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 52d Defense Battalion

The second of the two African American defense battalions took shape beginning on 15 December 1943 and rested firmly on a foundation supplied by the first. Colonel Augustus W. Cockrell, commanding officer of the 52d Defense Battalion, benefited from the cadre of 400 officers and men transferred from Colonel Stephenson's 51st Defense Battalion before it left Montford Point. These men, familiar with equipment and procedures after three to six months with the 51st, enabled the 52d to avoid using on-the-job trainees as technicians and rapidly promoting men fresh from boot camp.

Like Woods, Stephenson, and LeGette, Cockrell was a Southerner, a native of Florida. He had enlisted in the Marines in 1918 and received a commission four years later. He had recently returned from the South Pacific, where he commanded the 2d and 8th Defense Battalions in Samoa and on Wallis Island. As time passed, Cockrell apparently won the affection of his noncommissioned officers, who respectfully called him "Old Gus," though not within his hearing.

In February 1944, the 52d Defense Battalion moved into the old CCC barracks at Camp Knox, which the last of Stephenson's men had just vacated. The 7th Separate Pack Howitzer Battery, organized originally as a component of the 51st Defense Battalion according to since-rescinded tables of organization, disbanded in March 1944, and the men joined Cockrell's command, providing an other infusion of experience. A change to the tables of organization and equipment deprived the battalion in June 1944 of its seacoast artillery. Men from that component transferred to the Heavy Antiaircraft Group and formed a fourth 90mm battery. At the same time, the Light Antiaircraft Group (formerly the Special Weapons Group) substituted 40mm guns for its lighter weapons.

tranining exercise
Black Marines practice climbing down a cargo net rigged in the swimming pool at Montford Point, developing an essential skill for amphibious warfare operations. National Archives Photo 127-N-8725

The command structure of both the battalion and the Montford Point Camp underwent change during July. Lieutenant Colonel Joseph W. Earnshaw, a native of Kansas and a graduate of the Naval Academy, arrived after duty at the Navy's Bureau of Ordnance in Washington, D.C., and took over the 52d Defense Battalion. Cockrell thereupon reported to camp headquarters as the designated replacement for Colonel Woods.

The first task that Earnshaw faced was a move to the Pacific Coast. The 52d Defense Battalion, instead of loading its heavy gear on trains as the 51st had done, turned in its trucks, antiaircraft guns, and other such equipment and divided into two groups. Earnshaw commanded one and entrusted the other to his executive officer, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas C. Moore, Jr., who hailed from Georgia and had commanded the 3d Defense Battalion on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. The two contingents traveled on the same train to Camp Pendleton, California, to make final preparations for deployment to the islands of the Pacific.

The battalion arrived at Camp Pendleton on 24 August 1944, and on 21 September both components boarded the attack transport USS Winged Arrow (AP 170), which brought them to Pearl Harbor and thence to the Marshall Islands, where they took over from antiaircraft units already in place. One half of the divided battalion, the part that Moore led, landed at Majuro Atoll to protect Marine Aircraft Group 13 based there. The other, under Earnshaw, helped defend Roi and the adjacent island of Namur in Kwajalein Atoll, where Marine Aircraft Group 31 was located. For six months, October 1944 to March 1945, the battalion guarded against possible forays by increasingly feeble Japanese air power and, at Majuro, formed reconnaissance parties that boarded landing craft to search the smaller islands for Japanese and remove the natives from harm's way.

Johnson with mascot (dog)
"Hashmark" Johnson, shown posing with the mascot of the Montford Point Camp, became sergeant major of the 52d Defense Battalion on Guam in July 1945.

Lieutenant Colonel David W. Silvey, who had reported to Montford Point in May 1944 from the 6th Defense Battalion at Midway Island, replaced Earnshaw at Kwajalein on 10 January 1945. When the two halves of the battalion reunited on the recaptured island of Guam on 4 May 1945, Moore, who was senior to Silvey, assumed command. At Guam, the unit formed a part of the island's garrison.

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division