Postwar Black Marines


 The Postwar Black Marines  

Unlike the Army and Navy, the all-white Marine Corps seemed to consider the wartime enlistment of over 19,000 Negroes a temporary aberration. Forced by the Navy's nondiscrimination policy to retain Negroes after the war, Marine Corps officials at first decided on a black representation of some 2,200 men, roughly the same proportion as during the war. But the old tradition of racial exclusion remained strong, and this figure was soon reduced. The corps also ignored the Navy's integration measures, adopting instead a pattern of segregation that Marine officials claimed was a variation on the Army's historic "separate but equal" black units. In fact, separation was real enough in the postwar corps; equality remained elusive.

Racial Quotas and Assignments

The problem was that any "separate but equal" race policy, no matter how loosely enforced, was incompatible with the corps' postwar manpower resources and mission and would conflict with its determination to restrict black units to a token number. The dramatic manpower reductions of 1946 were felt immediately in the two major elements of the Marine Corps. The Fleet Marine Force, the main operating unit of the corps and usually under control of the Chief of Naval Operations, retained three divisions, but lost a number of its combat battalions. The divisions kept a few organic and attached service and miscellaneous units. Under such severe manpower restrictions, planners could not reserve one of the large organic elements of these divisions for black marines, thus leaving the smaller attached and miscellaneous units as the only place to accommodate self-contained black organizations. At first the Plans and Policies Division decided to assign roughly half the black marines to the Fleet Marine Force. Of these some were slated for an antiaircraft artillery battalion at Montford Point which would provide training as well as an opportunity for Negroes overseas to be rotated home. Others were placed in three combat service groups and one service depot where they would act as divisional service troops, and the rest went into 182 slots, later increased to 216, for stewards, the majority in aviation units.

The other half of the black marines was to be absorbed by the so called non-Fleet Marine Force, a term used to cover training, security, and miscellaneous Marine units, all noncombat, which normally remained under the control of the commandant. This part of the corps was composed of many small and usually self-contained units, but in a number of activities, parricularly in the logistical establishment and the units afloat, reductions in manpower would necessitate considerable sharing of living and working facilities, thus making racial separation impossible. The planners decided, therefore, to limit black assignments outside the Fleet Marine Force to naval ammunition depots at McAlester, Oklahoma, and Earle, New Jersey, where Negroes would occult separate barracks; to Guam and Saipan, principally as antiaircraft artillery; and to a small training cadre at Montfort Point. Eighty stewards would also serve with units outside the Fleet Marine Force. With the exception of the depot at Earle, all these installations had been assigned Negroes during the war. Speaking in particular about the assignment of Negroes to McAlester, the Director of the Plans and Policies Division, Brig. Gen. Gerald C. Thomas, commented that "this has proven to be a satisfactory location and type of duty. for these personnel."1 Thomas's concept of "satisfactory " duty for Negroes became the corps rationale for its postwar assignment policy.

To assign Negroes to unskilled jobs because they were accustomed to such duties and because the jobs were located in communities that would accept black marines might be satisfactory to Marine officials, but it was considered racist by many civil rights spokesmen and left the Marine Corps open to charges of discrimination. The policy of tying the number of Negroes to the number of available, appropriate slots also meant that the number of black marines, and consequently the acceptability of black volunteers, was subject to chronic fluctuation. More important, it permitted if not encouraged further restrictions on the use of the remaining black marines who had combat training, thereby allowing the traditionalists to press for a segregated service in which the few black marines would be mostly servants and laborers.

The process of reordering the assignment of black marines began just eleven weeks after the commandant approved the staff's postwar policy recommendations. Informing the commandant on 6 January 1947 that "several changes have been made in concepts upon which such planning was based," General Thomas explained that the requirement for antiaircraft artillery units at Guam and Saipan had been canceled, along with the plan for maintaining an artillery unit at Montford Point. Because of the cancellation his division wanted to reduce the number of black marines to 1,500. These men could be assigned to depot companies, service units, and Marine barracks—all outside the Fleet Marine Force—or they could serve as stewards. The commandants approval of this plan reduced the number of Negroes in the corps by 35 percent, or 700 men. Coincidental with this reduction was a 17 percent rise in spaces for black stewards to 350.2

