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

The 51st Defense Battalion at War

Because they were replacing the 7th Defense Battalion, LeGette's former command, already established in the Ellice group, the black Marines turned in all the heavy equipment they had brought with them from Montford Point and boarded the merchantman SS Meteor, which sailed from San Diego on 11 February 1944. Less than a month had elapsed since the last train left North Carolina on the first leg of the journey to war. While Meteor steamed toward the Ellice Islands, the 51st Defense Battalion divided into two components. Detachment A, led by Lieutenant Colonel Gould P. Groves, the executive officer, would garrison Nanomea Island, while the rest of the battalion, under Colonel LeGette, manned the defenses of Funafuti and nearby Nukufetau. By 27 February, the 51st completed the relief of the 7th Defense Battalion, taking over the white unit's weapons and equipment. One of the African-American Marines, upon first experiencing the isolation that surrounded him, suggested that the departing whites "were never so glad to see black people in their lives." A flurry of action briefly dispelled the feeling of loneliness. On 28 March, crews of the 155mm guns at Nanomea responded to the report of a prowling submarine by firing 11 rounds, but the Japanese craft, if actually present escaped unscathed.

51st Defense Battalion gun crew
A gun crew of the 51st Defense Battalion trains for overseas deployment. National Archives Photo 127-N-9507

The Death March

Fraser Road would figure in one of the legends of Montford Point, the so-called Death March. One of the black Marines living in the ramshackle barracks formerly occupied by the Civilian Conservation Corps grew bored and used his bayonet to punch a hole in a wall, which had all the durability of cardboard. The noncommissioned officers questioned the men, who refused to identify the person guilty of the vandalism. As a result, the sergeants staged a nighttime forced march — the Death March in the lore of the Montford Point Marines — but this failed to elicit the name they sought. According to one account, when the column reached the site of the brig on Fraser Road, the black Marines decided that to go further would dishonor the memory of a dead comrade, Corporal Gilbert Fraser, Jr., who was killed in a training accident. They broke ranks, rushed the brig, and demanded to be arrested — or so the legend states. Since the number of potential prisoners would have been far too many for the structure to accommodate — they were "hanging out the windows," one of the black Marines has declared — the non-commissioned officers marched them back to the huts. Whatever the details, the incident became the source of pride and further intensified the solidarity among Montford Point's African-American Marines.

Colonel LeGette, who maintained his headquarters at Funafuti, received a letter from the Commandant of the Marine Corps calling attention to the poor condition of the trucks and weapons his battalion had left behind in California. This chilling message tended to confirm LeGette's reservations about the unit. His concerns focused on administrative procedures and the maintenance of equipment, activities that required close supervision by experienced noncommissioned officers, who were scarce in the unit. The battalion commander sought to fix the blame for the shortcomings that had been revealed and to correct them.

(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

To fix responsibility LeGette convened a board of investigation that condemned his predecessor for failing to whip the battalion into shape and recommended a trial by courtmartial, but Stephenson responded with a spirited rejoinder that fore stalled legal action. Most of the problems that troubled LeGette stemmed from something over which Stephenson had no control — the absence of a cadre of veteran black noncommissioned officers, itself the result of racial segregation and the exclusion of African-Americans from the prewar Marine Corps. Despite his successor's complaints, Stephenson considered the 51st Defense Battalion "the finest organization in the whole Negro program in the Marine Corps." Since the men of the unit did not know the details of the controversy involving the two commanders, morale remained high.

The Route West

The 51st Defense Battalion's move across a segregated America began with a confrontation in Atlanta, Georgia, where one of the trains stopped so the men could have breakfast. Unaware of the layout of the Jim Crow railroad station, the noncommissioned officers moved the black Marines into a waiting room reserved for whites, only to be halted by white military police determined to uphold local law. The African-Americans stood ready to push their way through, but the train commander arrived, conferred with the officer in charge of the MPs, and prevented a tense situation from turning violent.

