Black Marine Units
Of World War Two

 

 BLACK MARINE UNITS OF THE FLEET MARINE FORCE

 

The Camp Opens . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3

The First Graduates. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8

Expansion Looms. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8

CHAPTER 2. THE 51st DEFENSE BATTALION . . . . . . . . . . 15

The First Combat Unit. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16

Overseas Duty. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 19

On to the Marshalls. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 21

Home Again . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 21

CHAPTER 3. THE 52d DEFENSE BATTALION. . . . . . . . . . . 23

First to the Marshalls . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 24

Forward to Guam. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25

Postwar Activities . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 27

CHAPTER 4. DEPOT AND AMMUNITION COMPANIES . . . . . . . . 29

Into Service Overseas. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 32

Combat in the Marianas . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 33

Combat on Peleliu. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 37

Combat on Iwo Jima . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 37

Combat on Okinawa. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 39

Occupation Duty. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 42

Windup in the Pacific. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 44

CHAPTER 5. BETWEEN THE WARS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 47

Finding a Place. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 50

Truman and Integration . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 53

The End in Sight . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 55

CHAPTER 6. A DECADE OF INTEGRATION. . . . . . . . . . . . 59

Combat in Korea. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 61

Black Leaders. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 62

Changing Times . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 64

CHAPTER 7. THE VIETNAM ERA . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 69

Action Against Discrimination. . . . . . . . . . . . . 70

Racial Turmoil . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 71

Black Officer Procurement and Human Relations. . . . . 74

Vietnam. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 78

Conclusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 81

APPENDIX A. NOTES . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 85

APPENDIX B. BLACK MARINE UNITS OF THE FLEET MARINE FORCE,

WORLD WAR II . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 95

APPENDIX C. BLACK MARINE MEDAL OF HONOR RECIPIENTS. 97

INDEX. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 103

 viii

INTRODUCTION

A Depot Special Bulletin #1-44 dated 28 July 1943 references an article printed in Time Magazine on 24 July, 1944. "...Last week, as a footnote to the invasion of Saipan, Time correspondent Robert Sherrod wrote about the first to see action: Negro Marines, under fire for the first time, have rated a universal 4.0 (Annapolis mark of perfection) on Saipan. Some landed with the assault waves. All in the four service companies have been under fire at one time or another during the battle. Some have have been wounded, several of them have been killed in action. 'COOL IN COMBAT' When Japs counterattacked the 4th Marine Division near Charan Kanoa, twelve Negroes were thrown into the line. Their white officers said they accounted for about 15 Japs....They were under intense mortar fire and artillery fire as well as rifle and machine gun fire. They kept advancing until the counter attack was stopped. Negro Marines were at their best while performing their normal duties. Credited with being the workingest men on Saipan, they performed prodigious feats of labor both while under fire and after beachheads were well secured. Some unloaded boats for three days with little or no sleep, working in water waist deep....On an open transport, where a detachment of Negroes was left to load small boats, they volunteered to unload and tend the wounded who were brought to the transport...." 2. To the 18th, 19th, and 20th Depot Companies and the 3rd Ammunition Company, congratulations from their Commanding Officer. Well Done." Signed Earl H Phillips Col. USMC Commanding.

Prior to President Harry Truman's 1948 declaration of intent to end

segregation in the U.S. Armed Forces, blacks who served most often did so in

segregated units or under a quota system designed to limit their number. In

time of war, the need for men usually required the recruitment or drafting of

blacks; in peacetime the number of black servicemen dwindled. In large part,

the situation of blacks in uniform was a reflection of their status in

society, particularly that part of American society which practiced racial

segregation and discrimination.

During the American Revolution blacks served in small numbers in both the

Continental and state navies and armies. According to surviving muster and pay

rolls, there were at least three blacks in the ranks of the Continental

Marines and ten others who served as Marines on ships of the Connecticut,

Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania navies.<1> It is probable that more blacks

served as Marines in the Revolution who were not identified as such in the

rolls. The first recorded black Marine in the Continental service was John

Martin or "Keto," a slave of William Marshall of Wilmington, Delaware, who was

recruited without Marshall's knowledge or permission by Marine Captain Miles

Pennington in April 1776. Martin served on board the Continental brig REPRISAL

until October 1777 when the ship foundered off the Newfoundland Banks. All of

her crew except the cook were lost.<2>

On 27 August 1776, Isaac Walker, identified on the rolls as a Negro, was

enlisted in Captain Robert Mullan's company of Continental Marines in

Philadelphia, and on 1 October, a recruit listed simply as "Orange. . . Negro"

was enrolled. Both of these men were still on the company payroll as of 1

April 1777.<3> It is quite possible that they served with Mullan's unit in the

Second Battle of Trenton (Assunpink Creek) on 2 January 1777 and in the Battle

of Princeton the following day.

Those few black men who have been identified as Marines from surviving

Revolutionary War rosters were pioneers who were not followed by others of

their race until 1 June 1942. The Continental Marines went out of existence

within a year after the Treaty of Paris was signed on 11 April 1783. When

Congress conditionally authorized the construction of six frigates for a new

Navy in 1794, Marine guards were part of the planned ships' complements. In

1797, after the completion of three of the frigates, Constitution,

Constellation, and United States, was authorized, Marines were actually

enlisted. The Secretary of War, who also supervised the Navy, on 16 March 1798

prescribed a set of rules governing the enrollment of Marines for the

Constellation which provided that "No Negro, Mulatto or Indian to be enlisted.

. . ."<4>

These regulations prohibiting the enlistment of Negroes were continued

when Congress, on 11 July 1798, reestablished a separate Marine Corps with a

major in command. The new Commandant, Major William Ward Burrows, was explicit

on the subject in his instructions to his recruiting officers. To Lieutenant

John Hall at Charleston, South Carolina, he wrote:

You may enlist as many Drummers and Fifers as possible, I do not

care what Country the D & Fifers are of but you must be careful not

to enlist more Foreigners than as one to three natives. You can make

use of Blacks and Mulattoes while you recruit, but you cannot enlist

them.<5>

The regulations for recruiting Marines were much more selective than

those for seamen because of the reliance on the small guards on board ship to

maintain discipline, prevent mutinies, and give a military tone to men-of-war.

This situation was, in part, a carry over from the experience of British

Marines, about whom the observation had been made a hundred years earlier:

It may be added to what has been said of the usefulness of the said

[Marine] Regimts that the whole body of seamen on board the Fleet, being

a loose collection of undisciplined people, and (as experience shows)

sufficiently inclined to mutiny, the Marine Regimts will be a powerful

check to their disorders, and will be able to prevent the disasterous

consequences that may thence result to their Mats [Majesties] service.<6>

 

ix

Certainly those instrumental in recreating the American Navy had before

them the spectacle and lesson of the British Navy's Spithead and Nore mutinies

of April and May 1797 and the part played by Marines in their suppression.

There is no known record of black Marines serving in the various wars of

the 19th Century. The Navy did frequently enlist blacks as seamen, so much so

that at one time in 1839 the Secretary of the Navy issued a directive that no

more than five percent of enlistees could be blacks.<7> Thousands of blacks

served in the Federal Army and Navy during the Civil War and some continued to

serve thereafter--in the Army's case in two black infantry and two black

cavalry regiments which fought the Indians on the western frontier.

Mixed crews with blacks in all ratings remained a feature of the Navy up

until World War I, when the majority of black volunteers were assigned to the

Messman Branch. Following the war, black recruitment in the Navy ceased for

more than a decade and when it resumed in 1932, blacks were again only

enlisted in the Messman Branch.<8> The Army used blacks in segregated units in

World War I and continued the practice following the war. At the onset of

American involvement in World War II, the segregation of blacks in the Armed

Forces continued. Black Army volunteers and draftees were assigned to

all-black units. The Navy restricted its black volunteers to steward duty and

the Marine Corps accepted no blacks at all.

 

x

CHAPTER 1

 

A CHOSEN FEW

The door was opened for blacks to serve in all branches of the Armed

Forces on 25 June 1941 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive

Order No. 8802 establishing the Fair Employment Practices Commission with this

statement:

In affirming the policy of full participation in the defense

program by all persons regardless of color, race, creed, or

national origin, and directing certain action in furtherance of

said policy . . . all departments of the government, including

the Armed Forces, shall lead the way in erasing discrimination

over color or race.<1>

Major General Commandant Thomas Holcomb appointed Brigadier General

Thomas E. Watson to represent the Marine Corps on the newly established

commission, and the Corps took preliminary steps to comply with the

President's Executive Order. There is no question but that the order was

unpopular at Headquarters Marine Corps. Faced with the necessity of expanding

the Corps to meet the threatening war situation, few, if any, of the Marine

leaders were interested in injecting a new element into the training picture.

There was serious doubt that blacks would meet the high standards of the

Marine Corps. Once war had broken out, this opposition stiffened. The

Commandant, in testimony before the General Board of the Navy on 23 January

1942, indicated that it had long been his considered opinion that "there would

be a definite loss of efficiency in the Marine Corps if we have to take

Negroes. . . ."<2>

General Holcomb also indicated that the Marine Corps did not have the

facilities or trained personnel to handle all the whites who wanted to join

after Pearl Harbor. If there were to be black Marine units, he noted that he

could use only "the best type of officer on this project, because it will take

a great deal of character and technique to make the thing a success, and if it

is forced upon us we must make it a success."<3> The need for experienced

noncommissioned officers (NCOs) in training blacks was equally acute and the

Commandant felt that "they simply can not be spared if we are going to be

ready for immediate service with the fleet."<4> Concluding his remarks, he

said, "the Negro race has every opportunity now to satisfy its aspirations for

combat, in the Army--a very much larger organization than the Navy or Marine

Corps--and their desire to enter the naval service is largely, I think, to

break into a club that doesn't want them."<5> Regardless of the Commandant's

private protests, the pressure was on from the White House and from other

public sources to get on with the enlistment of blacks for general duty in the

Navy and Marine Corps. Wendell L. Wilkie, the titular head of the Republican

Party, in a speech delivered at the Freedom House inaugural dinner on 19 March

1942, described the Navy's "racial bias" in excluding blacks from enlisting

except as mess attendants as a "mockery." He challenged, "Are we always as

alert to practice [democracy] here at home as we are to proclaim it

abroad?"<6> The Administration's answer, delivered by Secretary of the Navy

Frank Knox on 7 April, was that the Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps would

soon accept blacks for enlistment for general service in active duty reserve

components. Actual recruitment would begin when suitable training sites were

established.<7> Secretary Knox's statement was followed on 20 May by an

announcement from the Navy Department that on 1 June the Navy would begin

recruiting 1,000 blacks a month for shore and high seas service and that

during June and July a complete battalion of 900 blacks would be formed by the

Marine Corps.<8>

This was to be a new experience for the Marine Corps. One officer

recalled:

. . .when the colored came in, we had the appropriations and the

authority, and we could have gotten 40,000 white people. It just

scared us to death when the colored were put on it. I went over

to Selective Service and saw General Hershey, and he turned me

 

1

BLACKS IN THE MARINE CORPS

 

over to a lieutenant colonel [Campbell C. Johnson?]--that was

in April--and he was one grand person. I told him, "Eleanor

[Mrs. Roosevelt] says we gotta take in Negroes, and we are just

scared to death; we've never had any in; we don't know how to

handle them; we are afraid of them." He said, "I'll do my best

to help you get good ones. I'll get the word around that if

you want to die young, join the Marines. So anybody that joins

[has] got to be pretty good!" And it was the truth. We got

some awfully good Negroes.<9>

 

The Beginnings

In the course of a study prepared on the possible uses of blacks in the

Marine Corps by Brigadier General Keller E. Rockey, Director of the Division

of Plans and Policies, the possibility that they might be employed in a

messmen's branch, similar to the Navy's, was considered, but the Corps at that

time did not have such a branch. Strong doubts were expressed that blacks

could serve successfully in combat units, citing the Army's experience that

the General Classification Test scores of the majority of black recruits

showed low levels of learning aptitude.<10> The Marine Corps actually had

little choice in the matter. The die had been cast. There would be blacks in

the Marine Corps and some at least would serve in combat units. The initial

vehicle for that service would be a composite defense battalion, a unit

containing seacoast artillery, antiaircraft artillery, infantry, and tanks,

whose task was overseas base defense.

Units of this type, their organization always tailored to their mission,

were already deployed overseas and had seen combat. Outnumbered elements of

the 1st Defense Battalion had gallantly defended Wake Island from invading

Japanese. Other units of the 1st on Johnson and Palmyra and of the 3d and 6th

Battalions on Midway had engaged enemy ships and planes with seacoast defense

and antiaircraft guns.<11>

As General Holcomb had pointed out to the General Board, the selection of

an officer to head the black unit, in fact to oversee all black Marine

training, was crucial. The choice was a wise and fortunate one. Colonel Samuel

A. Woods, Jr., a native of South Carolina and a graduate of The Citadel, had

some 25 years experience as an officer, including service in France in World

War I, duty in Cuba, China, the Dominican Republic, and the Philippines, and

service with the fleet.<12> In addition to a varied and well rounded career,

he had personal qualities that made him a memorable

 

<ILLUSTRATION>

<FIGURE NOT AVAILABLE>

Colonel Samuel A. Woods, Jr., first Commanding Officer, 51st

Composite Defense Battalion and Montford Point Camp. (USMC

Photo 9511).

man to the first black Marines. Almost universally they speak of him with

respect and affection. In the words of one black NCO who served closely with

him, his most outstanding quality was "his absolute fairness. He would throw

the book at you if you had it coming, but he would certainly give you an

opportunity to prove yourself."<13>

Colonel Woods, basing his findings upon a General Board report to

Secretary Knox of 20 March, presented his plans for the program to be

established for black Marines to General Rockey on 21 April. He based his

concept on a minimum of 1,000 black reserve recruits to be equipped as a

defense battalion after six months. Training was to be conducted at Mumford

Point (later renamed Montford Point) at the Marine Barracks, New River, North

Carolina. The barracks, soon to be named Camp Lejeune, was already the major

east coast combat training site for Fleet Marine Force (FMF) units and it

would soon be the only training site for black Marines. The sum of $750,000

was alloted to construct and enlarge temporary barracks and supporting

facilities for the new camp at Montford Point.

Some of the colonel's plan came to fruition,

 

2

A CHOSEN FEW

 

other parts were changed to meet the circumstances at Montford Point.

Basically, however, a headquarters and service battery and one or more recruit

training batteries would be formed as the initial camp complement. The first

recruits to report would have cooking experience. It was expected that boot

camp and basic training would take 180 days. At the end of this time, the

black Marines would receive combat equipment and organize for training as a

composite defense battalion. The first appointments of black NCOs would be

made at about the same time.

Colonel Woods recognized the battalion's table of organization contained

"some ranks which normally require considerable experience and more than 12

years' service to attain."<14> Since the unit was eventually to be composed

entirely of black enlisted men and white officers, blacks would have to learn

on the job to fill all NCO billets. Promotion was to be governed by length of

service, experience, and demonstrated ability, and controlled by changes in

the training allowance for the battalion.<15>

Recruiting was to begin on 1 June 1942. Although the public announcement

was not made until 20 May, the basic instructions for Marine Corps Recruiting

Divisions were sent out in a letter from the Commandant on 15 May. This letter

set a quota of 200 recruits each from the Eastern and Central Divisions while

the Southern was to furnish 500 of the initial 900 recruits. These men were to

be citizens between 17 and 29 years of age, and they were to meet the existing

standards for enlistment in the Corps. They were to be enlisted in Class

III(c), Marine Corps Reserve, and assigned to inactive duty in a General

Service Unit of their Reserve District. Both the service record book and the

enlistment contract were to be stamped "Colored."<16>

When recruiting opened on 1 June, the first men to enlist were Alfred

Masters and George O. Thompson (1 June), George W. James and John E. L.

Tillman (2 June), Leonard L. Burns (3 June), and Edward A. Culp (5 June), all

in the 8th Reserve District, headquartered at Pensacola, Florida. On 8 June,

James W. Brown in the 3d District (New York) and George L. Glover and David W.

Sheppard in the 6th and 7th Districts (Charleston) enlisted. From then on the

number on the rolls gradually rose, with the instructions to recruiters that

the first men to be sent to Montford Point would be those who had skills that

would help ready the camp for those to follow.