Approval of this plan eliminated the last Negroes from combat assignments, a fact that General Thomas suggested could be justified as "consistent with similar reductions being effected elsewhere in the Corps." But the facts did not support sucbta palliative. In June 1946 the corps had some 1,200 men seeing in three antiaircraft artillery battalions and an antiaircraft artillery group headquarters. In June 1948 the corps still had white antiaircraft artillery units on Guam and at Camp LeJeune totaling 1,020 men. The drop in numbers was explained almost entirely by the elimination of the black units.3

A further realignment of black assignments occurred in June 1947 when General Vandegrift approved a Plans and Policies Division decision to remove more black units from security forces at naval shore establishments. The men were reassigned to Montford Point with the result that the number of black training and overhead billets at that post jumped 200 percent—a dubious decision at best considering that black specialist and recruit training was virtually at a standstill. General Thomas took the occasion to advise the commandant that maintaining an arbitrary quota of black marines was no longer a consideration since a reduction in their strength could be "adequately justified" by the general manpower reductions throughout the corps.4

Actually the Marine Corps was not as free to reduce the quota of 1,500 Negroes as General Thomas suggested. To make further cuts in what was at most a token representation, approximately 1 percent of the corps in August 1947, would further inflame civil rights critics and might well provoke a reaction from Secretary Forrestal. Even Thomas's accompanying recommendation carefully retained the black strength figure previously agreed upon and actually raised the number of Negroes in the ground forces by seventy-six men. The 1,500-man minimum quota for black enlistment survived the reorganization of the Fleet Marine Force later in 1947, and the Plans and Policies Division even found it necessary to locate some 375 more billets for Negroes to maintain the figure. In August the commandant approved plans to add 100 slots for stewards and 275 general duty billets overseas, the latter to facilitate rotation and provide a broader range of assignments for Negroes.5 Only once before the Korean War, and then only briefly, did the authorized strength of Negroes drop below the 1,500 mark, although because of recruitment lags actual numbers never equaled authorized strength.6

By mid-1947, therefore, the Marine Corps had abandoned its complex system of gearing the number of black marines to available assignments an like the Army and the Air Force, had adopted a racial quota—but with an important distinction. Although they rarely achieved it, the Army and theForce were committed to accepting a fixed percentage of Negroes; in an effort avoid the problems with manpower efficiency plaguing the other services, the Marine Corps established a straight numerical quota. Authorized black strength would remain at about 1,500 men until the Korean War. During that same period the actual percentage of Negroes in the Marine Corps almost doubled rising from 1.3 percent of the 155,679-man corps in June 1946 to slightly more than 2 percent of the 74,279-man total in June 1950. 7

Yet neither the relatively small size of the Marine Corps nor the fact that few black marines were enrolled could conceal the inefficiency of segregation. Over the next three years the personnel planning staff tried to find a solution to the problem of what it considered to be too many Negroes in the general service First it began to reduce gradually the number of black units accommodated in the Operating Force Plan. absorbing the excess black marines by increasing the number of stewards. This course was not without obvious public relations disadvantages, but they were offset somewhat by the fact that the Marine Corps,unlike the Navy, never employed a majority of its black recruits as stewards. In May 1948 the commandant approved new plans for a 10 percent decrease in the number of general duty assignments and a corresponding increase in spaces for stewards.8 The trend away from assigning Negroes to general service duty continued until the Korean War, and in October 1949 a statistical high point was reached when some 33 percent of all black marines were serving as stewards. The doctrine that all marines were potential infantrymen stood, but it was small comfort to civil rights activists who feared that what at best was a nominal black representation in the corps was being pushed into the kitchen

But they had little to fear since the number of Negroes that could be absorbed in the Steward's Branch was limited. In the end the Marine Corps still had to accommodate two-thirds of its black strength in general duty billets, a course with several unpalatable consequences. For one, Negroes would be assigned to new bases reluctant to accept them and near some communities where they would be unwelcome. For another, given the limitations in selfcontained units, there was the possibility of introducing some integration in the men s living or working arrangements. Certainly black billets would have to be created at the expense of white billets. The Director of Plans and Policies warned in August 1947 that the reorganization of the Fleet Marine Force, then under way, failed to allocate spaces for some 350 Negroes with general duty contracts.

