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Corps’ first black officer

Feb 27, 2003

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.

 JAMES E STEWART JR PRESIDENT

JOHN TILLMAN VICE PRESIDENT

Historical advisor Byron Stewart PhD

 

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