp in a remote part of
what is now Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C., to serve in
some of the deadliest battles of World War II. They were
subjected to racial abuse and discrimination but won the
respect of the other Marines they honorably served with in
the Pacific Theater.

"It was rough," said James Glover Jr., 94, who was among
the first African-Americans to enlist in the Marines in
1942. "I think we're a part of history. Sometimes we were
treated well, and sometimes we were treated rough, but we
just accepted it and went on."

"The DAV honors the service of all Americans," said
National Commander James E. Sursely. "The service,
dedication, and sacrifice of the first African-American
members of the U.S. Marine Corps comprise a record of honor
achieved while fighting both the enemy and racism. They led
to the changes that today reflect their historic role in
breaking down the old barriers of segregation to create an
environment of unity."

The Marine Corps was an all-white military service when it
was reestablished in 1798 and stayed that way until June 1,
1942, when Navy Secretary Frank Knox, bowing to the will of
President Franklin Roosevelt, ordered that 1,000
African-Americans be enlisted in the Navy, Marine Corps,
and Coast Guard each month. In response, the Marine Corps
organized a racially segregated 900-man defense
battalion--mostly from the South. Prior to Knox's order,
the Marine Corps followed the Navy's regulations banning
African-Americans and those with mixed blood as "persons
whose characters are suspicious." It was President
Roosevelt who ordered the ban be lifted, a little bit at a
time.

Even at the beginning of World War 11, the small size of
the Marine Coups enabled it to attract enough white
recruits to meet its needs. Steadfastly refusing to allow
blacks. Marine Corps Commandant Maj. Gen. Thomas Holcomb
said in 1941 that he would rather have 5,000 white Marines
than 250,000 blacks. He suggested that African-Americans
"satisfy their aspirations for combat in the Army."

Once allowed to enlist, things didn't get easy for
African-American recruits. U.S. Marine Corps recruit
training is enormously difficult in the best of times,
building both strength and morale. For the African-American
Marines, the training and the living conditions were even
tougher. They lived in prefabricated huts which normally
accommodated 16 men, but sometimes were filled with twice
that number. The Camp Montford Point area was Infested with
mosquitoes and snakes. Glover said the barrack huts at Camp
Montford Point provided horrible living conditions. "The
walls were made from raw and rotting timber, and the living
conditions were indecent," he said. All drill instructors
were white and addressed the recruits as "you people."
Racial slurs were common in the beginning but later
declined as African-American Marines became more accepted.

The early African-American Marine recruits were galvanized
and unified after a misinterpreted comment by a Camp
Lejeune commander who said that when he returned from
overseas and found "you people wearing our uniform," he
knew there was a war on. The "Montford Point Marines" were
determined to be the sharpest looking Marines when in
public or in the presence of white Marines.

When they finished their basic training, the new
African-American Marines became part of the 51st Defense
Battalion which had been authorized in 1942.

As training continued for the men of the 51st Defense
Battalion, a corps of non-commissioned officers was
developed, and the unit shipped out for the Pacific in
January 1944 to defend islands far behind the front of the
marauding U.S. Pacific advance. By December 1944, Colonel
Curtis W. LeGette turned over command of the battalion and
told the African-American Marines. "You have shown me that
you can soldier with the best of them."

The Marine Corps also organized African-American depot and
ammunition companies to labor as combat service support
units in addition to the two defense battalions, which were
considered combat units. But names failed to reflect the
actual role the units played in combat. While the combat
battalions experienced a few months of patrol action
against surviving Japanese on the captured island of Guam,
it was the depot and ammunition companies that participated
in the savage fighting on Saipan, Tinian, Guam, Peleliu,
Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. The combat service units suffered
most of the casualties among African-American Marines, with
seven killed and 78 wounded.

Of the nearly 20,000 African-American Marines in World War
II, about 13,000 served overseas. The 65 segregated
African-American Marine Corps units were defense battalions
or combat support companies. The jobs of the support
companies, while extremely dangerous, consisted of loading
and unloading supplies, resupplying frontline units, and
evacuating the dead and wounded, and doing it all under
sometimes heavy enemy fire.

Glover, a member of the 27th Marine Depot Company, vividly
remembers the firefights with Japanese soldiers as he
ferried ammunition to the frontline Marines. "I never saw
combat," Glover said. "We supplied the front lines with
food and ammunition. We were shot at all the time by the
Japanese hiding the coconut trees, and we shot back."

At the invasion of Saipan on June 15, 1944, four black
Marines were wounded shortly after the first wave landed,
and one African-American squad from a depot company fought
as infantry to reinforce a line backed up near the water's
edge. The next morning, the company helped eliminate
Japanese infiltrators who had penetrated along the line
between the 23d Marines and the 8th Marines of the adjacent
2d Marine Division. Pvt. Kenneth J. Tibbs, who came in on
the fourth wave of the landing, suffered fatal wounds and
died, becoming the first African-American Marine killed in
combat during World War II.

On neighboring Guam, thousands of Japanese soldiers were
bypassed in the lightning campaign of July and August 1944.
Left alone, they ambushed rear area installations from the
concealment of the jungle. Pfc. Luther Woodward of the 4th
Marine Ammunition Company was gifted in tracking these
soldiers. One afternoon, he came across footprints near the
ammunition dump and followed them to a hut where a
half-dozen Japanese were hiding. He opened fire, killing
one, wounding another, and scattering the rest. Woodward
returned to the camp to get five other black Marines to
join him and hunted down the survivors. He killed one
Japanese soldier, and his companions killed another. In
recognition for his service, Woodward received the Bronze
Star for heroism, which was later upgraded to a Silver
Star.

"It was kind of rough to be among the first black Marines,"
said Glover. "We got the jobs nobody wanted and military
equipment we called 'second-hand stuff.' But those
frontline Marines were glad to see us when we were bringing
up ammunition. Then I helped carry the wounded back for
medical treatment."

When the 1st Marine Division landed on Peleliu oil Sept.
15, 1944, the African-American 11th Marine Depot Company
paid dearly in the furious fighting, suffering 17
Wounded--the highest casualty rate of any African-American
Marine Corps company during the war. Major General William
H. Rupertus, who commanded the 1st Marine Division, sent
letters of commendation praising the black Marines for
their "wholehearted cooperation and untiring efforts" which
demonstrated that they "appreciate the privilege of wearing
a Marine uniform and serving with Marines in combat."

In the last battle of World War II, solve 2,000
African-American Marines participated in the invasion--more
than for any previous operation. After the war ended, the
Marine Corps disbanded the African-American units. By 1947,
they were all gone, but black Marines were here to stay. In
early 1945, three senior black noncommissioned officers
entered officer training at Quantico, Va., but none
graduated. The three men went on to successful careers as
civilians: Sgt. Maj. Charles F. Anderson became an
attorney; Sgt. Maj. Charles W. Simmons worked as a college
professor and author; and 1st Sgt. George F. Ellis, Jr.,
became a physician. Three more African-American officer
candidates failed to win commissions, but on Nov. 14, 1945,
Frederick C. Branch, a veteran of the 51st Defense
Battalion, was commissioned the first black Marine Corps
officer.

 JAMES E STEWART JR PRESIDENT

JOHN TILLMAN VICE PRESIDENT

Historical advisor Byron Stewart PhD

 

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