While he anticipated some reduction in this number as a result of the campaign to attract volunteers for the Steward's Branch, he admitted that many would remain unassigned and beyond anticipating a reduction in the black "overage" through attrition, his office had no long-range plans for creating the needed spaces.9 When the attrition failed to materialize, the commandant was forced in December 1949 to redesignate 202 white billets for black marines with general duty contracts.10 The problem of finding restricted asssignments for black marines in the general service lasted until it was overtaken by the manpower demands of the Korean War. Meanwhile to the consternation of the civil rights advocates, as the corps' definition of "suitable" assignment became more exact, the variety of duties to which Negroes could be assigned seemed to decrease.11


Postwar quotas and assignments for Negroes did nothing to curb the black community's growing impatience with separate and limited opportunities, a fact brought home to Marine Corps recruiters when they tried to enlist the Negroes needed to fill their quota. At first it seemed the traditionalists would regain their all-white corps by default. The Marine Corps had ceased drafting men in November 1945 and launched instead an intensive recruiting campaign for regular marines from among the thousands of reservists about to be discharged and regulars whose enlistments would soon expire. Included in this group were some 17,000 Negroes frond among whom the corps planned to recruit its black contingent. To charges that it was discriminating in the enlistment of black civilians, the corps readily admitted that no new recruits were being accepted because preference was being given to men already in the corps.12 In truth, the black reservists were rejecting the blandishments of recruiters in overwhelming numbers. By May 1946 only 522 Negroes, less than a quarter of the small postwar black complement, had enlisted in the regular service.

The failure to attract recruits was particularly noticeable in the antiaircraft battalions. To obtain black replacements for these critically depleted units, the commandant authorized the recruitment of reservists who had served less than six months, but the measure failed to produce the necessary manpower. On 28 February 1946 the commanding general of Camp LeJeune reported that all but seven Negroes on his antiaircraft artillery roster were being processed for discharge.13 Since this list included the black noncommissioned instructors, the commander warned that future training of black marines would entail the use officers as instructors. The precipitous loss of black artillerymen forced Marine headquarters to assign white specialists as temporary replacements in the heavy antiaircraft artillery groups at Guam and Saipan, both designated as black units in the postwar organization. 14

It was not the fault of the black press if this expression of black indifferent went unnoticed. The failure of black marines to reenlist was the subject of many newspaper and journal articles. The reason for the phenomenon advanced by the Norfolk Journal and Guide would be repeated by civil rights spokesmen on numerous occasions in the era before integration. The paper declared the veterans remembered their wartime experiences and were convinced that the same distasteful practices would be continued after the war. 15 Marine Corps officials advanced different reasons. The Montford Point commander attributed slow enlistment rates to a general postwar letdown and lack of publicity, explaining that Montford Point "had an excellent athletic program, good chow and comfortable barracks." A staff member of the Division of Plans and Policies later prepared a lengthy analysis of the treatment the Marine Corps had received in the black press. He charged that the press had presented a distorted picture of conditions faced by blacks that had "agitated" the men and turned them against reenlistment. He recommended a public relations campaign at Montford Point to improve the corps' image. 16 But this analysis missed the point, for while the black press might influence civilians, it could hardly instruct Marine veterans. Probably more than any other factor, the wartime treatment of black marines explained the failure of the corps to attract qualified, let alone gifted, Negroes to its postwar junior enlisted ranks.

Considering the critical shortages, temporarily and "undesirably" made up for by white marines, and the "leisurely" rate at which black reservists were reenlisting, General Thomas recommended in May 1946 that the corps recruit some 1,120 Negroes from civilian sources. This, he explained to the commandant, would accelerate black enlistment but still save some spaces for black reservists.17 The commandant agreed,18 and contrary to the staff's expectations, most Negroes in the postwar service were new recruits. The mass departure of World War II veterans eloquently expressed the attitude of experienced black servicemen toward the Marines' racial policy.

