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

Returning Home

Hostilities against Japan ended on 15 August 1945, and four days later, the 52d Defense Battalion at Guam began a transition from combat unit to support organization. The change received official confirmation on 30 September when the battalion came under the 5th Service Depot, which also controlled the black ammunition and depot companies still on the island. A detachment from the 52d sailed to the Marshalls in October, relieved the 51st Defense Battalion at Eniwetok and Kwajalein, and returned to Guam in January. Some of the Marines not yet eligible for discharge cast off the role of depot troops and formed the Heavy Anti aircraft Group (Provisional), based at Saipan until disbanded in February 1947. The Marines of the 52d Defense Battalion, who remained on Guam after the group departed for Saipan, sailed for San Diego in the transport USS Wakefield (AP 21) on 13 March 1946. As a rule, the Marine Corps discharged on the West Coast the men with homes west of the Mississippi River, while those living to the east of the river received their discharges on the East Coast. The men of the 52d Defense Battalion not discharged at Camp Pendleton returned to Montford Point, where Lieutenant Colonel Moore relinquished command on 21 April. The end came on 15 May when the wartime unit was redesignated the 3d Antiaircraft Artillery Battalion in the postwar Marine Corps.

12th Marine Ammunition Company
Men of the 12th Marine Ammunition Company pose at a monument overrun during the Okinawa campaign, in which some 2,000 black Marines participated. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 117624

After the unit's relief in November 1945 by African-American Marines from the 52d Defense Battalion, the bulk of the 51st Defense Battalion sailed from Eniwetok to San Diego and then went to Camp Pendleton, California, where some of the men with long service overseas received their discharges. The members of the Eniwetok detachment not yet discharged traveled by train to Montford Point where they met the Kwajalein group, which had arrived by sea at Norfolk. On 31 January 1946, the first African-American combat unit organized by the Marine Corps for service in World War II officially disbanded.

Along with the two defense battalions, the ammunition and depot units headed home from the Pacific and the Far East. Scarcely had the African-American combat service companies arrived in Japan for occupation duty when they became part of the postwar demobilization, either disbanding in place, transferring to Guam, or, in the case of the 10th Marine Ammunition Company, returning by way of San Diego to Montford Point and disbanding there. Except for a few stewards, the last black Marines left Japan in April 1946.

Unfinished Business

Although African-American enlisted men earned acceptance on the battlefields of the war against Japan, the Marine Corps did not commission even one black officer in the course of the conflict. The black press showed enthusiasm from the outset for the men of Montford Point, but complained about the absence of African-American officers. "18,000 colored Marines;' editorialized the Baltimore Afro-American, "but not one colored officer." At last, early in 1945, three senior black noncommissioned officers entered officer training at Quantico, Virginia, but not even one graduated, a failure rate that, in the words of "Hashmark" Johnson, raised "a number of questions" among Montford Point Marines and caused "quite a bit of consternation." These concerns may well have been justified, since all three of the men went on to successful careers as civilians: Sergeant Major Charles F. Anderson as an attorney; Sergeant Major Charles W. Simmons as a college professor and author; and First Sergeant George F. Ellis, Jr., as a physician. Three more African-American officer candidates failed to win commissions, and not until 10 November 1945, the birthday of the Marines, did the Corps commission the first black officer in its history. On that day, Frederick C. Branch, a veteran of the 51st Defense Battalion, became a Second Lieutenant in the Reserve.

Unlike the Army and Navy, the Marine Corps barred blacks from its war time Women Reserves. In adopting this ban, it could cite the expense of building segregated quarters and the fact that enough white applicants were available to maintain the organization at authorized strength. The first African-American to join the Women Reserves, Annie E. Graham, did not enlist until September 1949, four years after Japan's formal surrender.

As part of the reduction of Marine Corps strength in Japan, the 8th Marine Ammunition Company and 33d, 34th, and 36th Marine Depot Companies joined the 5th Service Depot (formerly the 5th Field Depot) at Guam, where other African-American Marine units already served. The disbanding of the black units on Guam began on 31 October 1945 with the 4th Depot Company and ended with the 8th Ammunition Company and 49th Depot Company on 30 September 1947.

The postwar reduction of strength affected the black units in North China, as it did those in Japan. The 5th and 20th Depot and 1st Ammunition Companies left China in January 1946, passed through San Diego and Camp Pendleton, and disbanded on 21 February at Montford Point. On 2 March, the other African-American units sent to North China sailed eastward across the Pacific The 12th Marine Ammunition Company paused at Pearl Harbor to transfer to the 6th Service Depot those men not yet eligible for discharge. The company s veterans, however, arrived at Montford Point in time for their unit to disband on 5 April, three days after the 37th and 38th Depot Companies had ceased to exist.

The 6th Service Depot (originally the 6th Base Depot) had functioned in Hawaii throughout the Central Pacific offensive, and since 1944 it included a succession of ammunition and depot companies manned by African-American Marines. While the fighting raged, the men of these units had worked 12-hour shifts to channel supplies to the Marines closing in on Japan. The coming of peace changed all that. By mid-summer 1946, only the 47th Marine Depot Company and one platoon of the Guam-based 8th Ammunition Company remained on the island of Oahu. The depot outfit disbanded on 31 October 1946, and in November, the platoon sailed to Guam, where its was absorbed into its parent company, which disbanded at the end of September 1947.

Branch with wife
On 10 November 1945, Frederick C. Branch, the first African-American ever commissioned in the Marine Corps, and a veteran of the 51st Defense Battalion, smiles proudly as his wife pins the gold bars of a second lieutenant on his uniform. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 500043

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division