The majority of the recruits were well motivated to join the Marine

Corps. One recruit, Edgar R. Huff, from Gadsden, Alabama, who later became the

senior sergeant major in the Marine Corps, expressed the feelings of a lot of

those first men when he said: "I wanted to be a Marine because I had always

heard that the Marine Corps was the toughest outfit going and I felt that I

was the toughest going, and so I wanted to be a member of the best

organization."<17>

Other recruits, faced with a long delay in reporting to boot camp unless

they had qualifications that were needed in the initial camp setup, stretched

the truth a little. In Boston, a young black, Obie Hall, who eventually became

the first man in the first squad in the first regular recruit platoon

organized at Montford Point, told the recruiting sergeant that he could drive

a truck. He recalled later, "I could no more drive a truck than a man in the

moon, [but] I said, 'I'm a truck driver.'"<18> And as a result he arrived at

Montford Point on 2 September 1942.

The original schedule called for about 25 cooks, bakers, and barbers to

report to camp on 26 August. The next 100 men were to report on 2-3 September

and another 125 or so with miscellaneous qualifications were to arrive on

16-17 September. The middle of each month thereafter was to bring about 200

recruits until the target total of 1,200 men was reached.<19>

 

 

The Camp Opens

On 18 August 1942, Headquarters and Service Battery of the 51st Composite

Defense Battalion was activated at Montford Point with Colonel Woods as

battalion commander. His executive officer and officer in charge of recruit

training was Lieutenant Colonel Theodore A. Holdahl, a World War I enlisted

man commissioned as a regular officer in 1924, who had served in the

Philippines, China, Nicaragua, and British Guiana.<20> Battery strength, all

white Marines, was 23 officers and 90 enlisted men, these last soon to be

known to black recruits as SES men (Special Enlisted Staff). While there was a

sprinkling of experienced officers and warrant officers, the majority of the

commissioned strength was second lieutenants not long out of officers'

training at

 

3

 

 

<ILLUSTRATION>

<FIGURE NOT AVAILABLE>

Map of MONTFORD POINT 1943-1945

 

4

A CHOSEN FEW

 

the Marine Corps Schools, Quantico, Virginia. The staff NCOs, sergeants, and

some of the corporals were men with years of experience in the Marine Corps.

The few privates first class (PFCs) and privates filled clerical, motor

transport, and other camp support billets.

The men chosen to be drill instructors (DIs) were "old line" Marines, men

who were to impress the black recruits with their bearing and firmness of

manner. In the memory of one of the few recruits who had had prior experience

in the Armed Forces, Gilbert H. Johnson, these DIs "set about from the very

beginning to get us thoroughly indoctrinated into the habits and the thinking

and the actions of the Marine Corps. Discipline seemed to be their lone stock

in trade, and they applied it with a vengeance, very much to our later

benefit."<21>

On schedule, 13 of the 24 black recruits expected in August arrived at

Montford Point on the 26th. The first black private to set foot in the camp

was Howard P. Perry of Charlotte, North Carolina. He was joined on that

eventful first day by Jerome D. Alcorn, Willie B. Cameron, Otto Cherry,

Lawrence S. Cooper, Harold O. Ector, Eddie Lee, Ulysses J. Lucas, Robert S.

Parks, Jr., Edward Polin, Jr., Emerson E. Roberts, Gilbert C. Rousan, and

James O. Stallworth. The rest of the 23 men who eventually arrived in August

came in over the next five days. Battery A of the 51st Composite Defense

Battalion was organized on 26 August "as an administrative and tactical unit

for the training of recruit platoons," with Second Lieutenant Anthony Caputo

as commanding officer.<22>

In September recruit training began in earnest. What Montford Point

Marines later called the "Mighty" 1st, 2d, and 3d Recruit Platoons were

organized with 40 men in each platoon. Several SES NCOs were assigned to each

platoon to give the men experience in handling black recruits; as more men

came in in mid-September many of the original DIs were transferred to help

form new platoons. This was to be the experience of the first few months, in

fact it was not long before exceptional recruits were being singled out and

made "Acting Jacks," assistant DIs in their own platoons. This came about

partially because of the shortage of white NCOs and equally as well because

one purpose of all training at Montford Point was to discover and develop

potential black NCOs.

The number of voluntary enlistments of black Marines was not up to the

anticipated rate. The requirement for these first recruits to have ability in

needed skills was undoubtedly a factor in the slow intake. It became necessary

on 9 October to modify the plans for assembling the black personnel of the

51st, and the assignment of experienced SES personnel had to be curtailed in

the face of pressure for men for FMF units already deployed in the Pacific.

Although it had been anticipated that 1,200 black recruits would be enlisted

by the end of October less than 600 were in camp.<23> The Commandant was

writing as late as 19 December that "colored personnel will continue to be

procured and ordered to the 51st Composite Defense Battalion at the rate of

200 recruits per month until 1,200 is reached."<24>

The camp at this time made an indelible impression on the incoming

recruits. Coming off Highway 24 near the small and sleepy town of

Jacksonville, a narrow road about a mile long led through a corridor of tall

pine trees into a large clearing where there was:

. . .a headquarters building (#100), a chapel, two warehouses,

a theatre building with two wings, which later housed a library,

barber shop, [and] classification room on one side and a

recreation slop chute [beer hall] on the other, a dispensary

building, a mess hall, designated by the recruits as "The Greasy

Spoon," quarters and facilities for the SES personnel, a small

steam generating plant, a small motor transport compound, a small

officers' club, and 120 green prefabricated huts, each designed

for billeting 16 men.<25>

Surrounding the open spaces of the main camp area were thick pine

forests. Beyond the north forest area was Highway 24, to the south the point

of land that gave the area its name thrust into the New River, to the west was

the river, Wilson Bay, and the town of Jacksonville, and to the east was

Scales Creek, which had notorious areas of quicksand. Across the creek was an

old Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp area now partially occupied by a

war dog training center. In all there was about 5-1/2 square miles of rugged

ground in the original camp site. Mosquitoes abounded, the woods were full of

snakes, and bears padded about through the camp, much to the consternation of

recruits who saw their tracks when they fell out for morning roll call. There

was a lot of bush in the camp area to start off with, but the boots soon

cleared it away or wore it away with their incessant drilling.

Part and parcel of this somewhat drab and uninviting encampment was the

traditional DI reception the incoming recruits received. The idea at all boot

camps, whether white at Parris

 

5

 

 

<ILLUSTRATION>

<FIGURE NOT AVAILABLE>

Montford Point Camp as it appeared in 1943. In the left center

is the mess hall; in the right center are the "little green huts"

of boot camps. (Photo from Montford Point Pictorial).

 

Island and San Diego or black at Montford Point, was to knock the new recruit

off balance, keep him on the run, hammer at him physically and psychologically

day and night, and eventually meld him as an individual into a member of a

team, his platoon. There was ample room for the men to believe one DI's

statement, "I'm going to make you wish you never had joined this damn Marine

Corps."<26>

In point of fact, however, Gilbert Johnson, who had served six years in

the Army's black 25th Infantry on the Mexican Border in the 1920s and most of

the 1930s as a Navy mess attendant and officers' steward, sagely observed in

regard to the white DIs that "the policy was to select the type of individuals

who were not against the Negro being a Marine, and had it been otherwise, why

I'm afraid that we would have all left the first week. Some of us, probably,

the first night."<27>

Johnson, who had been an Officers' Steward 2d Class, had asked to be

discharged from the Navy in order to enlist in the Marine Corps as a private.

The Commandant and the Secretary of the Navy concurred in his request; he

received his discharge, enlisted in the Marines, and soon became known, once

out of boot camp, as "Hashmark" Johnson, because of the prior service stripes

that he wore on his sleeves. Due in part to his age, 37, when he reached

Montford Point, his considerable service experience, and a serious dedication

to making a success of being a Marine, he was destined to become a legend in

his own lifetime to the first black Marines, an elder statesman and historian

of the Montford Point experience.

But "Hashmark" Johnson was far from the only memorable man who joined in

those first few months when volunteers filled the ranks at Montford Point. The

recruiters had been selective; there were other men with Army service, John T.

Pridgen, who had been a member of the black 10th Cavalry in the late 1930s,

and George A. Jackson, who had been an Army lieutenant. Both eventually became

drill instructors. There was a host of college graduates and men who had had

college training including Charles F. Anderson, a graduate

 

6

A CHOSEN FEW

 

of Morehouse College, who arrived in September and eventually became the first

black sergeant major of Montford Point Camp and Charles W. Simmons, a graduate

of Alcorn A and M with a masters degree from the University of Illinois, who

wound up as sergeant major of the 51st Defense Battalion.<28> The man who was

to become the senior bayonet and unarmed combat instructor of black recruits,

Arvin L. "Tony" Ghazlo, a former bodyguard and jujitsu instructor from

Philadelphia,<29> arrived in October, and the next month saw the man who was

to be his principal assistant, Ernest "Judo" Jones, reach Montford Point.

Besides teaching the recruits, these two and their assistants were responsible

for many memorable exhibitions of unarmed combat techniques.

There were many of those early recruits who became men of note amongst

black Marines and, in fact, men of substance in their communities in later

life. They were, in general, a select body of young men; the recruiters had

tried hard to find and send to Montford Point men with technical, educational,

and work backgrounds who had the potential to fill out the various billets of

a defense battalion. The call for such specialists could not be completely

met, however, and the Commandant was informed in late October that it was

"doubtful if even white recruits could be procured with the

 

<ILLUSTRATION>

<FIGURE NOT AVAILABLE>

Corporal Alvin "Tony" Ghazlo, senior bayonet and unarmed combat

instructor at Montford Point, disarms his assistant, Private

Ernest "Judo" Jones. (USMC Photo 5334).

7

BLACKS IN THE MARINE CORPS

 

qualifications listed ..."<30> This racial comparison of relative skills was

not as odious as it might seem today, but rather a statement of the prevailing

situation in most of the country, there the general education level of blacks

was lower than that of whites and the chances for skilled job experience were

severely limited for blacks.

 

The First Graduates

By the end of November 1942, the initial recruit platoons were near the

finish of their eight weeks of boot camp. Two weeks preliminary marksmanship

training was conducted at Montford Point, culminated by a week of live firing

at the Camp Lejeune rifle range near Stone Bay. Since there were as yet no

living facilities for blacks at the range, the recruits found themselves

trucked to the range before dawn and returned to camp after nightfall. Still,

they did well, and the majority of the first 198 men to graduate from boot

camp qualified as rifle marksmen or sharp shooters, enabling them to wear

their qualification badges proudly on their uniforms. Even more important to

the men, the first blacks were qualified to sew rank stripes on their uniforms

in November. On the 1st, 16 privates were promoted to private first class and

on the 19th, four privates were promoted to assistant cook. Many of the new

PFCs had been acting as assistant DIs to the SES NCOs, some had even finished

up the training of their platoons as the white DIs were spread thin among

newly formed units. Others of the new "one stripers" were slated to take over

office duties in existing or planned headquarters, while the newly designated

cooks would man the kitchens of the 51st's messhall.

In early December, the new graduates had their first opportunity to go on

liberty and poured out the front gate walking down the long road to

Jacksonville. Their reception was a rude awakening to the men. The sight of a

couple of hundred blacks in Marine green coming into the little town was

unnerving to the merchants, and they closed down their stores. Far more

disturbing, the bus station and the ticket office were also closed, and the

young blacks had seemingly lost their opportunity to leave "J-ville." They had

no intention of staying in town, they wanted to get out, to take a bus to

Wilmington, Kinston, or New Bern, larger towns with substantial black

populations. In this instance, as in many, Colonel Woods was the champion of

the black Marines. He ordered out the 51st's trucks, which took the men to

their chosen liberty towns, stayed with them, and brought them back to

Montford Point. And he took steps to ensure that the buses were available

thereafter to the black Marines. Yet, the actualities of segregation in the

South made the use of these buses a sore point with the men at Montford Point.

Not only did they have to ride in the back of the bus, they were often

arbitrarily denied entrance by the white bus drivers while the buses were

filled with white Marines returning from liberty. On a few occasions during

the course of the war years, white bus drivers who attempted such arbitrary

action found themselves abandoned beside the road while a delighted crew of

black Marines returned themselves to Montford Point in the commandeered buses.

With the advent of promotions and liberty came new assignments for the

first recruit graduates. The 51st Composite Defense Battalion began to take

shape. On 1 December, Rifle Company (Reinforced) of the 51st was organized.

But its immediate function belied its name, for it was primarily a schools and

training organization for the many specialists needed. Student bandsmen,

cooks, clerks, communicators, and truck drivers were among the men who filled

its ranks. Some of these individuals were already experienced in their

specialties, others had been selected to learn by formal schooling or

on-the-job training. Also formed on the 1st was a 155mm gun battery and a 90mm

antiaircraft group. On 21 December, a 75mm pack howitzer battery was

organized. Remaining behind in Battery A were nine privates and 12 PFCs, six

of the latter to serve as DIs and six as battery clerks.

 

December offered many of the newly minted Marines a chance for a week's

furlough; many were home for Christmas or New Year's Day. Their misadventures

were many, for their number was still small, and the existence of black

Marines was apparently not widely known. In several instances, men were

questioned or arrested for impersonating a Marine, but the misunderstandings

were usually cleared up in short order.

 

Expansion Looms

While the 51st Composite Defense Battalion, still the vehicle for

handling all black Marines,

 

8

A CHOSEN FEW

 

<ILLUSTRATION>

<FIGURE NOT AVAILABLE>

Map of CAMP LEJEUNE AND VICINITY

 

9

BLACKS IN THE MARINE CORPS

 

was in the process of reorganization, there was the prospect of a whole new

ball game insofar as blacks in the Marine Corps was concerned. Instead of

1,200 men, one defense battalion and its training base, there were going to be

thousands more men arriving at Montford Point.

On 5 December 1942, voluntary enlistments in the Armed Forces were

discontinued for all men 18 to 37 years of age, although 17 year olds and, in

some instances, those 38 or older could still volunteer for the Navy and

Marine Corps. Beginning in January 1943, all men in the 18-37 age group would

be inducted into the services through the Selective Service System. To make

the call-up equitable, at least 10 percent of those selected would be blacks,

a proportion approximating the number of blacks in the U.S. population as a

whole.

The Army, which was the principal beneficiary of the stopping of the flow

of the volunteers into the other services, was interested in having the Marine

Corps concentrate on taking black draftees until it had reached the same

percentage of blacks in its ranks that the Army already had. This concept was

unacceptable to the Corps, since it would have severely disrupted existing

training plans for replacements and new combat units, but there was no arguing

with the imposition of an induction quota. Its advent was recognized early in

the year's planning and was confirmed in a memorandum of 8 March 1943 from

Headquarters Marine Corps to the Chief of Naval Personnel. Since the approved

increase between 1 February and 31 December 1943 was 99,000 men, this placed a

requirement on the Corps for the acquisition and accommodation of 9,900

blacks. In order to meet this goal, calls were placed with Selective Service

for 400 men in February and March, 800 in April, 1,300 in May, and 1,000 men

per month thereafter. Any increase in the authorized strength of the Marine

Corps would lead to a corresponding increase in the monthly draft calls for

black Marines.<31>

Obviously, Montford Point was due for drastic expansion, and the 51st

Composite Defense Battalion could not be the vehicle to absorb such numbers.

Some of the new men would have the opportunity of becoming officers' stewards,

cooks, and messmen, for the Secretary of the Navy on 1 January had authorized

the formation of a Messman Branch (eventually Stewards' Branch) in the Marine

Corps, composed entirely of black Marines. Still others of the incoming

thousands would serve in a second defense battalion that was contemplated as a

follow on to the 51st. But most of the new recruits, in fact the majority of

World War II black Marines, would end up serving in pioneer or labor units,

for the need for logistic support troops in the Pacific fighting was acute.

Colonel Woods visted Headquarters Marine Corps in January and presented a

plan for the future development of Montford Point. He indicated the 51st could

carry on the handling of all black Marines through February and into March

when a new 1,000-man camp area would be ready. Simultaneously, organization

work would be underway on the Mess Attendants School (an 8-week course) and an

Officers' Cooks and Stewards School (a 16-week course). The contemplated

increase in black Marines would dictate the organization of a separate

Montford Point Camp headquarters by late spring.<32>

In January, the first 42 selective service men arrived at Montford Point

to be treated no differently as boots than the men who had gone before them.

Many of the draftees, both then and later, were selective service volunteers.