The word spread quickly among the new black marines. When in mid-1947 the Division of Plans and Policies was looking for ways to reduce the number of black marines in keeping with the modified manpower ceiling, it discovered that if offered the opportunity about one-third of all Negroes would apply for discharge. An even higher percentage of discharge requests was expected from among black marines overseas. The commandant agreed to make the offer, except to the stewards, and in the next six months black strength dropped by 700 men. 19

Even the recruitment of stewards did not go according to predictions. Thomas had assured the commandant in the spring of 1946 that a concrete offer of steward duty to black reservists would produce the 300-man quota for the regular corps. He wanted the offer published at all separation centers and a paining program for stewards instituted at Camp LeJeune.20 General Vandegrift approved the proposal, but a month later the commander of Camp LeJeune reported that only three reservists and one regular had volunteered.21 He advised the commandant to authorize recruitment among qualified civilians. Faced with wholesale rejection of such duty by black marines, General Thomas in March 1947 opened the Steward's Branch to Negroes with previous military service in any of the armed forces and qualifications for such work.22 This ploy also proved a failure. Looking for 250 stewards, the recruiters could find but one acceptable applicant in the first weeks of the program. Retreating still further, the commandant canceled the requirement for previous military service in April, and in October dropped the requirement for "clearly established qualifications." 23 Apparently the staff would take a chance on any warm body.

In dropping the requirement for prior military service, the corps introduced a complication. Recruits for steward duty would be obliged to undergo basic paining and their enlistment contracts would read " general duty"; Navy regulations required that subsequent reclassification to "stewards duty only" status had to be made at the request of the recruit. In August 1947 three men enlisted under the first enlistment program for stewards refused to execute a change of enlistment contract after basic training.24 Although these men could have been discharged "for the good of the service," the commandant decided not to contest their right to remain in the general service. This action did not go unnoticed, and in subsequent months a number of men who signed up with the intention of becoming stewards refused to modify their enlistment contract while others, who already had changed their contract, suddenly began to fail the qualifying tests for stewards school.

The possibility of filling the quota became even more distant when in September 1947 the number of steward billets was increased to 380. Since only 57 stewards had signed up in the past twelve months, recruiters now had to find some 200 men, at least 44 per month for the immediate future. The commandant, furthermore, approved plans to increase the number of stewards to 420. In December the Plans and Policies Division, conceding defeat, recommended that the commandant arrange for the transfer of 175 men from the Navy's oversubscribed Steward's Branch. At the same time, to overcome what the division's new director, Brig. Gen. Ray A. Robinson, called "the onus attached to servant type duties," the commandant was induced to approve a plan making the rank and pay of stewards comparable to those of general duty personnel.25

These measures seemed to work. The success of the transfer program and the fact that first enlistments had finally begun to balance discharges led the recruiters to predict in March 1948 that their steward quota would soon be filled. Unfortunately, success tempted the planners to overreach themselves. Assured of a full steward quota, General Robinson recommended that approval be sought from the Secretary of the Navy to establish closed messes, along with the requisite steward billets, at the shore quarters for bachelor officers overseas.26 Approval brought another rise in the number of steward billets, this time to 580, and required a first-enlistment goal of twenty men per month.27 The new stewards, however, were not forthcoming. After three months of recruiting the corps had netted ten men, more than offset by trainees who failed to qualify for steward school. Concluding that the failures represented to a great extent a scheme to remain in general service and evade the ceiling on general enlistment, the planners wanted the men failing to qualify discharged "for the good of the service. " 28

The lack of recruits for steward duty and constant pressure by stewards for transfer to general duty troubled the Marine Corps throughout the postwar period. Reviewing the problem in December 1948, the commanding general of Camp LeJeune saw three causes: "agitation from civilian sources," which labeled steward duty degrading servant's work; lack of rapid promotion; and badgering from black marines on regular duty.29 But the commander's solution—a public relations campaign using black recruits to promote the attractions of steward duty along with a belated promise of more rapid promotion—failed. It ignored the central issue, the existence of a segregated branch in which black marines performed menial, nonmilitary duties.

Headquarters later resorted to other expedients. It obtained seventy-five more men from the Navy and lowered the qualification test standards for steward duty. But like earlier efforts, these steps also failed to produce enough men.30 Ironically, while the corps aroused the ire of the civil rights groups by maintaining a segregated servants' branch, it was never able to attract a sufficient number of stewards to fill its needs in the postwar period.