Elsewhere, the move to the West Coast went more smoothly. During a rest stop at Big Springs, Texas, one of the officers warned that this was Jim Crow country and urged the black Marines to be careful. They swarmed over the small town, however, and encountered no open hostility, obtaining service at the soda fountain or shooting pool at the facilities maintained for troops whose trains stopped at Big Springs. Further west, during a two-hour layover at Yuma, Arizona, Red Cross volunteers distributed candy, ice cream, fruit, magazines, and Bibles. One of the African-Americans, John R. Griffin, got the impression that "the entire city, including the Mexicans and Indians, came to the station to see the first Negro Defense Battalion go overseas."

At Camp Elliott, California, where the battalion made its final preparations for deployment to the Pacific, the racial climate more closely resembled Atlanta than Yuma or Big Springs. At an open-air movie, Jim Crow seating prevailed and the black Marines were ordered to the rear of the natural amphitheater that served as a theater. A spontaneous protest resulted in the expulsion of the men of the 51st, whose anger still boiled when they arrived at the battalion area. Stephenson tried to make up for the mistreatment of his Marines by liberally granting passes so they could find entertainment in nearby San Diego.

LeGette proposed a course of action to correct the flaws he had perceived. His remedy, however, included measures rendered impossible because of the demands of other units for officers and the policy of maintaining segregation in the enlisted force. He would have increased the number of white officers and warrant officers assigned to the unit and avoided the "occupational neurosis" resulting from service with blacks by replacing those officers who desired to leave the battalion. He further recommended the replacement of enlisted men in Categories IV and V with individuals who had scored better in the classification tests, a goal that could have been achieved only by raiding other black units.

The 51st Defense Battalion remained in the Ellice Islands roughly six months. When the black Marines received orders to depart, they carefully cleaned and checked the equipment inherited from the 7th Defense Battalion before turning everything over to the white 10th Defense Battalion. LeGette's unit set sail on 8 September 1944 for Eniwetok Atoll, a vast anchorage kept under sporadic surveillance, and occasionally harassed, by Japanese aircraft. The battalion stood ready to meet this threat from the skies, since it had reorganized two months earlier as an antiaircraft unit, losing its 155mm guns but adding a fourth 90mm battery and exchanging its machine guns and 20mm weapons for a second 40mm battery. The restructured unit kept its searchlights and radar. While the black Marines manned positions on four of the atoll's islands, Colonel LeGette on 13 December handed over the battalion to Lieutenant Colonel Groves. A member of the unit, Herman Darden, Jr., remembered that the departing commander "took us out on dress parade before he left, and stood there with tears in his eyes and told us . . ., 'You have shown me that you can soldier with the best of 'em.'"

The possibility of action lingered into 1945, kept alive by a report of marauding submarines and the possibility of aerial attack. One night, while the men of the 90mm antiaircraft group were watching a movie, the film abruptly stopped. Condition Red; Japanese aircraft were on the way. "I never saw such jubilation in my life," recalled Darden, "for every one responded eagerly. A Marine on a working party unloading ammunition might grumble about lifting a single 90mm round, but with combat seemingly minutes away, men were running around with one under each arm." By dawn, the alert had ended; not even one Japanese aircraft tested the battalions gun crews. "And from that high point on," Darden said, "the mental attitude seemed to dwindle."

Routine settled over Eniwetok, enveloping the unit that Groves now commanded. As one of its sergeants phrased it, "routine got boresome," punctuated only by the occasional crash or forced landing by American planes. A major change occurred on 12 June 1945, when the battalion commander formed a 251-man composite group, under Major William M. Tracy, for duty at Kwajalein Atoll. Two days later, the group — consisting of a battery of 90mm guns, a 40mm platoon, and four search light sections — boarded an LST for the voyage. The contingent saw no combat at Kwajalein, nor did the remainder of the battalion at Eniwetok.

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division