Marine liaison officers with the Selective Service System and Marine

recruiters worked mightily to ensure that most of the draftees were men who

wanted to serve in the Corps. The experiences of a number of men who entered

during this period bear out the continued effort at enlisting the best men

available.<33> In May, Colonel Woods wrote the Commandant that "the standard

of inductees continues to be about the same as in the case of volunteers. This

indicates excellent work by the recruiting service."<34>

 

Change continued at Montford Point during the first half of 1943. In

January, the first black NCOs were appointed as three assistant cooks, Jerome

D. Alcorn, Otto Cherry, and Robert T. Davis, were named field cooks

(corporals) on the 18th. Men who had been assigned to tactical units of the

51st, but who had demonstrated that they were of DI caliber while in boot

camp, rejoined Battery A in February. Ten of them made corporal on the 19th,

the nucleus for a vastly increased recruit training effort. Nineteen other new

corporals were made in other units of the 51st in February and thereafter new

NCOs were appointed every month.

 

10

A CHOSEN FEW

 

On 11 March, Headquarters and Service Company, Headquarters Battalion,

Montford Point Camp was activated, as was Headquarters Company, Recruit Depot

Battalion. Battery A of the 51st became Company A of the Recruit Depot

Battalion. Colonel Woods, as camp commander, relinquished his command of the

51st to Lieutenant Colonel W. Bayard Onley, a Naval Academy graduate (1919)

who had recently served as Execuitve Officer, 23d Marines,<35> and Lieutenant

Colonel Holdahl took over the new recruit battalion. On 1 April 1943,

Headquarters Company, Messman Branch Battalion was organized with the new

battalion commander Captain Albert O. Madden, a World War I veteran who had

been recommissioned as a food service officer after extensive restaurant

experience in the Albany, New York, area.<36> The new unit with its attendant

schools was redesignated Stewards' Branch Battalion on 13 April. The new camp

area which would house the stewards was dubbed "Slotnick's Grove" by the black

Marines after a young lieutenant who had been involved in its

construction.<37>

Reorganization and augmentation continued at a frantic pace as hundreds

of recruits poured into Montford Point. New recruit companies were organized,

a Schools Company and a Motor Transport Company were added to the camp

headquarters battalion, the 51st's Rifle Company became the vehicle for

organizing and dispatching depot companies (labor troops) to the field, and an

Assistant Stewards' School (Company A) and a Stewards' Cook School (Company B)

were added to Captain Madden's battalion.

The change on the recruit drill field was the most drastic. Almost all of

the SES DIs had left by the end of April; black sergeants and corporals took

over as the senior DIs of the eight platoons then in training: the 16th

Platoon (Edgar R. Huff); 17th (Thomas Brokaw); 18th (Charles E. Allen); 19th

(Gilbert H. Johnson); 20th (Arnold R. Bostic); 21st (Mortimer A. Cox); 22d

(Edgar R. Davis, Jr.); and 23d (George A. Jackson).<38> In late May, the last

white drill instructor, First Sergent Robert W. Colwell, was transferred, and

Sergeant "Hashmark" Johnson took his place as the re-

 

<ILLUSTRATION>

<FIGURE NOT AVAILABLE>

Corporal Edgar R. Huff one of the first black drill instructors,

confronts a recruit platoon at Montford Point. (USMC Photo 5377).

 

11

BLACKS IN THE MARINE CORPS

 

cruit battalion's field sergeant major, in charge of all drill instructors;

Sergeant Thomas Pridgen was his assistant. From then on, all recruit training

at Montford Point was conducted by black NCOs-a milestone had been passed.

Boot camp did not get any easier, in fact, in the testimony of those who

served there in the transition period it became rougher and stayed

rougher.<39> The boots started on the run and stayed on the run. As one black

DI commented: "Glenn Cunningham [a famous miler] had nothing on the recruits

at Montford Point."<40> "Hashmark" Johnson, first as field sergeant major and

later as sergeant major of the Recruit Depot Battalion, was determined that

the black boots would measure up in every way to Marine Corps standards. His

philosophy prevaded boot training. In later years, addressing a group of

veterans of that era, he reminded them of their ordeal and the reason for it,

remarking:

I was an ogre to some of you that met me on the drill field

and in the huts of Montford more than a quarter century ago. I

was a stern instructor, but I was fair. I was an exacting

instructor, but with some understanding of the many problems

involved. I kept before me, always, that nearly impossible

goal to qualify in a few weeks, and at the most a few months,

a type of Marine fully qualified in every respect to wear

that much cherished Globe and Anchor. You were untried. The

objectives were to qualify you with loyalty, with a devotion

to duty, and with a determination equal to all, transcended

by none . . . As I look into your faces tonight, I remember

the youthful, and sometimes pained expressions at something

I may have said . . . But I remember something you did. You

measured up, by a slim margin perhaps, but measure up you

did. You achieved your goal. That realization creates within

me a warm appreciation of you and a deep sense of personal

gratitude.<41>

With Johnson's type of drive permeating the boot camp at the man-to-man

level of DI and recruit, life proved to be very trying for the new Marines.

But it was not all drill and training. There were USO shows and movies at the

camp theatre and a full schedule of intramural sports between various units at

the camp. And there was always music, for many talented singers and musicians

had enlisted. Men from the bands of Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington,

and Erskine Hawkins were in the ranks of the 51st's band, which later became

the camp band. The band was capable of producing jazz combos, dance

orchestras, and concert groups of professional caliber.

Fortunately, one of the young officers who arrived early at Montford

Point was Lieutenant Robert W. Troup, Jr., an accomplished composer and

musician from New York, who established immediate rapport with the black

musicians which carried over to the rest of the men. He eventually became camp

recreation officer, and many of his activities were directly connected with

the improvement of morale through the arrangement of talent shows, sporting

events, and concerts using the multitude of entertainment and athletic talent

in the ranks at Montford Point. He elicited almost universal praise for

understanding, ranging from "Hashmark" Johnson's typically restrained, "a top-

notch musician, a very decent sort of officer," to Obie Hall's, "he was the

sharpest cat I ever seen in my life."<42> But most of the men of Montford

Point remember Bobby Troup's song "Jacksonville," which hardly rivaled his

World War II hit "Route 66" in nationwide popular music charts, but certainly

was a hit at Camp Lejeune where it echoed the sentiments of black and white

Marines alike with words like:

Take me away from Jacksonville, `cause I've had my fill and

that's no lie,

Take me away from Jacksonville, keep me away from Jacksonville

until I die,

Jacksonville stood still while the rest of the world passed by.<43>

 

<ILLUSTRATION>

<FIGURE NOT AVAILABLE>

Black Marines practice descending cargo nets in Montford Point's

training pool under the watchful eye of Sergeant Paul E. Meeres

(on board). (USMC Photo 8275).

 

12

A CHOSEN FEW

 

Near mid-summer, one of the frequent entertainments that featured

Montford Point talent, a series of boxing matches plus unarmed combat

exhibitions by Tony Ghazlo and his instructors, produced an incident that has

never left the memory of any man who witnessed it. Major General Henry L.

Larsen, who had just returned from the South Pacific to take command of Camp

Lejeune, was invited to attend this "boxing smoker" and took the occasion to

make a short speech to the assembled black Marines. There are as many versions

of his exact words as there are witnesses, but the gist of his remarks, as

remembered, was that when he had come back from overseas he had not realized

how serious the war situation was until he had seen "you people wearing our

uniform." The unfriendly response from the predominently black audience was

immediate and tumultuous. His unfortunate choice of words emphasized to the

men that they were still on trial in the eyes of many white Marines.

By early fall, when Bobby Troup's popular farewell to Jacksonville was

being sung, whistled, and played throughout Monford Point, many men had

already left the North Carolina camp. When the anniversary date of the opening

of Montford Point was reached, four depot companies had already deployed

overseas, and a Marine barracks detachment had been sent to the Naval

Ammunition Depot, McAlester, Oklahoma. The 51st had locked on to a train-

 

<ILLUSTRATION>

<FIGURE NOT AVAILABLE>

Marines from Montford Point climb down a cargo net into a waiting

LCVP for practice landing at Onslow Beach. (USMC Photo 9007)

 

ing schedule for overseas deployment, other depot companies were forming for

duty in the Pacific, and stewards were leaving for assignment to officers'

messes in the states and overseas. The pace of the camp quickened as more and

more men left for duty beyond the reaches of Montford Point. The test of

combat was yet to come for black Marine units, but it was inevitable.

 

13

CHAPTER 2

THE 51ST DEFENSE BATTALION

 

Throughout the first six months that blacks served in the Marine Corps,

the focus of attention was the 51st Composite Defense Battalion. It was to be

the first (and for a time, the only) black combat unit. Its initial stages of

training were hampered by equipment shortages, but even more by the complete

unfamiliarity of the men with the weapons and supporting equipment they

encountered. There were a number of qualified white instructors for the

various specialties, and many of the junior officers had attended short

technical courses of various types, but the biggest drawback to the

battalion's progress in training was the fact that it had no cadre of

experienced men on which to build.

The initial selection of men the battalion received in its new tactical

units was a good one, but many of these served only briefly in its ranks

before they moved on to the drill field, to schools, and to camp offices to

help cope with the swelling tide of draftees, or to the depot companies that

began forming in March and April. As a consequence, there were only about 500

men on the rolls of the 51st on 21 April 1943 when a new commanding officer

fresh from overseas, Lieutenant Colonel Floyd A. Stephenson, arrived at

Montford Point to take over. His predecessor, Lieutenant Colonel Onley, moved

on to take command of the camp Headquarters Battalion and to serve as Colonel

Wood's executive officer.

Lieutenant Colonel Stephenson was an experienced artillery officer who

had been at Pearl Harbor with the 4th Defense Battalion when the Japanese

attacked. Later, he served as the battalion's executive officer and commander

of its 5-inch artillery group at Efate in the New Hebrides.<1> He approached

his new task with enthusiasm and considerable drive. Within two weeks, he was

recommending that the 51st become a regular, heavy defense battalion and

stating "that there is nothing that suitable colored personnel can not be

taught."<2> Colonel Woods in his favorable endorsement to Stephenson's

recommendation indicated that he was "now fully convinced that this unit can

be forged into a first class fighting outfit in a reasonably short time after

its complement is filled." He also noted that a composite defense battalion

was designed "to meet the requirements of a situation that no longer

exists."<3>

The units that would be detached from the 51st, if the change took place,

would be the Rifle Company (Reinforced) and the 75mm Pack Howitzer Battery. A

Machine Gun Group had been organized on 1 March 1943 to give the battalion a

light antiaircraft capability and it would remain together with the 155mm and

90mm guns.

The recommendation was approved at Headquarters Marine Corps on 28 May

1943

 

<ILLUSTRATION>

<FIGURE NOT AVAILABLE>

90mm antiaircraft gun crew of the 51st Defense Battalion

practices loading shells at Montford Point. (USMC Photo 9507).

 

15

BLACKS IN THE MARINE CORPS

 

with the stipulation that men under training for infantry and field artillery

would continue to train with the 51st pending organization of a separate

infantry battalion.<4> The news of the change caused some bewilderment and

consternation among the black Marines at Montford Point. The inclusion of

infantry and field artillery in the 51st had meant to most men that the

battalion would see some close combat. The purpose of separating and

redesignating these units was widely misunderstood. Reinforcing this

misunderstanding was the loss, earlier in the year, of the light tank platoon

which had been part of the rifle company. Although some defense battalions

already overseas had such platoons, they were no longer to be an integral part

of the defense battalion organization. Rumor had it that the black Marines

would serve only as labor troops or officers' stewards.

 

The First Combat Unit

Fortunately, the rumor was soon dispelled insofar as the 51st was

concerned. On 7 June 1943, "Composite" was dropped from the title of the 51st

Defense Battalion. The 155mm Gun Battery expanded to become the 155mm

Artillery Group and the Machine Gun Group became the Special Weapons Group,

its principal armament now being 20mm and 40mm cannon as well as .50 caliber

machine guns. Rifle Company (Reinforced) was redesignated Company A, 7th

Separate Infantry Battalion and the 75s became the 7th Separate pack Howitzer

Battery. Both units were attached to the camp's Headquarters Battalion but

were stationed in the 51st's area to continue training with the defense

battalion.

The redesignations continued in July when the 155s became the Seacoast

Artillery Group and the 90s the Antiaircraft Artillery Group, in keeping with

the titles of such units in a new table of organization for defense

battalions.<5> The summer was fully occupied with intensive training on

weapons, fire control equipment, searchlights, and all the myriad of equipment

that a defense battalion possessed. A few men were sent away to specialist

schools at various Army bases and some received schooling at Camp Lejeune, but

the vast majority learned on the job. The battalion doubled in size in July,

and the growth continued in succeeding months, with over 1,700 officers and

men on the rolls in October. Not all these Marines were destined to serve in

the 51st, however.

Lieutenant Colonel Stephenson had been given the task of assimilating and

training the cadre of another defense battalion, approximately 400 men, at the

same time he readied his own troops for combat. The new unit, the 52d Defense

Battalion, was to be organized at the start of 1944.<6>

The increased pace of training was marred by the death on 20 August of

the first black to die in Marine Corps uniform, Corporal Gilbert Fraser, Jr.

of the 51st's Seacoast Artillery Group. Fraser, a New Yorker who had attended

Virginia Union College, was killed when he fell 30 feet from a landing net

into a landing boat while his unit was practicing debarkation. A road leading

from the main camp at Montford Point to the base artillery area was named

after the popular 30-year-old Marine. Lieutenant Colonel Stephenson noted

Fraser Road would be "a constant reminder to those who come after him of the

fine type of young manhood" represented by Gilbert Fraser.<7>

In early September, the battalion moved out of Montford Point proper

across Scales Creek to the old CCC-Camp Knox area where it took over three of

four barracks blocks; the other was occupied by the War Dog Training Center.

The accomodations in the new campsite were not luxurious; the barracks, mess

halls, and offices were old wooden buildings, drafty and badly in need of

repair.<8> The living quarters were characterized by one of the 51st as "more

open than closed" and dominated by big pot-bellied stoves. He recalled that if

you stood within 10 feet of them "you roasted in front and froze behind."<9>

But the move was popular with the battalion. It was off by itself, running its

own show, and the transfer across Scales Creek intensified the feeling of the

men of the 51st that they were a bit different, superior even, to the rest of

the blacks at Montford Point. In the battalion's news column in the Camp

Lejeune paper, the writer, Sergeant Jimmie Stewart, observed: "We just can't

get over the thrill of being here at Camp Knox. Boy, its really swell. Makes

us feel like we're in the groove again and that life is not so bad after

all."<10>

Most of the reason the men of the 51st "thought they were the cat's

meow," as one member put it, was that they were in the only black Marine unit

engaged in extensive combat training.<11> They considered themselves to be

 

16

THE 51ST DEFENSE BATTALION

members of a fighting outfit and were not at all hesitant about reminding the

other black Marines of the fact. On liberty they stuck together, a not unusual

trait of men from units with high morale. They were convinced, and not without

some reason, that most of the men at Montford Point wanted to serve in the

51st.

The battalion's lot throughout the fall of 1943 was hard, exhausting

training. First the Seacoast Group moved out to Onslow Beach to fire its 155s;

the Antiaircraft and Special Weapons Groups soon followed to test their

gunnery. The whole battalion spent two months in the field, a period that saw

hard usage for all its equipment in frequently miserable weather. In order to

fill the ranks of the augmented 51st, many men with no recruit training and

others with only a few days of boot camp were added to the firing batteries so

that they could get target practice experience, and the battalion would be

ready to mount out at full strength on schedule.<12> It made the task of the

officers and white instructor NCOs doubly difficult to have to supervise these

raw recruits and train the "veterans," who were not long out of boot camp

themselves. Still, the job

 

<ILLUSTRATION>

<FIGURE NOT AVAILABLE>

DEFENSE BATTALIONS, 1942-1946

 

17

BLACKS IN THE MARINE CORPS

 

was done, although a number of the officers noted in their December training

reports and in later comments that they thought the 51st needed more training

before going overseas, that the newly promoted black NCOs needed more

seasoning, and that in general the men, most of whom had had no experience

with sophisticated equipment, "showed a lack of appreciation of the value or

importance of material and equipment."<13>

These judgments did not obviate the fact that men had often done quite

well at target practice at Onslow Beach. When an inspecting party including

Secretary Knox and General Holcomb watched the 90mm guns being fired in

November, the gun crews shot down the towed target within 60 seconds after

they started firing. Lieutenant Colonel Stephenson reported General Holcomb as

remarking, "I think they're ready now."<14> And "What a yelp went up" amongst

the black Marines when they hit that target; to them it proved too that they

were ready.<15>

Not long after the battalion returned to Camp Knox in early December,

Lieutenant Colonel Stephenson went to Headquarters Marine Corps to get further

orders on the future of the 51st. Much to his dismay he found that the

battalion's sailing orders had been moved up five weeks from original plans

and that the 52d Defense Battalion was also to be organized two weeks ahead of

the original projection. Plans for sending the men who had joined as recruits

to the rifle range to complete that essential part of their training had to be

scrapped and holiday leaves cancelled. The 400-odd men destined for the 52d

were transferred out of the 51st and the new battalion was formed on 15

December. Plans for special training of the seacoast artillery in field

artillery firing techniques were put aside and all officers and men away at

school were recalled. All hands turned to at a furious pace to crate and pack

the battalion's equipment for the pending move.<16>

Another sure sight that the battalion was on its way was the transfer of

the white senior NCOs and instructors to other units at Camp Lejeune. The

blacks who had been their assistants now took over. Gunnery Sergeant Charles

W. Simmons became the battalion sergeant major. He later recalled: "I will

never forget the consternation of the white sergeant who trained me for the

job of Sergeant Major of the 51st, when we learned that he would not go

overseas with the battalion. I was surprised too--but I understand the

situation. I had graduated!"<17>

In early January, 175 freight cars were loaded at the rate of 25 a day,

mostly in rotten weather with heavy doses of rain, snow, and sleet.<18> The

men turned to with a will, however, since they were sure they were headed for

combat. The battalion moved out in increments with the seacoast artillery

leading off and the rest of the units followed in their own troop trains. By

19 January, only a relatively small rear echelon was left at Camp Knox, and it

too was slated to leave the next day.