Many of the corps' critics saw in the buildup of the Steward's Branch the first step in are attempt to eliminate Negroes from the general service. If such a scheme had ever been contemplated, it was remarkably unsuccessful, for the corps would enter the Korean War with most of its Negroes still in the general service. Nevertheless, the apprehension of the civil rights advocates was understandable because during most of the postwar period enlistment in the general service was barred to Negroes or limited to a very small number of men. Closed to Negroes in early 1947, enlistment was briefly reopened at the rate of forty men per month later that year to provide the few hundred extra men called for in the reorganization of the Operating Force Plan.31 Enlistment was again opened in May 1948 when the recruiting office established a monthly quota for black recruits at ten men for general duty and eight for the Steward's Branch. The figure for stewards quickly rose to thirty per month, but effective 1 May 1949 the recruitment of Negroes for general service was closed.32

These rapid changes, indeed the whole pattern of black enlistment in the postwar Marine Corps, demonstrated that the staff's manpower practices were out of joint with the times. Not only did they invite attack from the increasingly vocal civil rights forces, but they also fostered a general distrust among black marines themselves and among those young Negroes the corps hoped to attract.

Segregation and Efficiency

The assignment policies and recruitment practices of the corps were the inevitable result of its segregation policy. Prejudice and discrimination no doubt aggravated-the situation, but the policy of separation limited the ways Negroes could be employed and places to which they might be assigned. Segregation explained, for example, why Negroes were traditionally employed in certain type of combat units, and why, when changing missions and manpower restrictions caused a reduction in the number of such units, Negroes were not given other combat assignments. Most Negroes with combat military occupational specialties served in defense battalions during World War II. These units, chiefly antiaircraft artillery, were self-contained and could therefore be segregated; at the same time they cloaked a large group of men with the dignity of a combat assignment. But what was possible during the war was no longer practical and efficient in the postwar period. Some antiaircraft artillery units survived the war, but they no longer operated as battalions and were divided instead into battery-size organizations that simply could not be segregated terms of support and recreational facilities. In fact, the corps found it impossible after the war to maintain segregation in any kind of combat unit.

Even if segregated service had been possible, the formation of all-black an aircraft artillery battalions would have been precluded by the need of this highly technical branch for so many kinds of trained specialists. Not only would separate training facilities for the few Negroes in the peacetime corps be impossibly expensive and inefficient, but not enough black recruits were eligible for such training. A wartime comparison of the General Classification Test a Mechanical Aptitude Test scores of the men in the 52d Defense Battalion with those of men in two comparable white units showed the Negroes averaging considerably lower than the whites.33 It was reasonable to expect this difference to continue since, on the whole, black recruits were scoring lower than their World War II counterparts.34 Under current policies, therefore, the Marine Corps sat little choice but to exclude Negroes from antiaircraft artillery and other combat units.

Obviously the corps had in its ranks some Negroes capable of performing any task required in an artillery battalion. Yet because the segregation policy demanded that there be enough qualified men to form and sustain a whole black battalion, the abilities of these high-scoring individuals were wasted. On the other hand, many billets in antiaircraft artillery or other types of combat battalions could be filled by men with low test scores, but less gifted black marines were excluded because they had to be assigned to one of the few black units. Segregation, in short, was doubly inefficient, it kept both able and inferior Negroes out of combat units that were perpetually short of men.

Segregation also promoted inefficiency in the placement of black Marine units. While the assignment of an integrated unit with a few black marines would probably go unnoticed in most naval districts—witness the experience of the Navy itself—the task of finding a naval district and an American community where a large segregated group of black marines could be peacefully assimilated was infinitely more difficult.

The original postwar racial program called for the assignment of black security units to the Marine Barracks at McAlester, Oklahoma, and Earle, New Jersey. Noting that the station was in a strict Jim Crow area where recreational facilities for Negroes were limited and distant, the commanding officer of the Marine Barracks at McAlester recommended that no Negroes be assigned. He reminded the commandant that guard duty required marines to question and apprehend white civilian employees, a fact that would add to the racial tension in the area. His conclusions, no doubt shared by commanders in many parts of the country, summed up the problem of finding assignments for black marines: any racial incident which might arise out of disregard for local racial custom, he wrote, would cause the Marine Corps to become involved by protecting such personnel as required by Federal law and Navy Regulations. It is believed that if one such potential incident occurred, it would seriously jeopardize the sending of the Marine Corps throughout the Southwest. To my way of thinking, the Marine Corps is nor now maintaining the high esteem of public opinion, or gaining in prestige, by the manner in which its uniform and insignia are subjected to such laws. The uniform does nor count it is relegated to the background and made to participate in and suffer the restrictions and limitations placed upon if by virtue of the wearer being subject to the Jim Crow laws.35

