Corps’ first black officer serves as inspiration BY MARINE CORPS CPL. LAMEEN WHITTER
A Marine walking on base or aboard a ship today may find it easy to take things for granted. With currently more than 25,000 African-American Marines serving their Corps and country, it may be hard to believe that a little more than 60 years ago there were only a few black Marines in the ranks of the few and proud.
The year was 1941, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt had just signed Executive Order 8802, which prohibited discrimination by any government organization based on race. With the order in effect, the integration of blacks in the U.S. military began the end of legal segregation in America. On June 1, 1942, the recruiting process began with a quota of 900 recruits to fill. Male citizens between the ages of 17 to 29 who met the standards for enlistment were placed in the Marine Corps Reserve. On their service record books and enlistment contract read the stamp “colored.” Although discrimination was illegal, integration was still met with reluctance and resistance internally in the Corps. As a result, there was a lot of tension between whites and blacks.
Headquarters and Service Battery of the 51st Composite Defense Battalion was activated at Montford Point, N.C., Aug. 18, 1942. One hundred and nineteen recruits began training the following month. The 51st and 52nd Defense Battalions trained at Montford over the next two years. The black Marines were kept separate from the white Marines and weren’t allowed to enter nearby Marine Corps Base, Camp Lejeune, N.C., unless escorted by a white Marine.
Even though the Marines of Montford Point were black, they answered to and were trained by white non-commissioned officers and officers. In the eyes of former Marine Capt. Frederick C. Branch this wasn’t fair. So, he set out to change history and become the first black commissioned officer in the Marine Corps.
Branch was originally looking into the Army’s officer program while attending Temple University in 1943. However, he was drafted into the Marine Corps before he could receive the results from the test. He found out a year after boot camp at Montford Point that he had passed the test. Branch’s yearning to be an officer continued to increase. When he volunteered for deployment to Ellis Island with the 51st Defense Battalion, he got his chance.
The young corporal was selected to attend the Navy’s V-12 program at Purdue University. Branch made the dean’s list while attending and continued on to Marine Corps Base Quantico, for Officer’s Candidates School. Branch earned his commission out of a class of 250. He was later assigned to Quantico and then Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif. Many remember him for his determination and perseverance.
Capt. Gilbert A. Warner, adjutant, U.S. Marine Corps Forces Atlantic, found the example that Branch set inspiring.
“I wanted to be a Marine officer, a leader of men, because of what I saw as an enlisted Marine. What I saw was Marines willing to do what it takes to get the job done, who were a band of brothers, and who were able to overcome any obstacle. I wanted to be part of that elite group,” said the Houston, Texan.
Warner said the Marine Corps has the smallest number of service members in the U.S. Military, thus the officers of the Corps are a handful in comparison to the other services. This group of men and women rise to a challenge to lead the chosen few.
“I try to be a good example. So that when a black Marine sees me, they see me doing the right things in keeping with honor, courage, and commitment. That’s why I wanted to become an officer of Marine,” said Warner. “I think Branch’s desire to become an officer wasn’t too different from mine. You had a group of black enlisted Marines and no black officers to lead them. All the supervisory officers were white, and these Marines had no one like them to look up to and emulate. So he decided to do it and pave the way through racism, segregation, and racial injustice.”
The memory of Branch’s achievements was made everlasting when he was inducted into the recently established Montford Point Marine Hall of Fame at the 34th National Montford Point Convention July 14, 1999.