The departure of the 51st was not without incident that became a matter

of controversy and investigation. What started out to be some farewell rounds

of beer by rear echelon members at the Montford Point snack bar deteriorated

into a conflict with the military police. When the confrontation reached the

bottle-throwing stage, the MP sergeant on the scene closed the snack bar. As

some of the 51st's men started to throw rocks at him, he fired his carbine in

the air three times in warning, and the crowd dispersed.

Later that evening, about 15 or 20 shots were fired from the Camp Knox

area towards Montford Point. Unfortunately, one of these random shots, which

were judged to be firings with no intent to hit anyone, did find a target.

Corporal Rolland J. Curtiss, a drill instructor who had his platoon in the

woods back of the camp theatre, was wounded, though not seriously.

Authorities soon made checks of all the rifles in the Camp Knox area but

could not determine conclusively if any had been fired. There was evidence,

however, of some laxity in the accountability of rifles in the battalion. This

became a feature of a critical report that Colonel Woods submitted to the

Commandant after the departure of the last elements of the 51st for the west

coast. He commented unfavorably on the police of certain parts of the camp,

that numerous items of personal equipment had been left behind, and that the

care of government property had been neglected.<19>

So it happened that the 51st Defense Battalion arrived at San Diego under

somewhat of a cloud. Most of the men in the battalion were unaware of the

events that had transpired. They were proudly wearing their new battalion

shoulder patch, issued just before they left

 

18

THE 51ST DEFENSE BATTALION

 

<ILLUSTRATION>

<FIGURE NOT AVAILABLE>

Religious services are held at Onslow Beach for men of the

51st's Seacoast Artillery Group. In the background is one of

the group's 155mm guns. (Photo from Montford Point Pictorial).

 

Camp Lejeune.<20> It was a red oval with a large white "51" in the center with

the white letters "USMC" below and a blue 90mm antiaircraft gun superimposed

on the numerals. As they moved into tents at Camp Elliott, some of the men

went to the base's open air movie and disrupted the show when they were told

blacks had to sit in the back of the amphitheatre. They were not having any

part of segregation that night; they were too full of themselves as

combat-bound Marines. Despite the fracas, Lieutenant Colonel Stephenson

authorized the issuance of liberty passes.<21>

On 27 January 1944, much to the disappointment of the men, who liked and

respected Stephenson, the battalion was assigned a new commanding officer, and

Stephenson was transferred. Colonel Curtis W. LeGette, the new commander, was

a veteran artillery officer who had originally entered the Marine Corps as an

enlisted man in 1910. He had just returned to the states from a tour of duty

as commanding officer of the 7th Defense Battalion in the Ellice Islands.<22>

Soon after he took over, he fell the battalion in and gave the men a dressing

down on the subject of their discipline and general behavior. Naturally

enough, he used the term "you people," a common expression in the Marine Corps

by a superior when addressing a group of men, but to the men of the 51st it

meant "you blacks" and the lecture fell on deaf ears.<23>

 

Overseas Duty

Much to the young blacks surprise, all of the weapons and equipment that

they had packed so laboriously on the east coast were now turned in to the

quartermasters at Camp Elliott and San Diego. The men retained only their

personal gear and the battalion only a modest amount of its property. On 11

February, the 51st boarded a merchant transport, SS METEOR, at San Diego and

sailed. The ship's destination was the Ellice Islands, where the 51st was

destined to relieve the 7th Defense Battalion. En route to the islands, on 23

February, Detachment A, 51st Defense Battalion was organized with

approximately half the men in the battalion on its rolls and Lieutenant

Colonel Gould P. Groves, the battalion executive officer, as its commander.

The mission of the new detachment was to provide a garrison for Nanomea

Island. The rest of the battalion under Colonel LeGette was headed for

Funafuti and would outpost Nukufetau.

Moving by landing ship and submarine chaser, Detachment A reached Nanomea

on 25 February 1944; the rest of the battalion disembarked at Funafuti on the

27th.<24> In both

 

19

BLACKS IN THE MARINE CORPS

 

places the men of the 51st found the Marines of the 7th Defense Battalion

eager to leave. "They were never so glad to see black people in their lives,"

one of the new arrivals at Nanomea decided.<25> The 51st took over the

equipment and weapons of the 7th Defense, much of which had seen hard usage

since the battalion had first reached the South Pacific nine months before

Pearl Harbor was attacked.

The task assigned the detachment on Nanomea and the outpost on Nukefetau

was to maintain and defend the airfields on those islands for emergency use.

On Funafuti, Colonel LeGette was charged with maintaining existing staging and

limited repair facilities for aircraft, an anchorage and a motor torpedo boat

base, and with defending the atoll. The airfields in the Ellice Islands were

on standby to support combat operations then going on in the Marshall Islands

to the northward.

Not much exciting happened to the 51st in its first overseas assignment,

although the 155mm gun crews on Nanomea did let loose 11 rounds at a suspected

enemy submarine on 28 March. Most of the time was spent on gun drill and

firing practice, and the battalion began to shake down into a settled outfit,

though it still did not entirely please its more senior officers, many of whom

were veterans of oversea service with other defense battalions in the early

part of the war.

In June, when a letter from the Commandant arrived at Funafuti indicating

that the 51st's ordnance and motor transport equipment left behind in

California showed signs of lack of proper preventive maintenance, Col-

 

<ILLUSTRATION>

<FIGURE NOT AVAILABLE>

40mm gun crew of the 51st Defense Battalion ready to fire

target practice at Montford Point. (Photo from Montford Point

Pictorial).

 

onel LeGette ordered a board of investigation and appointed himself the

examining officer.<26> The lengthy study, which included testimony from

battery and group commanders, arrived at a conclusion that the former

commanding officer of the battalion was primarily at fault.<27> When Colonel

LeGette followed up this investigation report with an unfavorable report the

next month on the state of the 51st's combat efficiency, Lieutenant Colonel

Stephenson was embarked on a long siege of letter writing to Washington to

tell his side of the story. Much of the correspondence forms the basis for

what is known about the state of the 51st's training and capabilities, at

least from the standpoint of the battalion's officers. Throughout his

embattled responses, Stephenson, who was overseas with the 6th Marine Division

at the time, maintained a strong defense of his actions and of the unit he had

trained, calling it "the finest organization in the whole Negro program in the

Marine Corps. . .<28> It should be noted that much of this exchange went on

without the knowledge of the men in the ranks of the 51st Defense Battalion.

In their own eyes, they had done well and were steadly improving their

capabilities.

Another of the frequent changes in the battalion's organization occurred

in July. As a result of a Marine Corps-wide reshuffling of tables of

organization for defense battalions, most units were redesignated as

antiaircraft artillery battalions. Their seacoast artillery groups were

disbanded or reorganized into field artillery battalions of the corps

artillery of the two Marine amphibious corps in the Pacific. The 51st Defense

Battalion, the 52d, and the 6th on Midway were the only units to retain their

original titles, although the primary function of all three battalions was now

antiaircraft defense.<29> On 15 July 1944, the Seacoast Artillery Group of the

51st was disbanded and its men transferred to other units of the battalion.

The 90s became a Heavy Antiaircraft Group, Special Weapons became a Light

Antiaircraft Group, and a separate Searchlight Battery was organized.

At about the same time these changes were occurring, the 51st's

detachments on Nanomea and Nukufetau began moving to Funafuti. Detachment A

was disbanded on 15 July, and the battalion began preparations to move to a

more forward area. While these activities were going on, the Commandant,

Samoan Defense Group, Captain Allen Hobbs, USN, who was

 

20

THE 51ST DEFENSE BATTALION

 

LeGette's senior, wrote the colonel to express "his appreciation for the

excellent spirit and efficient manner in which the officers and men of this

battalion have carried out their duties under trying and difficult

conditions." He further wished the 51st "luck and profitable hunting in your

new assignment."<30>

 

On to the Marshalls

Once again the weapons and equipment of the 51st had been using were

packed and turned in. In the opinion of one member of the motor transport

section, which had had to rebuild many of vehicles it had inherited from the

7th Defense Battalion, "everything was standing tall when we left."<31> The

unit went on board ship, the Dutch-manned U.S. Army transport KOTA AGOENG,<32>

early in September, sailing on the 8th. The new destination was Eniwetok

Atoll, a bustling support area for the operations just concluded in the

Mariana Islands.

On 14 September, the battalion arrived at Eniwetok and in the next three

days replaced elements of the 10th Antiaircraft Battalion, taking over its

weapons and equipment on Eniwetok, Engebi, Parry, and Porky Islands. The 10th

was formally relieved on 17 September and left for Pearl Harbor on the KOTA

AGOENG.<33> The 51st, almost as soon as it was settled in position, embarked

on an intensive schedule of training and towed-sleeve firing. The radar and

searchlight units were constantly busy as aircraft based on the atoll were

used to try to penetrate the battalion's defensive screen. There were Japanese

on bypassed islands in the Marshalls, and the men were readily aware that they

were a lot closer to the shooting war. The enormous lagoon at Eniwetok was a

constantly shifting scene as ships passed through going and coming from the

forward areas. Here, at least, there was the possibility of action and spirits

perked up.

The men of the 51st really sharpened their talents as gunners at

Eniwetok. The battalion became a veteran unit; towed-sleeve targets were shot

down with regularity, searchlights pinpointed their targets as soon as they

"struck arc," and the radar operators prided themselves in detecting any and

all snoopers.<34> But the fact of the matter remained that the first black

Marine combat unit was not in combat.

On 13 December 1944, Colonel LeGette relinquished command of the 51st to

return to the States. When he left he expressed regret that he could not stay

with the battalion throughout its overseas tour.<35> The new and last

commander of the 51st was its former executive officer, Lieutenant Colonel

Groves, who had joined it at Montford Point in 1943.

There was action for the battalion at Eniwetok, but nothing of substance.

In early February there was a week-long submarine alert with many contacts but

no sightings. Later in the spring, Condition Red was sounded, and the men

raced gleefully and hopefully to their positions, but no enemy planes

appeared. Their disappointment was bitter. No matter how well trained the

battalion became, there was bound to be a letdown in morale. One former

sergeant recalled, "the routine got so boresome, but we got a few plane

crashes, a couple once in a while; a ship would go down at sea trying to land,

but other than that they were disappointed they didn't actually get into

combat. That was what they really wanted."<36>

On 12 June 1945, a detachment of one 90mm gun battery, one 40mm platoon,

and four searchlight sections was formed at Eniwetok for duty at Kwajalein

Atoll. Christened Composite Group, 51st Defense Battalion under Major William

M. Tracy, the 251-man unit left Eniwetok by LST on the 14th and disembarked at

Kwajalein on 17 June; the rear echelon arrived on the 22d. There the group's

duties were the same of those of the remainder of the battalion, antiaircraft

defense of an atoll. And like the rest of the 51st, the Composite Group saw no

combat action in the war.

 

Home Again

Once the fighting was over, the Marines in the 51st Defense Battalion

were itching to get home. Since the unit had been overseas for 19 months when

the war ended and had received no replacements, many of the men were close to

the point discharge total projected for the end of the year. The 51st was ripe

for return to the States as a unit. The men had started out together, gone

through the war together, and now they would go home together.

On 20 November at Kwajalein and 21 November at Eniwetok, detachments of

the 32d Defense Battalion arrived from Guam to replace the 51st. The reunion

of the two black units was fleeting for the men returning home immediately

boarded the ships that had brought the 52d. On 21 November, the Com-

 

21

 

BLACKS IN THE MARINE CORPS

 

<ILLUSTRATION>

<FIGURE NOT AVAILABLE>

A veteran 90mm crew of the 51st Defense Battalion poses with

its gun, "Lena Horne," at Eniwetok in 1945. (USMC Photo 121743).

 

posite Group sailed on the attack cargo ship USS WYANDOT (AKA-92) for Pearl

Harbor, where the ship stayed a few days before it steamed on for the Panama

Canal and the east coast. On Thanksgiving Day, 22 November, the main body of

the 51st left Eniwetok without regret and headed for San Diego on another

cargo ship, the USS SIBIK (AK-121). Save for the rough thumping that catching

the tail end of a severe storm in an empty ship can give you, the trip back

was uneventful.

On 10 December, the SIBIK docked at San Diego, and the battalion moved to

Camp Pendleton, where those men who lived west of the Mississippi and had

enough points were discharged. The majority entrained on the 19th and reached

Camp Lejeune on Christmas Day 1945, where the men from the Composite Group

rejoined. They had returned to Montford Point by way of Norfolk on 21

December.

The processing of the high point men for discharge began almost

immediately. The officers who had long served with the battalion began

leaving. After Lieutenant Colonel Groves departed on 7 January, the acting

commanding officer for the rest of the month was a second lieutenant. But

there was not much of an outfit left for him to command as the discharges

continued. On 31 January 1946, the 51st Defense Battalion was formally

disbanded and the remaining low point men were transferred to other units at

Montford Point.

As the men went their separate ways, they took with them the knowledge

that they had served in a unique, a pioneering unit, and had shared its ups

and downs. Possessed of an almost cocky belief in themselves as Marines and a

special pride in their battalion besides, they had not needed combat to

develop self respect. As a black correspondent who visited the 51st at

Eniwetok in October 1945 noted about its men: "They are a grand bunch! And

because of their ability to come through the kind of experience they have had,

with its attendant racial irritants, they undoubtedly will be better men and

better citizens."<37>

 

22

CHAPTER 3

THE 52D DEFENSE BATTALION

 

Many of the troubles that had plagued the 51st Defense Battalion in its

infancy were greatly lessened for the 52d. The key to its relatively smooth

training period was the cadre of 400 officers and men that had spent three to

six months in the 51st. They brought their experience on the antiaircraft and

seacoast defense guns, searchlights, height and range finders, and other

technical equipment with them. They were soon joined in the early part of 1944

by the experienced field artillerymen of the 7th Separate Pack Howitzer

Battery, which was disbanded on 31 March. The cadre and the pack howitzer men

made up more than a third of the strength of the new battalion. The 52d was in

far better shape than the 51st had been to rely on on-the-job training, using

experienced blacks to train others.

The new battalion's commanding officer, a native Floridian, Colonel

Augustus W. Cockrell, had spent a year at West Point and then four years as a

Marine enlisted man before he was commissioned in 1922. Cockrell, like many of

his field officers and battery commanders, was already a veteran of overseas

service in World War II. He had been executive officer of the 2d Defense

Battalion in Samoa when the war broke out and had commanded the 8th Defense

Battalion in Samoa and on Wallis Island until August 1943.<1> Known

respectfully as "old Gus" to the black NCOs who served most closely with him,

Colonel Cockrell was a good choice to oversee the formative months of the

battalion.

In addition to the fact that one out of three men in the 52d was a Marine

with some antiaircraft, seacoast, or field artillery experience, there was

also another aspect of the battalion which pleased its officers. The senior

black NCOs had some time under their belts, certainly not as much as white

NCOs of comparable rank, but for the most part they had been around Montford

Point for a year or more. Just as important, they were not trying to command

men they had gone through boot camp with. They had had some seasoning as

military leaders and were more aware of the responsibilities of their rank.