The commander of the McAlester ammunition depot endorsed this recommendation, adding that Oklahoma was a "border" state where the Negro was not accepted as in the north nor understood and tolerated as in the south. This argument moved the Director of Plans and Policies to recommend that McAlester be dropped and the black unit sent instead to Port Chicago, California.36 With the approval of the commandant and the Chief of Naval Operations, plans for the assignment were well under way in June 1947 when the commandant of the Twelfth Naval District intervened.37 The presence of a black unit, he declared, was undesirable in a predominantly white area that was experiencing almost constant labor turmoil. The possibility of clashes between white pickets and black guards would invite racial conflict. His warnings carried the day, and Port Chicago was dropped in favor of the Marine Barracks, Naval Shipyard, Brooklyn, New York, with station at Bayonne, New Jersey. At the same time, because of opposition from naval officials, the plan for assigning Negroes to Earle, New Jersey, was also dropped, and the commandant launched inquiries about the depots at Hingham, Massachusetts, and Fort Mifflin, Pennsylvania.38

Fort Mifflin agreed to take fifty black marines, but several officials objected to the proposed assignment to Hingham. The Marine commander, offering what he called his unbiased opinion in the best interests of the service, explained in considerable detail why he thought the assignment of Negroes would jeopardize the fire-fighting ability of the ammunition depot The commanding officer of the naval depot endorsed these reasons and added that assigning black marines to guard duty that included vehicle search would create a problem in industrial relations.39 The commandant of the First Naval District apparently discounted these arguments, but he too voted against the assignment of Negroes on the grounds that the Hingham area lacked a substantial black population, was largely composed of restricted residential neighborhoods. and was a major summer resort on which the presence of black units would have an adverse effect 40

The commander of the Naval Base, New York, meanwhile had refused to approve a plan to assign a black unit to Bayonne, New Jersey, and suggested that it be sent to Earle, New Jersey, instead because there the unit "presented fewer problems and difficulties than at any other Naval activity." The commander noted that stationing Negroes at Bayonne would necessitate a certain amount of integration in mess and ship service facilities. Bayonne was also reputed to have the toughest gate duty in the New York area and noncommissioned officers had to supervise a white civilian police force. At Earle, on the other hand, the facilities were completely separate, and although some complaints from well-to-do summer colonists in the vicinity could be expected, men could be bused to Newark or Jersey City for recreation. Moreover, Earle could absorb a 175-man unit. 41 But chief of the Navy's Bureau of Ordnance wanted to retain white marines at Earle because a recent decision to handle ammonium nitrate fertilizer there made it unwise to relieve the existing trained detachment. Earle was also using contract stevedores and expected to be using Army troops whose use of local facilities would preclude plans for a segregated barracks and mess.42

The commandant accepted these arguments and on 20 August 1947 revoked the assignment of a black unit to Earle. Still, with its ability to absorb 175 men

and its relative suitability in terms of separate living facilities, the depot remained a prime candidate for black units, and in November General Vandegrift reversed himself. The Chief of Naval Operations supported the commandant's decision over the renewed objections of the Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance.43 With Hingham, Massachusetts, ruled out, the commandant now considered the substitution of Marine barracks at Trinidad, British West Indies; Scotia, New York; and Oahu, Hawaii. He rejected Trinidad in favor of Oahu, and officials in Hawaii proved amenable.44

The chief of the Navy's Bureau of Supplies and Accounts objected to the use of black marines at the supply depot in Scotia, claiming that such an assignment to the Navy's sole installation in upper New York State would bring about a "weakening of the local public relations advantage now held by the Navy" and would be contrary to the Navy's best interests. He pointed out that the assignment would necessitate billeting white marine graves registration escorts and black marines in the same squad rooms. The use of black marines for firing squads at~unerals, he thought, would be "undesirable." He also pointed out that the local black population was small, making for extremely limited recreational and social opportunities.45 The idea of using Scotia with all these attendant inconveniences was quietly dropped, and the black marines were finally assigned to Earle, New Jersey; Fort Mifflin, Pennsylvania; and Oahu, Hawaii.

