Marines in World War II Commemorative Series
Basic Racial Policy
Change Comes to the Marine Corps
Face-to-Face with Segregation
Starting from Scratch
Building the 51st Defense Battalion
The 51st Battalion at War
The 52nd Defense Battalion
Combat Service Support
Seizing the Marianas Islands, Sapain, Tinian, and Guam
Peleliu and Iwo Jima
Okinawa, Japan, and China
Returning Home
Pride Mixed with Bitterness
The 'Great White Father'
Gilbert H. Johnson
Edgar R. Huff
Special Subjects
African-Americans and the Marines
The Stewards' Branch
The Death March
The Route West
Mop-up on Guam
The Third Battle of Guam
Unfinished Business

THE RIGHT TO FIGHT: African-American Marines in World War II
by Bernard C. Nalty

Peleliu and Iwo Jima

When the 1st Marine Division, on 15 September 1944, attacked the heavily defended island of Peleliu in the Palau group, the 16th Field Depot supported the assault troops. The field depot included two African-American units, the 11th Marine Depot Company and the 7th Marine Ammunition Company. The 11th Marine Depot Company responded beyond the call of duty and paid the price, 17 wounded, the highest casualty rate of any company of African-American Marines during the entire war. Major General William H. Rupertus, who commanded the 1st Marine Division, sent identical letters of commendation to the commanders of both companies, praising the black Marines for their "whole hearted cooperation and untiring efforts" which "demonstrated in every respect" that they "appreciate the privilege of wearing a Marine uniform and serving with Marines in combat."

Black combat support units also took part in the assault on Iwo Jima, where, as at Peleliu, their presence confounded the policy of segregation. Because of the random intermingling of white and black units, an African-American Marine, carrying a box of supplies, dived into a shell hole occupied by white Marines, one of whom gave him a cigarette before he scrambled out with his load and ran forward. Here, too, black stewards and members of the depot and ammunition companies came to the aid of the wounded. A white Marine, Robert F. Graf, who lay in a tent awaiting evacuation for further medical treatment, remembered that: "Two black Marines . . . ever so gently . . . placed me on a stretcher and carried me outside to a waiting DUKW."

At Iwo Jima, the 8th Marine Ammunition Company and the 33d, 34th, and 36th Marine Depot Companies served as part of the shore party of the V Amphibious Corps. Elements of the ammunition company and the 36th Depot Company landed on D-Day, 19 February 1945, and within three days all the units were ashore, braving Japanese fire as they struggled in the volcanic sand to unload and stockpile ammunition and other supplies, and move the car go inland. Eleven black enlisted Marines and one of the white officers were wounded, two of the enlisted men fatally.

The Third Battle of Guam

Some six months after the invasion of the Mariana Islands, violence shook the conquered island of Guam for the third time in the course of the war. The first battle of Guam took place on 10 December 1941, when the Japanese overwhelmed the almost defenseless American possession. During the second, Marines and Army troops landed on 21 July 1944 and recpatured the island. The third battle erupted in December 1944 between Americans, black and white, and culminated in a riot on Christmas night.

This third battle began with an attempt by whites of the 3d Marine Division, some of them replacements new to the unit, to prevent blacks, most of them sailors, from visiting the town of Agana and the women who lived there. A black marine stationed on the island compared Guam to "a city deep down in the South" because of the hostility he encountered. "But as well all known," he explained, "where there are women and white and Negro men, you will find discrimination in large quantities." On Guam, discrimination against blacks involved attempted intimidation by whites who shouted insults, threw rocks, and occasionally hurled smoke grenades from passing trucks into the cantonment area for black sailors of the Naval Supply Depot.

By mid-December, the island's Provost Marshal, Marine Colonel Benjamin A. Atkinson, considered the situation so dangerous that he urged his commander, Major General Henry L. Larsen, to take action. Larsen, whose casual remarks at Montford Point, including the reference to "you people in our uniform," had become a legend among the black Marines, responded with an order that sought to unite the races. Using carefully chose words, the general wrote that:

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 becomes Americans.