Not only did Colonel Cockrell have a more favorable ratio of experienced

NCOs and men in the 52d than Lieutenant Colonel Stephenson had had in the

51st, he also managed to increase the number of men who received technical

school training in their respective specialties. When the 52d moved into the

51st's old quarters at Camp Knox in February and began training in earnest,

its prospects for effective end results were far better than those of the 51st

had been. The morale in the new outfit was excellent, helped on as the 51st's

had been by a distinctive battalion shoulder patch that set the men apart from

the other units at Montford Point. The 52d's colorful insignia featured a red

shield with a blue diagonal bar across the center supporting four white stars;

in the upper left corner was a gold shell burst with a scarlet "52" on it and

in the lower right was a gold 90mm gun and mount with a scarlet "USMC"

superimposed.

Following the pattern of the 51st, the 52d also took to the sand dunes

and scrub growth of Onslow Beach for firing practice as its training program

progressed. And like defense battalions throughout the Marine Corps it lost

its seacoast artillery group on 12 June 1944 in the universal reorganization

of these units to antiaircraft artillery battalions. Most of the 292 officers

and men who had manned the 155mm guns were transferred to the heavy

antiaircraft group, where an additional 90mm battery was formed. The light

antiaircraft group dropped its 20mm guns and added another 40mm battery, and a

new searchlight battery was formed. Shortly after this reorganization, the

battalion also lost its first commanding officer as Colonel Cockrell was

transferred to camp headquarters where he was slated to replace Colonel Woods.

On 12 July 1944 Lieutenant

 

 

23

 

BLACKS IN THE MARINE CORPS

 

Colonel Joseph W. Earnshaw took command of the battalion. A native of Kansas

and graduate of the Naval Academy (Class of 1927), he had come to Montford

Point from Washington where he had spent two years in the Planning Division of

the Navy's Bureau of Ordnance. At the outbreak of the war, he had served as

technical advisor to the Army's commander in the Society Islands. Like his

predecessor, Lieutenant Colonel Earnshaw was an experienced artillery

officer.<2>

August 1944 saw the battalion end its training at Montford Point. Its

weapons and equipment were cleaned, checked, and turned in to the

quartermaster at Camp Lejeune. Like the 51st, it would make its move overseas

traveling light. As a necessary preliminary to that move the battalion was

completely reorganized on 15 August. In effect two nearly identical half

battalions were formed, each containing a headquarters and service group and a

heavy antiaircraft group with an equal proportion of gun, searchlight, and

equipment crews and other specialists. Lieutenant Colonel Thomas C. Moore,

Jr., the battalion executive officer, took command of Detachment A, 52d

Defense Battalion. Moore, from Georgia and a graduate of Georgia Tech, had

served overseas with the 3d Defense Battalion in the Guadalcanal campaign. He

had joined the 52d in May 1944 after serving for some time with the Artillery

Battalion of the Training Center at Camp Lejeune.<3>

On 19 August, the two new administrative units of the battalion entrained

together at Camp Lejeune and headed west.

 

First to the Marshalls

After an uneventful cross-country trip, the 52d arrived at Camp Pendleton

on 24 August. Nearly a month was spent encamped in the barren hills of

Pendleton, but it was a month that included some liberty in the coastal towns

and cities. Some of the men from other parts of the country learned to like

the Golden State so much during their brief stay there that they asked to be

discharged in California when they later returned from overseas.<4>

On 21 September 1944, both administrative units of the battalion boarded

the transport USS WINGED ARROW (AP-170) at San Diego, sailing the same day for

Pearl Harbor. Six days later, the ship arrived at Oahu and then lay berthed in

the Navy Yard for a week and a half

 

<ILLUSTRATION>

<FIGURE NOT AVAILABLE>

75mm pack howitzer gun crew trains on the piece at Montford

Point. (Photo from Montford Point Pictorial).

 

with the troops on board. The WINGED ARROW got underway on 8 October, this

time headed south for the Marshall Islands. Majuro Atoll was its first

destination.

Majuro, which was situated on the eastern edge of the Marshalls, was the

home base for the scout bomber squadrons of Marine Aircraft Group (MAG) 13 and

of the 1st Antiaircraft Artillery (AAA) Battalion which protected its

airstrips. Detachment A disembarked at Majuro on 17 October to relieve the 1st

AAA Battalion which had been part of the original landing force when the atoll

was occupied in February 1944.<5>

The remainder of the 52d Defense Battalion sailed on to the westward, to

Kwajalein Atoll in the center of the Marshalls. Arriving at the twin islands

of Roi-Namur on the 18th, the battalion stayed on board ship for several days

before landing on the 22d. It relieved the 15th AAA Battalion of its mission

of guarding the airfield and installations that housed the fighter squadrons

of MAC-31. Like Detachment A at Majuro, the half of the 52d at Roi-Namur was

soon hard at work test firing the guns it had taken over, holding tracking

drills, and in general getting settled into position.

 

24

THE 52D DEFENSE BATTALION

 

The prime mission of the Marine aircraft at Majuro and Roi-Namur was to

continue the neutralization of the Japanese garrisons that existed on Wotje,

Maloelap, Mille, and Jaluit Atolls. Although no known aircraft still existed

at these Japanese bases, the enemy did possess the ability to repair the

airfields there and planes might be flown in for supply, evacuation, or

reconnaissance purposes.<6> Although the possibility of a Japanese air attack

was remote, it existed, and this was the reason for the 52d's presence, with

one antiaircraft battalion replacing two as a reduced scale of air defense was

called for.

Lieutenant Colonel Moore's detachment at Majuro, in addition to its air

defense duties, found itself acting as reconnaissance Marines. Monthly after

the detachment arrived, patrols of 60-65 men from the firing batteries would

board naval landing craft and check out the atolls, mostly Erikub and Aur,

which lay between Majuro and the nearest Japanese bases. These two-to-six day

excursions were generally uneventful, although a Battery C patrol to Tabal

Island in December brought in three Japanese prisoners the natives had taken,

and a Battery D patrol to Aur in January brought back 186 natives to be

resettled at Kwajalein.

The battalion's stay in the Marshalls was only six months long as the war

was moving forward to the Western Pacific and the 52d, like many of the Marine

units in the islands, was to move with it. MAG-31 was among the units marked

for participation in the Okinawa operation, scheduled for 1 April 1945. Rumors

were rife amongst the men of the 52d on Roi-Namur that the black battalion

would be moving forward with them. Relations between the two units were

cordial, even to the extent of the staff NCOs of both setting up an integrated

staff club.<7> But the hoped-for joint move was not to be, and MAG-31's ground

echelon and its planes departed in March.

The naval activity attending the departure seemed to have attracted enemy

submarines, and there was a flurry of action as the 52d's men outposted nearby

islands, patrolled others farther away, and manned their guns, but found no

targets. Under a new commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel David W. Silvey,

who had relieved Lieutenant Colonel Earnshaw on 10 January, the battalion

loaded out on 28 April, boarding a merchantman, the SS GEORGE W. JULIAN.

Silvey had joined the battalion at Montford Point in May 944 after serving

with the 6th Defense Battalion at Midway since 1941<8> Since Silvey was junior

to Lieutenant Colonel Moore, when the battalion reunited he was destined to

become the executive officer while Moore took over the 52d.

The reunion was not too far in the future, for Detachment A had made a

move also about a month and a half earlier than the elements at Roi-Namur. On

9 March 1945, the detachment had boarded the transport USS DEGRASSE (AP-164)

at Majuro, taking with it the commendation of the atoll's commander, Captain

Harold B. Grow, USNR, who noted to Lieutenant Colonel Moore:

Your officers have been most cooperative and your men have

been examples of deportment, willingness to work, and military

behavior. They have been of inestimable value to us in our

various armed reconnaissance, and we shall greatly feel your

absence.<9>

The destination of both elements of the 52d Defense Battalion was Guam,

and the prospect was not bad for further forward movement to combat.

 

Forward to Guam

Detachment A landed on Guam on 24 March and went ashore to set up camp

near Barrigada village on the eastern side of the island just above its narrow

waist. It was not long before regular patrols and ambushes were being sent

out, for there were hundreds of armed Japanese troops still loose in the

jungles on the island, men who had gone into hiding when the island was seized

in July and August 1944. Impotent as a combat force, and not very aggressive

unless cornered, these stragglers were mainly interested in foraging and

staying alive.

Small 10-man patrols and ambush groups were sent out all around the camp

area; the use of larger forces was restricted by the dense vegetation which

one later patrol commander described as "thick as the hair on a dog's back."

<10> The patrols made their first contact on 1 April, killing one of two

Japanese discovered within 1,000 yards of the camp. Further sightings were

made in the following days, with one of the enemy killed and one wounded on 13

April, another killed on the 21st, and three wounded on the 26th, when an

ambush party received return fire, which wounded one member of the 52d, PFC

Ernest J. Calland.<11>

Lieutenant Colonel Silvey's group arrived at Guam on 4 May, landed and

rejoined the bat-

 

25

 

 

<ILLUSTRATION>

<FIGURE NOT AVAILABLE>

Map of PACIFIC BATTLEGROUND, 1942-1945

 

26

THE 52D DEFENSE BATTALION

 

talion. The next day, the 52d, which came under control of the 2d Provisional

AAA Group, was directed to undertake intensive training to be accomplished

preparatory to movement forward. On 10 May, the formal reorganization of the

battalion to its original table of organization took place, and Lieutenant

Colonel Moore took command.

As soon as the rest of the 52d was settled in, the intensified round of

training and checking equipment began with a readiness date for movement of 15

June. The patrolling and ambushes continued and it was soon obvious that some

men had a natural aptitude for the job. Sergeant (later Platoon Sergeant) Ezra

Kelly from Mississippi, a member of the Searchlight Battery, was one of these;

he killed the first Japanese accounted for by the battalion on Guam and

accounted for five others in later patrols.<12> He was, as one of his seniors

remarked, "really gung ho. Absolutely fearless."<13>

Insofar as the battalion commander knew, the next destination of the 52d

was Okinawa. Loading out for the Ryukyus actually started on 9 July, but the

orders were countermanded, and the 52d was directed to remain on Guam,

replacing the 9th AAA Battalion. The actual relief of the 9th began on 24 July

when Battery C moved into tactical positions with its 90mm guns.

The cancellation of the orders to move forward was unpopular in the 52d.

One of the battalion's clerks, PFC John R. Griffith, recalled, "our morale

dropped 99%, for the next week or ten days the men stayed around their tents

writing letters and what not--mad at the world and everyone in it. Instead of

being a Defense Unit, we turned out to be nothing more than a working

battalion."<14>

Events had taken a turn for the worse soon after debarkation. On 12 July,

the battalion began furnishing Island Command with working parties which grew

in strength until by the end of the month nearly half the battalion was

working each day, mostly as stevedores. The assignment, much disliked in the

52d, must have amused the men in the black Marine depot companies on Guam, who

were heavily committed to this physically demanding work. About this time,

Sergeant Major "Hashmark" Johnson appeared from Montford Point and noted with

displeasure that "when I arrived the 52d Defense Battalion was performing the

duties of a depot company at Apra Harbor."<15> The new battalion sergeant

major was instrumental in getting the patrols and ambushes started again, in

fact, the first one that he led himself drew and returned Japanese fire.

The end of the war also saw the end of the tactical employment of the 52d

as an antiaircraft battalion. Battery C stood down on 19 August 1945 and after

that no unit was tactically emplaced. Concurrent with the move of the

battalion to a new camp area formerly occupied by an Army engineer battalion,

the 52d began to furnish the 2d Military Police Battalion and Island Command

with large daily details of men for guard duty. On 30 September operational

control of the defense battalion was passed to the 5th Service Depot, parent

command also of the black ammunition and depot companies on the island. Six

days later, the battalion began turning in all of its equipment to the depot.

Lieutenant Colonel Moore received word on 18 October that elements of his

battalion would be relieving the 51st Defense Battalion at Eniwetok and

Kwajalein, so that the older unit could return to the States. In November the

battalion split into three parts: Headquarters and Service Battery and the

Light Antiaircraft Group stayed on Guam; a composite group designated Battery

A (Reinforced), composed of Battery A and four searchlight sections, was told

off as the relief at Kwajalein; and the Heavy Antiaircraft Group, less two

firing batteries, plus the Search light Battery, was set as the relief on

Eniwetok. Attached to both the relieving detachments were small groups of high

point men who would continue on to the United States with the 51st for

discharge.

 

Both elements of the 52d sailed on 16 November from Guam, on the cargo

ships USS SIBIK (AK-121) for Eniwetok and USS WYANDOT (AKA-92) for Kwajalein.

After the relief of the 51st was effected, the duties of the men at both

atolls were non-tactical; there were guard details and general duty chores

connected with the winding down of the war effort but little to relieve the

boredom. No one was unhappy when word came to return to Guam, since it meant

for most men a further return to home.

 

Postwar Activities

On 29 January 1946, the attack transport USS HYDE (APA-173), having

picked up the members of the 52d Defense Battalion in the Marshalls, berthed

at Guam. A month of

 

27

BLACKS IN THE MARINE CORPS

 

change and reorganization followed until on 28 February one of the postwar

Pacific units of the Marine Corps destined to be manned by black Marines was

formed. Heavy Antiaircraft Group (Provisional), Saipan was activated by

redesignation of the 52d's similar group. Low point men were transferred into

the new unit, and it began moving piecemeal to Saipan.

Before this happened, however, the ranks of the battalion were thinned

even further by the departure of another large group of high point men for the

States on 1 February. Among this group were a number of the original Montford

Point volunteers of 1942. When their ship arrived in San Francisco on the 22d,

they received a pleasant surprise. The receiving barracks were not segregated,

nor were those at Camp Pendleton when the men arrived there for processing for

discharge.

One gunnery sergeant from Louisiana, Alex "Buck" Johnson, even found

himself bossing all-white police details, which he regarded as a welcome

change from his previous experience. He noted that contrary to time-honored

practice in most units, he did not have to spend his time "running and ducking

and looking and trying to find out what happened to my detail." Instead, the

men did their work and asked him if there was anything else that he wanted

them to do.<16> The imminence of discharge must have disordered the normal

proclivity of enlisted Marines to avoid police duties.

The experience of the remainder of the 52d Defense Battalion was more in

keeping with the segregated nature of life in the Marine Corps in World War

II, since it returned home as a unit. On 13 March 1946, the 357 officers and

men still on the rolls of the battalion embarked on the transport USS

WAKEFIELD (AP-21) at Guam and sailed for San Diego. Arriving on the 26th, the

52d immediately moved to Camp Pendleton, dropped off the men who had enlisted

west of the Mississippi who would be discharged there, and entrained for Camp

Lejeune.

On 4 April 1946, the 52d Defense Battalion arrived back at Montford Point

Camp. Further discharges and separations took place immediately, and on 21

April Lieutenant Colonel Moore relinquished command of the battalion he had

served with for 23 months. On 15 May 1946, the 52d Defense Battalion passed

out of history, redesignated as a new postwar unit to be based at Montford

Point, the 3d Antiaircraft Artillery Battalion (Composite). Neither of the two

antiaircraft units that had grown out of the 52d had a long life. The group on

Saipan lasted until 28 February 1947 when it was disbanded and its remaining

men transferred into provisional depot companies which returned to Guam.<17>

The 3d Antiaircraft had a life of 12 months before it too was disbanded on 15

May 1947, with most of its men joining Headquarters Company, Montford Point

Camp.<18>

Although not directly responsible for the demise of all black

antiaircraft units, the sentiments expressed by Lieutenant Colonel Moore after

he had been with the 52d for 20 months are indicative of the line of reasoning

that eventually prevailed when the Marine Corps drastically reduced its troop

strength in post-war years. He reported to the Commandant that "so long as

social conditions make segregation desirable it is believed that Negro Marines

could be more advantagously employed in almost any other type unit." He

reasoned that antiaircraft units were among the most highly technical in the

Marine Corps and needed to draw on the whole Corps for their men, men who

would have all possible schools readily available to them as they were not to

black Marines. He pointed out that the normal scattered deployment of

batteries, radars, and searchlights "defeats the purpose of segregation,"

because these small units were forced to rely on neighboring organizations for

support which would be difficult to get and might not be forthcoming "so long

as any evidence of individual racial prejudice continues to"<19>

An objective examination of the experiences of the men of the 52d Defense

Battalion, weighing all pros and cons, must conclude that despite racial

adversity they performed well collectively as Marines. The conclusion is

inescapable when one meets veterans of the 52d that both they and the Marine

Corps benefited from their service.