Approved on 8 November 1946, the postwar plan to assign black units to security guard assignments in the United States was not fully put into practice until 15 August 1948, almost two years later. This episode in the history of discrimination against Americans in uniform brought little glory to anyone involved and revealed much about the extent of race prejudice in American society. It was an indictment of people in areas as geographically diverse as Oklahoma, New York, Massachusetts, and New Jersey who objected to the assignment of black servicemen to their communities. It was also an indictment of a great many individual commanders, both in the Navy and Marine Corps, some perhaps for personal prejudices, others for so readily bowing to community prejudices. But most of all the blame must fall on the Marine Corps' policy of segregation. Segregation made it necessary to find assignments for a whole enlisted complement and placed an intolerable administrative burden on the corps. The dictum that black marines could not deal with white civilians especially in situations in which they would give orders, further limited assignments since such duties were routine in any security unit. Thus, bound to a policy that was neither just nor practical, the commandant spent almost two years trying to place four hundred men.

Despite the obvious inefficiency and discrimination involved, the commandant, General Vandegrift, adamantly defended the Marine segregation policy before Secretary of the Navy Forrestal. Wartime experience showed, he maintained, oblivious to overwhelming evidence to the contrary since 1943, "that the assignment of negro Marines to separate units promotes harmony and morale and fosters the competitive spirit essential to the development of a high

esprit."46 His stand was bound to antagonize the civil rights camp; the black press in particular trumpeted the theme that the corps was as full of race discrimination as it had been during the war.47

Toward Integration

But even as the commandant defended the segregation policy, the corps beginning to yield to pressure from outside forces and the demands of mill, efficiency. The first policy breach concerned black officers. Although a proposal for commissions had been rejected when the subject was first raised in 1944, three black candidates were accepted by the officer training school at Quantico in April 1945. One failed to qualify on physical and two on scholastic grounds, but they were followed by five other Negroes who were still in training on V-J day. One of this group, Frederick Branch of Charlotte, North Carolina, elected to stay in training through the demobilization period. He was commissioned with his classmates on 10 November 1945 and placed in the inactive reserve. Meanwhile, three Negroes in the V-12 program graduated and received commissions as second lieutenants In the inactive Marine Corps Reserve. Office training for all these men was integrated.48

The first Negro to obtain a regular commission in the Marine Corps was John E. Rudder of Paducah, Kentucky, a Marine veteran and graduate of the Naval Reserve Officers' Training Corps. Analyzing the case for the commandant in May 1948, the Director of Plans and Policies noted that the law did not require the Marine Corps to commission Rudder, but that he was only the first of several Negroes who would be applying for commissions in the next few years through the Naval Reserve Officers' Training Corps. Since the reserve corps program was a vital part of the plan to expand Marine Corps officer strength, rejecting a graduate on account of race, General Robinson warned, might jeopardize the entire plan. He thought that Rudder should be accepted for duty. Rudder was appointed a second lieutenant in the Regular Marine Corps on 28 Mav 1948 and ordered to Quantico for basic schooling.49 In 1949 Lieutenant Rudder resigned. Indicative of the changing civil rights scene was the apprehension shown by some Marine Corps officials about public reaction to the resignation. But although Rudder reported instances of discrimination at Quantico—stemming
for the most part from a lack of military courtesy that amounted to outright ostracism—he insisted his decision to resign was based on personal reasons and was irreversible. The Director of Public Information was anxious to release an official version of the resignation,
50 but other voices prevailed, and Rudder's exit from the corps was handled quietly both at headquarters and in the press. 51

The brief active career of one black officer was hardly evidence of a great racial reform, but it represented a significant breakthrough because it affirmed the practice of integrated officer training and established the right of Negroes to command. And Rudder was quickly followed by other black officer candidates, some of whom made careers in the corps. Rudder's appointment marked a permanent changed Marine Corps policy.

