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.