 

28

CHAPTER 4

 

DEPOT AND AMMUNITION COMPANIES

One of the ironies of the service of black Marines in World War II was

that the units which had been designated, trained, and publicized as combat

organizations, the 51st and 52d Defense Battalions, never saw combat. Instead,

the "labor troops," the Marine depot and ammunition companies, and the

officers' stewards were the ones who garnered the battle credits and took the

casualties suffered by black Marines during the war. The Personnel Department

at Headquarters Marine Corps in a postwar tabulation of casualties established

that nine black Marines were killed in action or died of wounds, while 78

others were wounded in action and nine suffered from combat fatigue; 35 men

died of other causes.<1> Inasmuch as the duties of the men in the depot and

ammunition companies and those of the stewards were not supposed to bring them

into direct confrontation with the Japanese, the casualty toll was not

inconsiderable.

It was quite apparent to Marine planners in the early part of the war

that the Marine Corps needed a vastly increased and improved supply system in

the Pacific, one that could support the offensive thrust of hundreds of

thousands of Marines. The need was felt not only at the rear and forward area

support bases but in combat itself in the crucial area of shore party

operations, the ship-to-shore movement of essential equipment and supplies.

And once those supplies were ashore, they had to be stockpiled, shifted,

sorted, and moved forward into the hands of the Marines battling the Japanese.

Gradually, an elaborate system did evolve which included base depots,

which received, stored, processed, and shipped supplies of all sorts to combat

units, and field depots, which were intended to be forward supply activities

in operational areas. There were other organizations too, service and supply

battalions, for instance, which performed these support activities for local

base areas. All of these organizations were primarily composed of specialist

companies which handled various types of supplies and equipment, salvaging and

repairing non-expendable items where possible. What was missing at first was

an essential element of the Marine logistical system, labor troops. All the

vast assemblage of equipment had to be moved by ship and those ships had to be

unloaded and reloaded time and again. The Marine Corps had no stevedores and

found in its early combat operations that using combat troops for the

unloading tasks was highly unsatisfactory. They were not doing the job for

which they had been trained.

When the prospective number of black Marines was greatly increased in

1943, the problem of their employment arose. Headquarters Marine Corps began

thinking about additional pioneer units, not the organic pioneer battalions of

the Marine divisions, which were engineer organizations specializing in shore

party operations, but units which would in effect serve as stevedores. The

thousands of men destined for Montford Point were a ready-made manpower

reservoir. Instead of organizing battalions or larger organizations, the

Marine Corps formed the black Marines into company-sized units that could be

deployed as soon as their ranks were filled from boot camp and shifted about

more easily as the need for their services arose.

On 8 March 1943, the 1st Marine Depot Company was activated at Montford

Point; its commander was Captain Jason M. Austin, Jr. Organized according to a

table of organization approved less than a month before, the company included

three officers and 110 enlisted men formed into a headquarters and two

platoons and lightly armed with rifles, carbines, and submachine guns.<2> All

but one of the 101 blacks in the company were privates; the other was an

assistant cook, Ulysses J. Lucas. The nine NCOs in the company were white.

Until enough black NCOs could be selected and

 

29

BLACKS IN THE MARINE CORPS

 

<ILLUSTRATION>

<FIGURE NOT AVAILABLE>

DEPOT AND AMMUNITION COMPANIES 1943-1995

 

30

DEPOT AND AMMUNITION COMPANIES

 

trained this was to be the pattern for the black Marine depot companies.

Eventually, black NCOs moved up through the ranks replacing the whites who

were transferred out to other organizations. On the whole, the first units to

leave the States became all black below the officer level overseas. In 1944

and 1945 depot companies leaving Montford Point had black NCOs from first

sergeant on down the line.

This policy of replacing white NCOs with blacks was in keeping with

Letter of Instruction 421 which the Commandant issued on 14 March 1943. In the

letter, in an attempt to avoid racial friction, General Holcomb stated that in

no case would there be black NCOs senior to white men in the same unit and

that it was desirable that few, if any, be of the same rank. The instructions

specifically stated that it was not the intent of the letter to hinder

promotion of blacks, in fact the Commandant indicated it was his aim that

commanders exert every effort to locate blacks "having the requisite qualities

of intelligence, education, and leadership to become noncommissioned

officers." As an example he noted that if a black corporal was qualified for

promotion to sergeant while there were still white corporals in his unit, he

would be promoted but he would be transferred to a billet where his services

could be used at the higher rank.<3> Although this letter to commanding

officers was classified "Confidential," there was no doubt in the minds of

most black Marines that such an order existed; they could see its dictums in

operation. Still others saw the letter, including the sergeant major of the

51st Defense Battalion. He later remarked, in emphasizing that men of

"intelligence, education, and leadership" had been found, that no black men in

his office had a general classification test score of less than 110.<4>

After 10 depot companies had been formed and deployed in the period

between March and September 1943, a new type of black unit came into being,

the Marine ammunition company. Conceived of as a hard-working partner of the

white ordnance companies in the base and field depots, the ammunition

companies were to load and unload, sort and stack, man-handle and guard

ammunition, moving it from ship to shore to dump, and in combat, forward to

the frontline troops and firing batteries. The 1st Marine Ammunition Company

was organized at Montford Point on 1 October 1943 with Second Lieutenant

Placido A. Gomez in command.

Where the depot companies had a minimum of training before they shipped

out, the ammunition companies usually spent at least two months at Montford

Point before going overseas. The men were given familiarization courses on

various types of ammunition and fuses, often practising moving ammunition

containers from landing craft to inshore dumps. Some potential NCOs were sent

to camouflage school and others were given special training in handling

ammunition. The staff NCO billets in the companies went to white ordnance

specialists, a condition that remained throughout the war. While the handling

of ammunition required heavy labor, it also required experienced supervision

to emphasize and enforce safety regulations.

The ammunition company was a large organization with a total strength of

eight officers and 251 enlisted men. The unit was organized into a

headquarters and four ammunition platoons with the men armed with rifles and

carbines. Unlike the depot companies which had no organic transportation, the

ammunition company rated a number of its own jeeps, trucks, and trailers.<5>

The permanent complement of white line and specialist staff NCOs in the

ammunition companies stifled Negro promotions to those ranks but the units

operated effectively despite this. In the 3d Ammunition Company, one black

veteran recalled: "The white NCOs we had was wonderful, a bunch of swell

fellows. You couldn't go wrong with them. . . we were together; we worked as a

team."<6>

From October 1943 until September 1944, one ammunition company and two

depot companies were organized every month at Montford Point. The last of 12

ammunition companies was activated on 1 September 1944, the same day that the

33d and 34th Marine Depot Companies came into being. Depot companies continued

to be formed, however, and 51 were organized, with the last four (the 46th,

47th, 48th, and 49th) activated on 1 October 1945 after the war was over.

There were actually two 5th and 6th Marine Depot Companies; the first pair

were sent out to New Caledonia in August 1943 to provide reinforcements for

the four earlier depot companies when the addition of a third platoon to the

table of organization brought each companies' total strength up to 163

officers and men.<7>

 

31

BLACKS IN THE MARINE CORPS

 

Into Service Overseas

A colorful description of the state of training of the depot companies

before they shipped out was provided by the former first sergeant of one of

them, who recalled:

. . .there was no training these Negroes was doing, such

as infantry training. The only training they had was what

they had received at boot camp. And of course they did a

hell of a lot of drilling. They were some of the

drillingest people that you'd ever seen in your life.

From his point of view all the black depot company Marine needed "was a

strong back," and "he already had that and so there was no need of training

him because that was all he was going to do, to load and unload ships and haul

ammunition and supplies into the line for the fighting troops."<8>

Like those depot units which followed it, the 1st Marine Depot Company

did not spend much time at Montford Point once it had been formed. Three weeks

after its organization, the company was on a train bound for the west coast.

When the men arrived at San Diego on 5 April 1943, the Marine Corps base

newspaper noted their arrival and reported: "after spending their first few

hours squaring their gear, the men put on a warm-up demonstration of close

order drill that left observers gaping."<9>

On 16 April, the company boarded ship, the destroyer USS HUNT (DD-674)

and two days later sailed for Noumea on New Caledonia. This was the first of

many such sailings from San Diego; other depot and ammunition companies left

the States from San Francisco and Pleasanton in California, and Norfolk,

Bayonne, and Davisville on the east coast, and from New Orleans and Gulf Port

in the south, depending on where the shipping was available.

The destination of the 1st Marine Depot Company and of the next five

companies to follow it was New Caledonia, where the 1st Base Depot was

headquartered, its responsibility the support of Marine forces in the

Solomons, where the campaign for Guadalcanal had just ended. In the same month

that the 1st Marine Depot Company left the States, a new base depot, the 4th,

was organized on New Caledonia, absorbing half the quartermaster personnel and

taking the title to half the supplies stored in 1st Base Depot facilities. In

May the new organization moved forward to the island of Banika in the Russell

Group north of Guadalcanal to be in position to support Marine combat troops

as they moved forward into the central and northern Solomons.<10> A number of

black depot and ammunition companies were to serve in both base depots while

the advance northward continued to its eventual culmination in mid-1944 with

the encirclement and neutralization of the Japanese base at Rabaul on New

Britain.

The value of the first depot company was immediately felt when it arrived

at Noumea in May. Prior to this time, the shorthanded base depot had had to

call on other Marine units for working parties, including convalescent wounded

in mobile base hospitals, to augment ship loading and unloading details. The

1st Marine Depot Company was really welcome; "these troops offered the first

solution to the depot's labor problem."<11> Other black Marine depot

companies were soon on hand. The 2d and 3d Companies arrived together on 30

June, having been raised simultaneously at Montford Point in April, a pattern

that applied to many pairs of depot companies which served together throughout

the war.

The next company to come, the 4th, arrived alone in late July but did not

stay long on New Caledonia. In concert with the earliest arrival, the 1st

Depot Company, it boarded the transport USS CRESCENT CITY (AP-40) on 5 August

and sailed north for Guadalcanal. Arriving in time on the 12th to be greeted

with a harmless flyover by a Japanese pilot who had just finished attacking

the island, the black Marines transhipped to smaller inter-island transports

and left for Banika where they were to provide the first labor troops to join

the 4th Base Depot. The two companies arrived 13 August and disembarked in a

period of nightly air raids, got their first taste of a bombing raid on the

14th, and provided their first working parties on the docks on the 15th.<12>

After the initial movement of depot companies to New Caledonia and the

Solomons to help support ongoing operations in the South and Southwest Pacific

theatres, the next destination for many units was the Hawaiian Islands. The

first pair to start that way were the 7th and 8th Marine Depot Companies,

which arrived by way of Davisville, Rhode Island and the Panama Canal, with a

stopover at Pago Pago in American Samoa, and a nine-month stint supporting

operations in the Gilberts and Marshalls at the FMF Base Depot at Funafuti. By

the time these companies finally arrived at Pearl Harbor in July 1944, a

number of other

 

32

DEPOT AND AMMUNITION COMPANIES

 

depot and ammunition companies from Montford Point had already joined the 6th

Base Depot on Oahu. Others were assigned to service and supply depots and

battalions on other islands, like Hawaii, Maui, and Kauai, where Marine units

trained and staged for Central Pacific operations. Two companies were sent

down into the Marshalls, the 1st Marine Ammunition Company, which had a short

stay at Kwajalein right after the atoll was taken in February before it

returned to Oahu, and the 15th Marine Depot Company, which reached Allen

Island at Kwajalein on 7 March and stayed there for the rest of the war.

Some of the units reporting to the Hawaiian Islands in the spring of 1944

were assigned to the 7th Field Depot: 3d Marine Ammunition Company and the

18th, 19th, and 20th Marine Depot Companies. Two ammunition companies, the 2d

and 4th, were sent to Guadalcanal where they became part of the 5th Field

Depot. These were destined to be the first black Marine units to take part in

combat operations.

 

Combat in the Marianas

Saipan was the first target in the Marianas with D-Day 15 June 1944. The

black Marines assigned to the 7th Field Depot helped load the supplies of the

assault forces of the 2d and 4th Marine Divisions of the V Amphibious Corps.

The two ammunition companies of 5th Field Depot on Guadalcanal performed

similar duties for the 3d Marine Division and the 1st Provisional Marine

Brigade of the III Amphibious Corps, which was slated to land in assault on

Guam. In all cases the units were assigned to ship unloading details and to

the shore parties of the assault echelons.

Elements of most of the black Marine units at Saipan got ashore on D-Day.

A member of the 3d Marine Ammunition Company, Sergeant Ernest W. Coney, gave

his version of the landing:

Sixteen men were assigned to the ships' platoons and

twenty-five to floating dumps [pontoon barges moored just off

the reefs edge as transfer points]. The rest got ready to

disembark at 0700. At 0600 it was bright enough to see an

island dead ahead and smoke was pouring up from the earth as

our planes was bombing and strafing. . . .

We went over the side at 0700 and into the waiting landing

boat. We shoved off toward the island and as usual we rode

around in circles before going ashore. When we did start for

the island, shells began to fall all around us. We was given

orders to turn around and get into an amphibious alligator

'cause we could not make it--the landing boat.

We changed over and then waited . . . we hit the beach at

1400 and immediately started diggin' in because it seemed as

though the Japs had gotten the range. One team had an

amphibian tractor shot out from under it as it was being

unloaded-miraculously all the men escaped without injury.<14>

Others were not as fortunate; PFC Leroy Seals of Brooklyn, New York was

wounded a few hours after the landing and died the next day. Men from the

company positioned near the beachhead perimeter helped repulse an enemy

counterattack during the night of D-Day and were credited with knocking out a

Japanese machine gun.

The depot companies were no less active on 15 June; most of the men of

the 18th and 20th Companies landed in support of the 4th Marine Division while

the 19th, which was part of the 2d Division's shore party, sweated cargo out

of the holds and into landing craft for the trip to the fire-swept shore. One

platoon of the 18th attached to the 3d Battalion, 23d Marines landed on Blue

Beach 1, directly behind the town of Charan Kanoa, about two and a half hours

after the assault wave had landed. As it disembarked, a mortar shell hit and

exploded about 25 feet away. It caused four casualties (PFC Charles F. Smith

and Privates Albert W. Sims, Jeff Smith, and Hayse Stewart) who were evacuated

back to a transport. The platoon pushed inland to find cover from the enemy

shelling. One squad was called up to replace riflemen in the front lines which

were not more than 100 yards off the beach.

During the night, small enemy groups probed the left flank of the 23d

Marines in the gap between that regiment and the 8th Marines to the north.

Those who penetrated were mopped up by units in the rear, including the 18th

Depot. When the line was stabilized, the 18th was pulled out to take over its

normal duties of handling supplies. Of this period, the company commander,

Captain William M. Barr, reported:

Mortar shells were still raining down as my boys unloaded

ammunition, demolition material, and other supplies from

amphibious trucks. They set up "security" to keep out snipers

as they helped load casualties aboard boats to go to hospital

ships. Rifle fire was thick as they rode guard on trucks

carrying high octane gasoline from the beach. A squad leader

killed a Jap sniper that had crawled into a foxhole next to his.

They stood waist deep in surf unloading boats as vital supplies

of food and water were brought in. . . there

 

33

BLACKS IN THE MARINE CORPS

 

<ILLUSTRATION>

<FIGURE NOT AVAILABLE>

On D-Day at Saipan, black Marines pause at the beach's edge

before receiving orders to move inland. (USMC Photo 83928).

 

 

were only a few scattered snipers on the beach. My boys accounted

for several of these.<14>

A brief account of the D-Day experiences of the 20th Marine Depot Company

reached the American press in the account of its commander, Captain William C.

Adams:

My company landed about 2 p.m. on D-Day [on Yellow Beach 2

supporting the 1st Battalion, 25th Marines]. We were the third

wave, and all hell was breaking when we came in. It was still

touch and go when we hit shore, and it took some time to

establish a foothold.

My men performed excellently. I had previously told them:

"You are the first Negro troops ever to go into action in the

Marine Corps. What you do with the situation that confronts you,

and how you perform, will be the basis on which you, and your

race, will be judged....

They did a swell job... Among my own company casualties, my

orderly was killed. My men are still living in foxholes.<15>

 

The orderly was Private Kenneth J. Tibbs of Columbus, Ohio, who died of

wounds on D-Day. He was the first black Marine fatality as the result of enemy

action in World War II. The rest of the men in his company were not unmindful

of the precarious situation on the beaches of Saipan and immediately took

steps to improve their defenses. As Captain Adams noted: "they were very

provident, and by the second day had all types of arms they had never been

issued, such as . . . machine guns, and even .50 [caliber] machine guns."<16>

The 19th Marine Depot Company did not come ashore until 22 June and

remained as part of the 2d Division shore party for five more days before it

reverted to operational control of the 7th Field Depot. The 19th was a lucky

outfit; it suffered no casualties on Saipan, nor was anyone hit when it took

part in the Okinawa campaign nearly a year later. There were still other

casualties in the Negro companies on Saipan, though, after the holocaust of

D-Day. On 16 June, Private Willie J. Atkinson of the 18th Company was wounded

 

34

and PFC Robert L. Neal of the ammunition company was shell-shocked and

hospitalized. The next day PFC William B. Townsend of the 18th Company was

hit. One of the officers of the 18th Company, Second Lieutenant Edmund C.

