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

Change Comes to the Marine Corps

On 25 May 1942 the Commandant of the Marine Corps issued formal instructions to begin on 1 June to recruit qualified "colored male citizens of the United States between the ages of 17 and 29, inclusive, for service in a combat organization." Given the nature of American society in 1942, that organization would be racially segregated, the blacks in the ranks being commanded by whites. Those black volunteers whom the Marine Corps accepted would, as most wartime white recruits, enter the reserve for the duration of the war plus six months, but their active duty would be delayed until the completion of a segregated training camp, scheduled for 25 July. Some of the new recruits would serve as specialists, everything from cooks to clerks, who would see to the day-to-day operation of a racially exclusive training camp.

painting of African-American soldiers with Gen Washington
A black American served with the Marines when Gen George Washington fought the Battle of Princeton in January 1777. Painting by Col Charles H. Waterhouse, USMCR (Ret.)

The task of forming and training even one battalion of African-Americans seemed a formidable challenge, for it involved giving raw recruits their basic skills, further honing the fighting edge, and finally creating a combat team. General Ray A. Robinson, in 1942 a colonel in charge of the Personnel Section, Division of Plans and Policies, at Marine Corps headquarters, confessed during an interview in 1968 that the admission of blacks "just scared us to death." Although the draft did not become the normal source of recruits for all the services until December 1942, and the first draftees did not enter the Marine Corps until January 1943, Robinson sought help from the Selective Service System, where a black officer of the Army Reserve, Lieutenant Colonel Campbell C. Johnson, had been called to active duty as an administrator. Johnson indicated that he would do what he could and joked about passing the word that Marines die young, so that only those African-Americans willing to risk their lives would join. Robinson acknowledged that the Corps "got some awfully good Negroes" over the years and believed that Johnson was at least partly responsible.

Despite Johnson's interest in the black Marines, the Corps had to rely throughout 1942 on volunteers, and recruiting proved sluggish. By mid-June, only 63 African-Americans had enlisted and recruiters were becoming desperate, since the training camp for blacks neared completion. This lack of immediate results reflected the fact that the Marine Corps, after excluding African-Americans since the American Revolution, was attempting to sign up recruits in a black community that had no tradition of service as Leathernecks. Recruiters found it especially difficult to sign up the truck drivers, cooks, and typists to support the battalion, even though black educators assured the Marine Corps that an adequate pool of such specialists existed. When a recruiter in Boston told Obie Hall that he could enter the Marine Corps immediately if he had the right specialty, Hall said he was a truck driver. Although he "no more could drive a truck than the man in the moon," he wanted to go and had no hope of passing himself off as a cook or typist.

The number of African-Americans who shared Hall's enthusiasm slowly increased. Some of those who joined up looked on serving in the Marine Corps as an opportunity denied blacks for a century and a half. Others saw this service as a personal challenge. By the end of September, about half of the 1,200 recruits needed to man the battalion and render administrative, housekeeping, and transportation support had enlisted. The Presidential decision on 1 December 1942 to make the Selective Service System the normal source of recruits for all the services ensured that, beginning in January 1943, 1,000 African-Americans would enter the Marine Corps each month. This influx resulted from the fact that the draft law prohibited racial discrimination in its administration; in practical terms, this meant that the Army and Navy could establish quotas for black recruits but not arbitrarily exclude them.

Cpl Edgar R. Huff drills a platoon of recruits at the Montford Point Camp. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in June 1942. Huff became a legend among the Marines who were trained here. He retired in 1972 as a sergeant major at New River. National Archives Photo 127-N-5337

While preparing to absorb the African-Americans provided by the Selective Service System, the Marine Corps reaffirmed its commitment to racial segregation, but it proposed to carry out this policy without channeling blacks into meaningless assignments that had little to do with winning the war. Lacking recent experience with blacks, the Marines sought to profit from the example of the Army, which avoided placing blacks in charge of whites. Applying this lesson, General Holcomb in March 1943 issued Letter of Instruction 421, which declared it "essential that in no case shall there be colored noncommissioned officers senior to white men in the same unit, and desirable that few, if any, be of the same rank." LOI 421 was a classified document and did not become public during the war, but the African-American Marine who could not earn promotion because a white noncommissioned officer blocked his path immediately felt its impact. To remove this racial roadblock while adhering to the policy of segregation, white noncommissioned officers would be removed as promptly and completely as feasible from the newly organized black units, forcing the Marine Corps to create in a matter of months a fully functioning cadre of black sergeants and corporals.

At best, the Commandant had mixed feelings about the black recruits whom the Roosevelt administration had forced on him. "All Marines," he proclaimed, "are entitled to the same rights and privileges under Navy Regulations," but even as he announced this idealistic principle, he felt compelled to remind the African-Americans that they should "conduct themselves with propriety and become a real credit to the Corps" and to require periodic reports on their status. The black Marines clearly faced a struggle for acceptance within the Corps before they got the opportunity to fight the Japanese.

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division