Larsen believed in the principles he thus enunciated and, as a subsequent investigation concluded, intended to put them into effect, but his words came too late. In a series of violent incidents, an off-duty white military policeman fired at some blacks in Agana but hit no one; a white sailor shot to death a black Marine of the 25th Depot Company in a quarrel over a woman; and a sentry from the 27th Marine Depot Company reacted to harassment by fatally wounding his tormentor, a white Marine. Courts-martial eventually convicted the men who fired the fatal shots of voluntary manslaughter, but before justice could prevail, a misunderstanding led to a race riot.

A rumor that the black victim had been a sailor killed by a white Marine, spread unchallenged among the African-Americans of the Naval Supply Depot. Some of them commandeered two trucks and drove into Agana seeking revenge, but Marine military police succeeded in defusing the situation. On Christmas night, however, 43 black sailors armed themselves with knives and clubs and invaded a camp that housed white Marines. The ensuring riot resulted in the arrest of the black sailors who carried out the attack.

General Larsen convened a court of inquiry, which took testimony for an entire month. As president, he selected Colonel Woods, for former commanding officer at Montford Point, who happened to be serving on Guam. Walter White, Secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was on a fact-finding tour of the Pacific theater and participated in the proceedings. His piecing together of a pattern of pervasive racial harassment — unofficial, spontaneous, but nonetheless cruel — may have helped bring about convictions, not of the black rioters alone, but also of some of the whites who tormented them.

The depot companies landed cargo attached by steel straps to wooden pallets to simplify stowage in cargo holds and unloading at the objective. Unfortunately, the black Marines had no tools, like bolt-cutters, that could easily sever the metal. An officer of one of the companies recalls that his men had to break the straps by hacking and twisting with their bayonets.

The hard-fought advance inland eased the pressure on rear-area installations but did not eliminate the danger to combat service support troops like the men of the 8th Marine Ammunition Company. On 1 March, for example, Japanese mortar shells started a fire in the ammunition dump operated by the company, but Second Lieutenant John D'Angelo and several black Marines, among them Corporal Ralph Balara, shoveled sand onto the flames and extinguished them. During darkness on the following morning, another enemy barrage struck the dump, this time detonating a bunker filled with high-explosive and white-phosphorous shells. The exploding ammunition started fires throughout the dump, generating heat so intense that it forced D'Angelo and his platoon to fall back and warped the steel barrel of a carbine they left behind. Not until the conflagration had burned itself out, could the platoon begin the dangerous job of extinguishing the embers and salvaging any usable ammunition. Sergeant Tom McPhatter — an African-American noncommissioned officer, who after the war became a clergyman and a Navy chaplain, attaining the rank of captain — helped search the ruins of the dump. On 4 March, D'Angelo's platoon braved sniper fire at a captured airfield to retrieve an emergency load of ammunition dropped by parachute to replace what the blaze had consumed.

On the early morning of 26 March, 10 days after Iwo Jima was declared secure, the Japanese made a final attack that penetrated to the rear area units near Iwo Jima's western beaches, including the 8th Ammunition and 36th Marine Depot Companies. The black Marines helped stop the enemy in a confused struggle during darkness and mop up the survivors at daybreak. Two members of the 36th Company — Privates James M. Whitlock and James Davis — earned the Bronze Star for "heroic achievement." One Marine from the depot company and another from the ammunition company were fatally wounded, but four others, two from each unit, survived their wounds. The African-American companies that fought at Iwo Jima shared in the Navy Unit Citation awarded the support units of V Amphibious Corps.

Marines pose with Army DUKW amphibious trucks
Black Marines pose with one of the Army DUKW amphibious trucks used to bring cargo ashore and carry away the wounded for medical treatment to ships offshore. National Archives Photo 127-GW-334-114329

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division