Forehand, was wounded on the 21st, and PFC Lawrence Pellerin, Jr., of the 20th

Company became a casualty the next day. As the fighting wore on into July,

Corporal John S. Newsome of the 18th and Private Willie S. King of the 20th

were wounded on the 4th, Private John S. Novy of the ammunition company was

hit on the 9th, and the last black Marine casualty during the battle, Private

Willie Travis Jr. of the 18th Company was wounded on the 13th.

The men in these four black companies were not the only black Marines on

Saipan. The action was such that areas normally considered "safe" and "behind

the lines" were subjected to enemy fire. During Japanese shelling that dropped

in on the headquarters compound of the 2d Marine Division on 20 June, Cook 3d

Class Timerlate E. Kirvin and Steward's Assistant 2d Class Samuel J. Love,

Jr., both received leg wounds, thus earning the unwanted distinction of being

the first Stewards' Branch combat casualties of the war.

The action of the black Marines under heavy fire and in a situation of

unremitting toll and danger on Saipan did not go unnoticed at Headquarters

Marine Corps or in the national press and news magazines. The Commandant,

General Vandergrift, was quoted as saying: "The Negro Marines are no longer on

trial. They are Marines, period."<17> Robert Sherrod, the war correspondent,

reported in TIME: "Negro Marines, under fire for the first time, have rated a

universal 4.0 on Saipan."<18> In the naval efficiency rating system there

could be no higher mark.

Indeed the black Marines had performed well under fire and the units of

the 7th Field Depot that directly supported the 4th Marine Division, (3d

Ammunition and 18th, 19th, and 20th Depot Companies) were included in the

award of the Presidential Unit Citation given to that organization for its

combat role on Saipan and Tinian. The latter island, close to Saipan, was

taken in a classic shore-to-shore amphibious assault during the last week of

July 1944. No black Marine casualties were incurred in the fighting, although

elements of the 3d Ammunition Company did accompany the assault troops and the

depot companies provided, as usual, loading and unloading support.

The last of the trio of operations in the Marianas was the recapture of

Guam, lost to the Japanese in the early days of the war. The landing,

originally set for 18 June 1944, was put off as a result of the heavy fighting

on Saipan, and all the troops headed for the target were ship weary from their

many weeks on transports when the actual landing was made on 21 July 1944.

Just as eager as the rest to get ashore were the 2d and 4th Marine Ammunition

Companies. Three platoons of the 2d were assigned to direct support of the 3d

Marine Division landing on the Asan beachhead north of Orote Peninsula; the

4th Company, with the 4th Platoon of the 2d Company attached, was in direct

support of the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade landing to the south of the

peninsula at Agat.

A heavy naval bombardment, most intense of the war in the Pacific thus

far, leveled most of the beach defenses of Guam, but there were still some

antiboat guns operative and Japanese mortars and machine guns were active. The

fire was particularly devastating on the 1st Brigade's beaches and in the

waters offshore, and the black Marines were in the thick of it, unloading

cargo from LSTs standing off the reef. The 3d Division had landed in a natural

amphitheater with the Japanese holding the high ground overlooking the

beaches. Considering the situation, the 2d Marine Ammunition Company was lucky

to have only one man wounded, PFC Henry L. Jones, on 22 July.

On the night of D-Day, one of the platoons of the reinforced 4th

Ammunition Company, which was guarding the brigade ammunition dump,

intercepted and killed 14 Japanese soldiers laden with explosives. There were

no casualties in this fire fight but a few days later (24 July) three men

working on the beaches were wounded by fire from Japanese guns on Orote

Peninsula: PFC Wilbert J. Webb and Privates Darnell Hayes and Jim W. Jones.

 

During the rest of the fighting on this island, the two companies

continued to support the advancing Marines, reverting to operational control

of the 5th Field Depot on 22 August, 12 days after the island was declared

secure. The 4th Marine Ammunition Company and the 4th Platoon of the 2d

Company were included in the Navy Unit Commendation awarded to the 1st

Provisional Marine Brigade for its actions on Guam. The brigade com-

 

35

BLACKS IN THE MARINE CORPS

 

<ILLUSTRATION>

<FIGURE NOT AVAILABLE>

Men of the 3d Ammunition Company take a break during the

fighting on Saipan. Seated on the Japanese bike is PFC Horace

Boykin; seated (l to r) are Corporal Willis T. Anthony and

PFCs Emmitt Shackelford and Eugene Purdy. (USMC Photo 86008).

 

mander, Brigadier General Lemuel C. Shepherd, Jr., wrote the 4th Company's

commander, First Lieutenant Russell S. LaPointe, commending:

. . . the splendid and expeditious manner in which supplies

and equipment were unloaded from the LST's and LCT's of our

Attack Group. Working long hours, frequently during nights,

and in at least two instances under enemy fire . . . [you]

so coordinated your unloading efforts as to keep supplies

flowing to the beach. You have contributed in large measure

to the successful and rapid movement of combat supplies in this

amphibious operation.<19>

The end of the operation on Guam did not mean the end of encounters with

the Japanese. Two men from the 4th Ammunition Company, PFCs George F. Gaines

and Lawrence H. Hill, were wounded on 27 September by enemy troops. Some of

the ammunition company men were particularly adept at hunting the stragglers

down. One man, brought up in the Mississippi bayou country, who was a truck

driver in Memphis when he joined the Marines, ran up quite a personal score.

PFC Luther Woodward of the 4th Ammunition Company also earned the highest

decoration won by a black Marine in World War II for a feat performed in

December 1944. One afternoon, he saw some fresh footprints close to the

ammunition dump he was guarding; he followed them through the thick brush to a

native hut in a clearing, where he spotted six

 

36

DEPOT AND AMMUNITION COMPANIES

 

Japanese. Opening fire, he killed one and wounded another before the survivors

fled. Returning to camp, Woodward got five of his comrades to join him in

hunting down the enemy and before they were through they had killed two more

of the Japanese, one of them falling to Woodward's rifle. For his courage and

initiative, he was decorated with the Bronze Star on 11 January 1945, an award

subsequently upgraded to the Silver Star.<20>

 

Combat on Peleliu

The 11th Marine Depot Company, raised at Montford Point on 7 October

1943, had originally joined the 4th Base Depot on Banika when it went overseas

in December, but in July 1944 it was transferred to Guadalcanal and joined the

16th Field Depot, which supported the 1st Marine Division. In August, the 7th

Marine Ammunition Company, formed only four months before at Montford Point,

arrived and also joined the 16th Depot. The two black Marine companies were

destined to take part in the bloody battle for the island of Peleliu in the

Palau Islands.

On the last day of August, the 1st Marine Division mounted out for the

operation, and on 15 September its assault waves began landing on Peleliu in

the face of heavy enemy fire. For the first few days, most of the black

Marines served in ships' platoons unloading supplies for the run to the

beaches, but soon, in small detachments, they began to come ashore to work in

the dumps, to move supplies and ammunition to the front lines, and to help

evacuate the wounded.

The fierceness of the Japanese resistance on the small island was soon

attested to by the mounting toll of black casualties. The first black Marine

wounded was Private Dyrel A. Shuler of the ammunition company, hit on 20

September. Two days later, the 11th Depot had its first casualty, Private

Predell Hamblin. Then, on 23 and 24 September, eight of the depot company

Marines were wounded by enemy fire: Corporal Clifford W. Stewart; PFCs Willie

A. Rushton; Carleton Shanks, Jr.; Kenneth R. Stevens; Edward J. Swain; Bernard

L. Warfield; and Earl L. Washington; and Private Joseph Williams. Two days

later, six more men were wounded: Corporal Lawrence V. Cole; PFCs Irving A.

Banks; Timothy Black; Paul B. Cook; Oscar A. Edmonds; and Edgar T. Grace. In

October, two more men of the 11th Depot Company were wounded, both on the

19th, Gunnery Sergeant Victor B. Kee and Private Everett Seals, giving the

company the highest casualty rate of any black Marine unit in World War II.

The 7th Ammunition Company suffered the last black Marine casualties on

Peleliu. Corporal Charles E. Cain was wounded on 9 October and Private John

Copeland died of wounds received the same day. On the 26th, PFC James E. Moore

was hit, and Private John Edmunds was wounded and evacuated on the last day of

October.

The fighting on the island was as intense as any in the Pacific war and

the two black Marine companies bore their share of the load. Even while the

close combat was raging, Major General William H. Rupertus, commanding the 1st

Division, wrote an identical letter of commendation to each of the commanding

officers, which stated:

1. The performance of duty of the officers and men of your

command has, throughout the landing on Peleliu and the assault

phase, been such as to warrant the highest praise. Unit

commanders have repeatedly brought to my attention the

whole-hearted cooperation and untiring efforts exhibited by

each individual.

2. The Negro race can well be proud of the work performed by

the 7th Ammunition Company [11th Depot Company] as they have

demonstrated in every respect that they appreciate the privilege

of wearing a Marine uniform and serving with Marines in combat.

Please convey to your command these sentiments and inform them

that in the eyes of the entire Division they have earned a "Well

Done."<21>

 

Combat on Iwo Jima

Black Marines were also present and accounted for at the largest

all-Marine amphibious operation in the Pacific-Iwo Jima. Besides the Stewards'

Branch personnel who served in all combat operations that the ammunition and

depot companies took part in, the black Marines that landed on the small

volcanic island were all members of the 8th Field Depot. As part of that unit

they were cited with the rest of the support troops of the V Amphibious Corps

in the Navy Unit Commendation awarded for their part in the furious month-long

battle for Iwo Jima.

All four of the black Marine companies at Iwo were assigned to the V

Corps shore party and two, the 8th Ammunition and 36th Depot, landed on D-Day,

19 February 1945. The soft,

 

37

BLACKS IN THE MARINE CORPS

<ILLUSTRATION>

<FIGURE NOT AVAILABLE>

Two black Marines take cover on the beach at Iwo Jima on D-Day

while the shattered hulk of a DUKW smokes behind them. (USMC

Photo 111123).

 

 

38

DEPOT AND AMMUNITION COMPANIES

 

clinging volcanic sand and the almost constant enemy shellfire made life on

the beaches a living hell, but the black Marines stuck to their jobs of

unloading landing craft and amphibious vehicles. Amazingly, no one was hit for

the first few days but then a steady attrition started.

On 22 February, a white officer, Second Lieutenant Francis J. DeLapp, and

Corporal Gilman D. Brooks of the ammunition company were wounded. Three days

later, PFC Sylvester J. Cobb from the same company was also wounded and

Corporal Hubert E. Daverney and Private James M. Wilkins of the 34th Depot

died of wounds received on the fire-swept beaches. Three other men from the

34th Company were hit on 25 February, Sergeant William L. Bowman, PFC Raymond

Glenn, and Private James Hawthorne, Sr, as was a black Marine replacement, PFC

William T. Bowen. The 34th Company's last casualty in February, PFC Henry L.

Terry, was wounded the next day. The 33d and 34th Depot Companies had landed

on 24 February after the men had served in ships' platoons getting supplies

started on the way to the, beach.

In early March the ammunition company suffered several more casualties.

On the 2d, Private William L. Jackson was wounded and evacuated and PFC Melvin

L. Thomas died of wounds. On 8 March, Private "J" "B" Saunders was wounded. As

the fighting moved to the northern tip of the island the likelihood of further

casualties in the black companies seemed remote. But the beleaguered Japanese

had a painful surprise left for the Americans. Early on 26 March, 10 days

after Iwo Jima was officially delcared secure, a well-armed column of 200-300

Japanese, including many officers and senior NCOs, slipped past the Marine

infantrymen who had them holed up near the northernmost airfield and launched

a full-scale attack on the Army and Marine troops camped near the western

beaches. The units struck included elements of the Corps Shore Party, the 5th

Pioneer Battalion, Army Air Forces squadrons, and an Army antiaircraft

artillery battalion. The action was wild and furious in the dark; it was hard

to tell friend from foe since many Japanese were armed with American

weapons.<22> The black Marines were in the thick of the fighting and took part

in the mop-up of the enemy remnants at daylight. Two members of the 36th

Marine Depot Company, Privates James M. Whitlock and James Davis, both

received Bronze Star Medals for "heroic achievement in connection with

operations against the enemy."<23>

There was a cost too for the black Marines. PFC Harold Smith of the 8th

Ammunition Company died of wounds received in the fighting; Corporals Richard

M. Bowen and Warren J. McDaughtery were wounded but survived. The 36th Depot

Company lost Private Vardell Donaldson who succumbed to his wounds, but PFC

Charles Davis and Private Miles Worth recovered from their injuries.

The Commander, Corps Shore Party, Colonel Leland S. Swindler, who was

also commander of the 8th Field Depot, was particularly pleased with the

actions of the black Marines in this battle and in his report for Iwo Jima

stated that he was:

. . .highly gratified with the performance of these colored

troops, whose normal function is that of labor troops, while

in direct contact with the enemy for the first time. Proper

security prevented their being taken unaware, and they

conducted themselves with marked coolness and courage. Careful

investigation shows that they displayed modesty in reporting

their own part in the action.<24>

Once the fighting was over, the units of the 8th Field Depot returned to

Hilo in the Hawaiian Islands to prepare for the next operation. The rear

echelons of the four black companies, which had moved forward to Saipan while

the main bodies were on Iwo, now rejoined. The next deployment of the 8th

Field Depot would have been during the invasion of Japan, but the ending of

the war made it occupation duty instead.

 

 

Combat on Okinawa

The largest number of black Marines to serve in combat took part in the

seizure of Okinawa in the Ryukyu Islands, the last Japanese bastion to fall

before the atomic bomb and the threat of invasion of the home islands combined

to bring the war to an end. Three ammunition companies, the 1st, 3d, and 12th,

and four depot companies, the 5th, 18th, 37th, and 38th, of the 7th Field

Depot arrived at Okinawa on D-Day, 1 April I945. Later in the month, the 20th

Marine Depot Company came in from Saipan and in May the 9th and 10th Companies

arrived from Guadalcanal and the 19th from Saipan.

The black Marines on the attack transport USS BLADEN (APA-63), the 1st

and 3d Ammuni-

 

39

BLACKS IN THE MARINE CORPS

tion Companies, the 5th Depot Company, and part of the 38th Depot, and those

on the USS BERRIEN (APA-62), the rest of the 38th and part of the 37th Depot,

took part in the 2d Marine Division demonstration landing off the southeast

coast of Okinawa. At the same time the assault troops of the Tenth Army (III

Amphibious Corps and the Army's XXIV Corps) went ashore on the western coast

at the narrow waist of the 60-mile-long island. In the feint attack, the men

climbed into landing craft, rendezvoused, formed assault waves, and roared in

toward the beach, turning around 500 yards from the shoreline.<25> The next

day this maneuver was repeated in hope that it would prevent the Japanese

commander from moving troops north to oppose the actual landings.

On 3 April, most of the black Marines landed on the island, ready to

support the 1st and 6th Marine Divisions, the assault troops of the III Corps.

Unlike previous landings in which the depot and ammunition companies had been

involved, there was little opposition on the beaches or in the first days

ashore in the Marines' operational area, the northern two-thirds of the

island. The Japanese had concentrated their defenses on the south, but there

was more than enough action in the north to keep everyone in III Corps busy

before the two Marine divisions moved south to join the main battle. Japanese

air raids were frequent, mostly aimed at the cluster of ships offshore, and

the barrier of antiaircraft fire thrown up loosed a deadly shower of shell

fragments that often fell on the troops near the beaches.

Many of the casualties suffered by the black units occurred in April,

when their camps and work areas were still relatively near the front lines.

The 5th Marine Depot Company had Three Marines of the 34th Depot Company on

the beach at Iwo Jima, (l to r) PFCs Willie J. Kanady, Eugene F. Hill, and Joe

Alexander. (USMC Photo 113835).