Enlistment of black women marked another change. Negroes had been excluded from the Women's Reserve during World War II, but in March 1949 A. Philip Randolph asked the commandant, in the name of the Committee Against Jim Crow in Military Service and Training, if black women could join the corps. The commandant's reply was short and direct: "If qualified for enlistment, negro women will be accepted on the same basis as other applicants."52 In September 1949 Annie N. Graham and Ann E. Lamb reported to Parris Island for integrated training and subsequent assignment.

Yet another racial change, in the active Marine Corps Reserve, could be traced to outside pressure. Until 1947 all black reservists were assigned to inactive and~npaid volunteer reserve status, and applications for transfer to active units were usually disapproved by commanding officers on grounds that such transfers would cost the unit a loss in whites. Rejections did nor halt applications, however, and in May 1947 the Director of Marine Corps Reserve decided to seek a-policy decision. While he wanted each commander of an active unit left free to decide whether he would rake Negroes, the director also wanted units with black enlisted men formed in the organized reserve, all-black voluntary training units recognized, and integrated active duty training provided for reservists.53 A group of Negroes in Chicago had already applied for the formation of a black voluntary training unit.

General Thomas, director of Plans and Policies, was not prepared to go the whole way. He agreed that within certain limitations the local command should decide on the integration of black reservists into an active unit, and he accepted integrated active duty training. But he rejected the formation of black units In the organized reserve and the voluntary training program; the latter because it would "inevitably lead to the necessity for Negro officers and authorizing drill pay" in order to avoid charges of discrimination. Although Thomas failed to explain why black officers and drill pay were unacceptable how rejecting the program would save the corps from charges of discrimination his recommendations were approved by the commandant over the objection of the Reserve Division.54 But the Director of Reserves rejoined that volunteer training units were organized under corps regulations, the Chicago group had met all the specifications, and the corps would be subject to just criticism if it refused to form the unit. On the other hand, by permitting the formation of some all-black volunteer units, the corps might satisfy the wish of Negroes to be a part of the reserve and thus avoid any concerted attempt to get the corps to form all-black units in the organized reserve.55

At this point the Division of Plans and Policies offered to compromise General Robinson recommended that when the number of volunteers so warranted, the corps should form black units of company size or greater, either separate or organic to larger reserve units around the country. He remained opposed to integrated units, explaining that experience proved—he neglected to mention what experience, certainly none in the Marine Corps—that integrated units served neither the best interests of the individual nor the corps.56 While the commandant's subsequent approval set the stage for the formation of racially composite units in the reserve, the stipulation that the black element be of company size or larger effectively limited the degree of reform.

The development of composite units in the reserve paralleled a far more significant development in the active forces. In 1947 the Marine Corps began organizing such units along the lines established in the postwar Army. Like the Army, the corps discovered that maintaining a quota—even when the quota for the corps meant maintaining a minimum number of Negroes in the service—in a period of shrinking manpower resources necessitated the creation of new billets for Negroes. At the same time it was obviously inefficient to assign combat-trained Negroes, now surplus with the inactivation of the black defense battalions, to black service and supply units when the Fleet Marine Force battalions were so seriously understrength. Thus the strictures against integration notwithstanding, the corps was forced to begin attaching black units to the depleted Fleet Marine Force units. In January 1947, for example, members of Headquarters Unit, Montford Point Camp. and men of the inactivated 3d Antiaircraft Artillery Battalion were transferred to Camp Geiger, North Carolina, and assigned to the all-black 2d Medium Depot Company, which, along with eight white units, was organized into the racially composite 2d Combat Service Group in the 2d Marine Division.57 Although the units of the group ate in separate mess halls and slept in separate barracks, inevitably the men of all units used some facilities in common. After Negroes were assigned to Camp Geiger, for instance, recreational facilities were open to all. In some isolated cases, black noncommissioned officers were assigned to lead racially mixed details in the composite group.58

But these reforms, which did very little for a very few men, scarcely dented the Marine Corps' racial policy. Corps officials were still firmly committed to strict segregation in 1948, and change seemed very distant. Any substantial modification in racial policy would require a revolution against Marine tradition, a movement dictated by higher civilian authority or touched off by an overwhelming military need.



Historical advisor Byron Stewart PhD


Search this site powered by FreeFind