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

Combat Service Support

By the spring of 1943, the Marine Corps discovered a need for full-time stevedores within the logistics system that channeled supplies from factories and warehouses in the United States, through rear area and forward support bases, over the beaches, to the Marines fighting their way inland. To provide the missing segment of the supply line, the Marine Corps organized two kinds of units, depot companies and ammunition companies. Their comparatively compact size — companies rather than battalions — meant that the new organizations could be formed and trained rapidly and deployed in numbers that corresponded to the size of the amphibious forces being supported.

According to Edgar Huff, whose wartime assignments included first sergeant of a depot company, the new units consisted largely of recruits who had just returned from the rifle range. He conceded, however, that "all they needed was a strong back . . . to load and unload ships and haul ammunition to the line for the fighting troops"; further training might vary from a few weeks for the depot companies to a couple of months for the ammunition outfits. Black Marines assigned to the ammunition companies — in part, perhaps, because of the longer training and the danger inherent in handling explosives — tended to develop noticeably higher morale, along with sound discipline and a strong sense of purpose.

White officers led both kinds of units, with black noncommissioned officers ultimately taking over in the depot companies from first sergeant downward. In contrast, the ammunition companies had white noncommissioned officers down to the level of buck sergeant. The fuzes and shells handled by the ammunition companies required noncommissioned officers with technical knowledge and the ability to use this knowledge in enforcing safety rules, but in the midst of war the Marine Corps felt it did not have time to train inexperienced blacks for these duties and relied instead on previously trained whites. Because Marine Corps policy forbade a black platoon sergeant, for example, from giving orders to a junior noncommissioned officer who was white, the highest ranking African-American in an ammunition company could be only a buck sergeant, while the senior enlisted ranks remained exclusively white. The mess sergeant, who had no white cooks working for him, enjoyed the status of a staff noncommissioned officer, but he could not join the clubs available to whites of comparable rank, a source of annoyance to black enlisted men.

Although the Marine Corps envisioned these combat service support units as a source of labor, and the two defense battalions as combat outfits, wartime reality proved far different. The combat battalions fired not even a dozen rounds at what may have been a Japanese submarine, and their combat consisted of a few months of patrol action against surviving Japanese on the captured island of Guam. The depot and ammunition companies, however, saw savage fighting on the battlefields of Saipan, Tinian, Guam, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. The combat service units suffered most of the casualties among African-American Marines, who had seven of their number killed in action, two dead of wounds, 78 wounded in action, and nine victims of combat fatigue.

The 1st Marine Depot Company, the first of 51 such units, was activated on 8 March 1943 under Captain Jason M. Austin, Jr., assisted by two other officers. The initial enlisted complement consisted of nine white noncommissioned officers, who would serve only until blacks replaced them, 100 privates fresh from boot camp at Montford Point, and one African-American assistant cook, Ulysses J. Lucas, for a total of 110. Finding the necessary black noncommissioned officers proved so difficult that whites accompanied some of the depot companies over seas and remained with them until replacements became available, through either promotion or transfers from other black outfits.

The 1st Marine Ammunition Company was formed at Montford Point on 1 October 1943 under 2d Lieutenant Placido A. Gomez. This unit, as the 11 that followed, consisted of eight officers and 251 enlisted men, the latter including specialists not available from the pool of black Marines at Montford Point, and had its own trucks, jeeps, and trailers for hauling ammunition. Because their job was considered more dangerous than the work of the depot companies, the ammunition companies trained for two months instead of three weeks. Some of the black noncommissioned officers underwent instruction in camouflage or the rudiments of ammunition handling, but only whites had the training or experience to fill the billets requiring higher-ranking technicians.

Although the organization of the ammunition companies remained essentially unchanged, the depot companies added a third platoon during the summer of 1943, increasing the aggregate strength to four officers and 162 enlisted men. In both types of units, the Marines carried rifles, carbines, or submachine guns, but had no mortars or machine guns. Between October 1943, when Lieutenant Gomez assumed command of the 1st Marine Ammunition Company, and September 1944, when the 12th and last of these units came into existence, Montford Point organized one ammunition company and two depot companies each month. The Marine Corps continued to form depot companies, with the last four — the 46th, 47th, 48th, and 49th — being organized in October 1945, a month after the war had ended. The anomaly in numbers, 51 companies but the highest number being the 49th Marine Depot Company, resulted from the organization of two 5th and two 6th Marine Depot Companies. The first pair went overseas in August 1943, provided reinforcements for previously deployed units so that each could add the authorized fourth platoon, and afterward disbanded.

moving cargo
The Marine Ammunition Companies and Marine Depot Companies helped deposit cargo on the beach, as at Iwo Jima, and move the supplies to the Marines fighting their way inland. They often were inserted into the front lines as riflemen. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 111947

Three weeks after its organization, the 1st Marine Depot Company boarded a train for the three-day journey to the West Coast. A veteran of a subsequent transcontinental deployment told of his company boarding a "sealed" train that stopped only for maintenance or emergencies. The Marines on board subsisted on rations loaded at Montford Point. Cars were crowded, toilets few, and showers non-existent. A fastidious few tried to take sponge baths. Every one, however, had to shave every day or endure the consequences of the appearance of stubble: whatever number of push-ups a noncommissioned officer might demand.

The 1st Marine Depot Company arrived at San Diego on 5 April 1943, and according to the base newspaper, put on a "demonstration of close order drill that left observers gaping." On 16 April, the unit sailed for Noumea, New Caledonia, the initial destination of the first five depot companies dispatched to the Pacific. The organizations soon deployed to the Solomon and Russell Islands to support operations in the South Pacific and Central Pacific. The 2d and 4th Marine Ammunition Companies also arrived in the Solomons to prepare for future action.

Meanwhile, the Hawaiian Islands became a principal staging area for the thrust across the Central Pacific, and the 1st and 3d Marine Ammunition Companies went directly there. Also in Hawaii were five depot companies, including two that had spent nine months in Funafuti in the Ellice group, loading supplies destined for the fighting in the Gilbert and Marshall Islands, early objectives of the Central Pacific offensive. The combat support companies sent to the Hawaiian Islands arrived there in time to help load the ships that carried the 2d and 4th Marine Divisions to Saipan and to join the shore parties in unloading and distributing car go at the objective.

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division