 

40

DEPOT AND AMMUNITION COMPANIES

 

three men wounded, PFC Willie Hampton on the 6th, Private Therrance J. Mercier

on the 15th, and Private Eldridge O. Oliver on the 28th. The 1st Ammunition

Company had two men wounded, PFC Thomas Early on the 10th and PFC Joshua

Nickens on the 15th. The 3d Marine Ammunition Company, veteran of the Saipan

and Tinian operations, suffered one of its last casualties of the war when

Private Clifford Bryant was also wounded on 15 April. The 38th Depot Company

had one man wounded, PFC Alvin A. Fitzpatrick, on 27 April. One of the blacks

assigned to the officers' mess of the 29th Marines, Steward's Assistant 1st

Class Joe N. Bryant, was wounded on 5 April, and in the 1st Marine Division's

headquarters, Steward's Assistant 2d Class Ralph Woodkins caught a shell

fragment in his face on 12 April.

Once the Tenth Army started to drive south with its two corps abreast

striking against the deeply dug-in Japanese, the black labor troops had

formidable transportation problems. Distances to the front lines lengthened

and the roads turned into quagmires when the spring rains began to fall in

torrential proportions. Carrying parties had to be organized to get supplies

and ammunition to the troops and bring the casualties out of the forward

areas. The black Marines of the depot and ammunition companies struggled with

heavy and vital loads going both ways. Casualties were scattered, but

continued to occur. Private Arthur Bowman, Jr., of the 12th Ammunition Company

and Private Charles L. Burton of the 3d Ammunition Company were wounded in May

and PFC Clarence H. Jackson of 3d Ammunition and PFC Richard E. Hines of 10th

Depot in June.

The stewards in corps, wing, division, and regimental headquarters, some

of whom volunteered as stretcher bearers when the fighting was heaviest, did

not escape unscathed. Steward 2d Class Warren N. McGrew, Jr., was killed and

shell fragments wounded Steward's Assistant 3d Class Willie Crenshaw of the

1st Division on 9 May and four days later two men in the 6th Division, Cook 3d

Class Horace D. Holder and Steward's Assistant 3d Class Norman "B" Davis, were

both struck in the same fashion. On 26 May, three stewards on the 29th Marines

headquarters, Steward's Assistant 1st Class Joe N. Bryant, Steward's Assistant

3d Class Jerome Caffey, and Private Morris E. Clark, were all wounded;

Bryant's second wound in the campaign gave him an unsought-after "first" among

black Marines. On the whole, however, considering the fury and length of the

battle, the black Marines were lucky to have suffered so few casualties out of

the more than 2,000 Montford Point men who served on Okinawa.

When the island was declared secure on 22 June 1945, there was little

let-up in the workload of the black service troops. Okinawa was to be the

principal supply and staging area for the invasion of Japan. Ships arrived

continuously and supply dumps expanded to enormous proportions. When the war

ended in mid-August, the thrust of preparations turned to occupation duty not

only in Japan but in North China, where Marines were to help repatriate the

Japanese troops and civilians in Hopeh and Shantung Provinces. Some of the

black units that had served in the Okinawa operation would go forward to North

China which was the objective of the III Amphibious Corps; others would remain

on the island to help support the occupation effort. Similarly,

 

<ILLUSTRATION>

<FIGURE NOT AVAILABLE>

Men of the 12th Ammunition Company rest at the base of a

Japanese Memorial on Okinawa during the drive to the north in

April; on the steps (l to r), PFC Floyd O. Snowdon, Sr., and

Pharmacist's Mate 2d class James R. Martin, on the monument

(l to r), Privates John T. Walton, and Robison T. Ellingburg,

PFC Clyde Brown and Private Robert Brawner. (USMC Photo 117624).

 

 

41

BLACKS IN THE MARINE CORPS

 

some of the Marine depot and ammunition companies that had served on Iwo Jima

would accompany the V Amphibious Corps to Kyushu, the Japanese home island

choosen as the objective for Marine occupying forces.

 

Occupation Duty<26>

The Sixth Army, which had been destined to make the assault on Kyushu if

the war had continued, now provided the occupation troops for the seizure of

southern Japan. As part of that army, the V Amphibious Corps would occupy

Kyushu and southern Honshu with the 2d and 5th Marine Divisions and the Army's

32d Infantry Division. Speculation about how the Japanese would receive the

Americans was rife in late August. Would some diehards ignore the Emperor's

orders to lay down all arms? The swift and bloodless occupation of Yokusuka

naval base on Tokyo Bay by the reinforced 4th Marines on 30 August provided

the answer. The Japanese were fully prepared to cooperate.

The V Corps could now plan for administrative landings rather than the

show of force once thought necessary. Corps headquarters and service troops

and the 5th Marine Division mounted out from the Hawaiian Islands in late

August and early September. The black Marines, now part of the 8th Service

Regiment (redesignated on I June from the 8th Field Depot), moved forward with

the corps troops in a variety of transports and landing ships. The convoy

paused at Saipan to pick up the 2d Marine Division. The objective of the 5th

Division and Corps Headquarters was the Japanese Naval base at Sasebo on the

northwest coast of Kyushu; the 2d Division would initially occupy Nagasaki, 30

miles to the south. Once the entry ports were secure, the Marines, and the

Army troops to come up later on turn-around shipping, would spread out all

over the large island with its population of 10,000,000 people.

Three ammunition companies, the 6th, 8th, and 10th, made the voyage to

Japan together with the 24th, 33d, 34th, 42d, and 43d Depot Companies. All

arrived and disembarked at Sasebo between 22 and 26 September. The 36th Marine

Depot Company came up to Sasebo in late October with the rear echelon of the

8th Service Regiment. The duties of the black Marines were not onerous and

certainly did not compare with the intense activity of a combat operation. The

dangerous task of disposing of Japanese explosives was handled by the Japanese

themselves with minimal American involvement.

The stay in Japan was not a long one. The need for strong, reinforced

combat forces became less and less apparent as time wore on with nothing but

cooperation from the Japanese. The demobilization pressure from the States was

strong and there were thousands of men in the V Corps with enough points for

discharge when the word came that the 5th Marine Division would return home in

December. The low point men of the 5th Division shifted to the 2d Division

which would remain in Japan, and the high point men of the 2d joined the 5th

Division for the homeward voyage.

The same reductions in force and transfers were taking place among the

black Marine units. The 24th Depot Company was disbanded at Nagasaki on 15

November and a month later the 6th Ammunition Company passed out of existence

at Sasebo. In both cases the men were transferred to units remaining in Japan

or destined for service on Guam. In early January, the 8th Ammunition Company

and the 33d, 34th, and 36th Depot Companies set sail for Guam to join the 5th

Service Depot (formerly the 5th Field Depot). The 33d and 34th Companies were

disbanded on Guam before the month was out. The 36th Depot Company stayed in

existence a few months longer, making it back to Montford Point via San

Francisco for disbandment on 17 June 1946. The 8th Ammunition Company,

destined to be the last of its type to serve on active duty,stayed on Guam.

In Japan, the end of black Marine involvement in occupation duties was in

sight. Except for a few stewards whose number was dwindling as demobilization

took its toll, the last organized black units were slated to go. The 42d and

43d Depot Companies, which had been raised together at Montford Point on 14

March 1945, were disbanded exactly one year later at Sasebo. All those men

eligible for discharge were transferred to the 10th Ammunition Company and

those who still had time to serve were transferred to the 6th Service Depot in

Hawaii. The last black Marine unit in Japan, the 10th Ammunition Company,

boarded the merchant marine transport SS DASHING WAVE on 5 April 1946 bound

for San Diego. A month later at Montford Point the company was disbanded.

 

42

DEPOT AND AMMUNITION COMPANIES

 

The experience of the black Marines who went to North China was quite

similar to that of the men who served in Japan. The 7th Service Regiment (old

7th Field Depot) would support the III Amphibious Corps and have most of its

men serving in the Tientsin area of Hopeh Province with corps headquarters and

the 1st Marine Division. Two companies, 12th Ammunition and 20th Depot, would

help support the 6th Marine Division at Tsingtao in Shantung Province. The

mission of III Corps was to repatriate the Japanese troops and civilians in

North China and to try to keep from getting involved in the civil war raging

between the Chinese Nationalists and Communists. Since the U.S. Government

recognized and supported the Nationalists as the legitimate government of

China, the chances for peaceful accommodations with the Communists were slim.

So there was always the chance of an ambush or some shots fired by a hidden

sniper at Marines on guard or convoy duty.

The 1st Ammunition Company and the 5th, 37th, and 38th Depot Companies

all left Okinawa with the III Corps-1st Division convoy in late September

1945, moving through mine-strewn waters and stormy weather to reach the

anchorage off the Hai River which led to Tientsin. On the 30th, the 1st

Ammunition and 38th Depot Companies went ashore with the first troops to land

at Tangku, the port town for Tientsin. The other companies landed a few days

later and all found their way to Tientsin.

The initial reception of the black Marines by the Chinese was a wary one.

One of the black first sergeants recalled:

We were moving down the street after we got to Tientsin,

we were going down to the Melchior Building, and the Chinese

would run out and touch a Marine on the face because they were

very black, we had been out in the sun for a long time, and

rub their hands on their face and see if it would come off,

like they thought it was painted or something.

And they stayed clear of the Negroes, wouldn't have nothing

to do with them for about a week. But soon as they found that

this paint wouldn't come off, or what they thought was paint,

I couldn't hardly separate [them] and had hell keeping them out

of the barracks. They got to be very charming and very lovely.<27>

Like their counterparts in Japan, the black Marines in North China found

that most heavy labor was performed by Orientals. A good part of the black

companies' tasks consisted of guard duty both in Tientsin and Tangku and on

the trains, landing craft, and trucks which ran the 30 miles between the two.

Liberty was good, but segregation was the order of the day in China as it was

in Japan and black and white Marines tended to congregate in their own special

haunts. The repatriation mission was handled with dispatch and hundreds of

thousands of Japanese were sent home in the first few months the Marines were

in China. The 1st Division, however, got involved in an unexpected task,

guarding coal mines, trains, bridges, and rail lines from Communist attacks to

ensure that coal would reach the duty of Shanghai, which depended on Hopeh's

mines to keep its factories and utilities running. This meant that the

division would at least remain in China through the winter until the

Nationalists could be persuaded to take over the guard duties. The need for

many of the reinforced units of III Corps was greatly lessened and troop

strength was cut drastically.

In January 1946, following the pattern prevalent throughout North China

as demobilization measures accelerated, the low point men of the black

companies transferred to the units that were to remain and those eligible for

discharge joined the units going home. The 5th Depot and 1st Ammunition

Companies boarded ship, the attack transport USS BOLIVAR (APA-34), on 7

January after being lightered from the docks at Tangku to the anchorage off

the Hai River mouth. The BOLIVAR sailed south to Tsingtao and picked up the

homeward-bound 20th Depot Company. The three units stayed together through San

Diego and Camp Pendleton, where the west coast Marines remained to be

processed for discharge, and the rest of the men entrained for Montford Point.

On 21 February 1946, the trio of companies was disbanded at the camp where

they had started their wartime careers.

The 37th and 38th Depot Companies left Tangku on 2 March, the same day

that the 12th Ammunition Company cleared Tsingtao, ending the tour of black

Marine units in North China. The two ships carrying the black troops reached

San Diego a few days apart because the ammunition company stopped over at

Pearl Harbor to transfer low point men and regulars to the 6th Service Depot.

The journey onward to Montford Point ended in early April, where on the 2d the

depot companies disbanded and on the 5th the ammunition com-

 

43

BLACKS IN THE MARINE CORPS

 

pany followed suit. With the exception of the 8th Ammunition Company, still on

Guam, all of the black units that had taken part in the occupation of Japan

and North China were gone.

 

Windup in the Pacific

Only seven of the 12 ammunition companies and 12 of the 51 depot

companies raised during the war saw combat. For the rest, the war must have

been as frustrating as it was for the two black defense battalions, but those

troops at least had the satisfaction of knowing that they were trained for

combat and might eventually take part in the fighting. With the labor

companies there was only the satisfaction of doing their job well with just an

outside chance that they might be tapped for battle. In the meantime, their

job was to toil away at the essential but largely unrecognized or rewarded

labor tasks that kept the supply channels filled to the combat echelons of the

Marine Corps. In the 4th Service Depot on Banika, the 5th on Guam, and the 6th

on Oahu and in the service and supply battalions on other islands, the routine

was unending, 12-hour work days, six-day work weeks, with both periods

lengthening when the schedule was stepped up to support new operations in

forward areas.

The Hawaiian Islands at least had a tradition of multi-racial living and

tolerance that softened the continued existence of segregation of blacks and

whites in the services. The islands had towns and cities for liberty, places

to go when time could be found. And the combat troops that rested and

retrained there between operations had seen black Marines under fire on the

beaches and knew that they had proved their mettle. Yet, there were continued

reminders of the second-class status of blacks, racial slurs that were a

reflection overseas of the situation at home. Some black Marines took the

situation in stride, not expecting drastic change but seeing a gradual

improvement in their status; other seethed with resentment at any unequal

treatment, actual or imagined.

On Guam, which was very much a forward staging and supply area with few

of the amenities that could be found in Hawaii, the inter-racial situation

grew tense after the battle for the island was over. Yet, when a series of

racial incidents flared up in December 1944, the black Marines were only

peripherally involved. It is apparent when one reviews the lengthy 1,200-page

report of the Court of Inquiry which resulted that the principal antagonists

were white Marines and black sailors and that the black Marines generally kept

to themselves and clear of entanglements.<28>

On the side of the blacks there was evidence that some white Marines,

mainly members of the 3d Marine Division, were harassing individual blacks,

shouting racial epithets, throwing stones and even, on occasion, smoke

grenades into black encampments as they raced by in trucks. There was an

apparent move to scare blacks away from Agana, the island capital, and make

it; and the native women who lived there, a white preserve. In return, some

blacks tended to act against individual whites when they had a chance,

responding in kind with name calling and missiles. By mid-December 1944, the

situation had grown serious enough in the eyes of the Island Command's Provost

Marshal, Marine Colonel Benjamin A. Atkinson, for him to recommend to the

island commander, Major General Henry L. Larsen, that he issue a general order

on racial discrimination which was published on the 18th, stating:

The present war has called together in our services men of

many origins and various races and colors. All are presumed

to be imbued with common ideals and standards. All wear the

uniform of the United States. All are entitled to the respect

to which that common service is entitled. There shall be no

discrimination by reason of sectional birth, race, religion,

or political beliefs. On the other hand, all individuals are

charged with the responsibility of conducting themselves as

comes Americans.<29>

The sentiments were lofty, and certainly a truer reflection of the

general's attitude than the famous remarks attributed to him at Montford Point

in 1943. As the Court of Inquiry found, the general order was backed up by a

serious intent to find and punish anyone who was indentified as a racial

troublemaker. The order had little chance to take effect, however, before

there was a series of shootings in and around Agana. In one, on 24 December,

an off-duty white Marine MP fired on some blacks in the town without hitting

anyone; more seriously, a white sailor shot and killed a black Marine of the

25th Depot Company in an argument over a native woman and a 27th Depot Company

sentry shot a white Marine, who later died, who had harassed him on his post.

Both men were convicted of voluntary manslaughter in subsequent trials.

The sum result of these incidents was that two truckloads of black

sailors, labor troops

 

44

DEPOT AND AMMUNITION COMPANIES

 

from the island's Naval Supply Depot, mistakenly believing the dead black to

be one of their own men, roared into Agana to a confrontation with outnumbered

Marine MPs. Nothing serious happened this time, but on Christmas Day there was

a virtual repetition of this incident, which resulted in the arrest of 43

black sailors, who proved to be armed with an assortment of stolen pistols,

knives, and other weapons. That night Marine MPs patrolling the roads adjacent

to the black sailors' encampment were fired on and one man was hit. A

shakedown of the black companies tents the following morning revealed a number

of illegal weapons hidden away in the tents, some of them stolen from the

supply depot armory. General Larsen immediately convened a Court of Inquiry to

investigate the circumstances attending "the unlawful assembly and riot." As

president of the court he appointed Colonel Samuel A. Woods, Jr., the man who

had organized Montford Point Camp. By happenstance, Mr. Walter W. White,

Executive Secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored

People, was in the central Pacific on a visit and he came to Guam when he

heard of the trouble. He made his own investigation of the series of incidents

with the help of the Navy and eventually ended up as counsel for several of

the black sailors involved in the abortive affray in Agana.

The month-long hearings ranged far beyond the actual events to examine

the state of morale of black troops on Guam and the background of racial

incidents. The board in its findings reported that there was no evidence of

organized racial prejudice on the island.

 JAMES E STEWART JR PRESIDENT

JOHN TILLMAN VICE PRESIDENT

Historical advisor Byron Stewart PhD

 

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