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

Seizing the Mariana Islands Saipan, Tinian, and Guam

On D-Day, 15 June 1944, the depot companies saw action at Saipan, manhandling cargo from ships' holds into landing craft and finally distributing the supplies among the combat units. The 18th and 20th Marine Depot Companies landed with the 4th Marine Division on D-Day, while 19th company was going ashore with the 2d Marine Division. Attached to the 3d Battalion, 23d Marines, 4th Marine Division, one platoon of the 18th Company arrived at its assigned beach about two and one-half hours after the first wave. A mortar shell wounded four men of the depot company, who had to be evacuated for emergency treatment offshore, but the others kept moving inland. One squad fought as infantry to reinforce a thinly held line about a hundred yards from the water's edge. The next morning, the bulk of the company helped eliminate Japanese infiltrators who had penetrated along the boundary between the 23d Marines and the 8th Marines of the adjacent 2d Marine Division.

When the immediate threat had passed, the 18th Depot Company resumed its normal duties, "standing waist deep in surf unloading boats as vital supplies of food and water were brought in." In addition, said the unit commander, Captain William M. Barr, the black Marines "set up 'security' to keep out snipers as they helped load casualties aboard boats to go on hospital ships." In the face of intense fire, they "rode guard on trucks carrying high octane gasoline from the beach," and one squad leader killed a Japanese infiltrator who crept by night into a neighboring foxhole.

Another Marine Depot Company, the 20th, landed in the fourth wave in support of the 1st Battalion, 25th Marines, 4th Marine Division. In the words of Captain William C. Adams, the company commander, "all hell was breaking when we came in. It was still touch and go when we hit shore, and it took some time to establish a foothold." The captain's orderly, Private Kenneth J. Tibbs, suffered fatal wounds and died that very day, becoming the first African American Marine killed in combat during the war. The remaining Marine depot company assigned to the operation, the 19th, supported the 2d Marine Division but did not come ashore until 22 June, one week after D-Day, and incurred no casualties.

During the D-Day landings at Saipan, while the depot companies underwent their baptism of fire, the 3d Marine Ammunition Company performed three closely related functions. As Sergeant Ernest W. Coney remembered that morning, some of the men helped move ammunition from ships into landing craft, and others worked on the pontoon barges, lashed to the sides of LSTs during the voyage from Hawaii and now moored on the ocean side of the reef, where they transferred the ammunition to DUKW amphibious trucks or LVT amphibian tractors for the final trip to shore. The rest of the company, Coney included, boarded landing craft to join the assault troops carving out a beachhead. Since the boats could not cross the reef, the Marines shifted to amphibian tractors which clawed their way onto the beach at about 1400, as Japanese shells tore up the sand. "One team had an amphibian tractor shot out from under it as it was being unloaded," Coney reported, but "miraculously, all the men escaped without injury." Later that afternoon, Japanese fire cut down Private First Class Leroy Seals, who on the following day died of his wounds. On the night of 15 June, the black Marines of the ammunition company used their weapons to help beat back a Japanese counterattack, in the process silencing an enemy machine gun.

On Saipan, the black Leathernecks demonstrated they had earned the right to fight alongside their white fellow Marines. The accomplishments of the combat service support companies, reported the post newspaper at Camp Lejeune, so impressed the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Lieutenant General Alexander A. Vandegrift — who had replaced Holcomb on 1 January 1944 — that he declared: "The Negro Marines are no longer on trial. They are Marines, period." Time's war correspondent in the Central Pacific, Robert Sherrod, wrote: "The Negro Marines, under fire for the first time, have rated a universal 4.0 on Saipan." In other words, they had earned the Navy's highest possible rating.

At another of the Mariana Islands, Guam, which lay southwest of Saipan, amphibious forces attempted to regain American territory seized by the Japanese in December 1941. On 21 July 1944, three days before the landing at Tinian, three platoons of the 2d Marine Ammunition Company supported the 3d Marine Division as it stormed the northern beaches, while the 4th Ammunition Company and one platoon of the 2d assisted the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade at the southern beachhead. The black Marines with the 3d Marine Division suffered one man wounded and no one killed, even though the Japanese laid down intense fire from the high ground overlooking the invasion site. In the south, the reinforced 4th Marine Ammunition Company set up the brigade ammunition dump and dug in to protect it throughout the night of D-Day. Under cover of darkness, the enemy tried to blow up the dump, but the African-American Marines killed 14 explosives-laden infiltrators at no loss to themselves. The ammunition and depot companies were still supporting the assault forces on 10 August, when the objective was declared secure. The Navy Unit Commendation awarded the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade included the black Marines of the 4th Marine Ammunition Company and the attached platoon from the 2d Company.

members of 3d Marine Ammunition Company
On Saipan, where black Marines earned praise from the Commandant of the Marine Corps, LtGen Alexander A. Vandegrift, four members of the 3d Marine Ammunition Company pose with a Japanese bicycle they captured. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 86008

Mop-up on Guam

Although officially secure, Guam still teemed with thousands of Japanese, bypassed in the lightning campaign during July and August 1944, who opened fire from ambush and lashed out against rear area installations from the concealment of the jungle. Private First Class Luther Woodward of the 4th Marine Ammunition Company displayed a gift for tracking enemy stragglers. One afternoon, he came across fresh footprints near the ammunition dump and followed them to a hut where a half-dozen Japanese had taken refuge. He opened fire, killing one, wounding another, and scattering the rest. Woodward returned to the camp, got five other black Marines to join him, and hunted down the survivors. He killed one of them, and his companions killed another. This exploit earned him a Bronze Star for heroism, later upgraded to the more prestigious Silver Star.

Some Japanese stragglers still held out in March 1945 when Lieutenant Colonel Thomas C. Moore, Jr., arrived at Guam with the portion of the 52d Defense Battalion that had helped defend Majuro. The newcombers promptly clashed with the Japanese, who found concealment in dense vegetation that one of the black Marines said was "as thick as the hair on a dog's back." The patrols dispatched to secure the approaches to the battalion's camp could number no more than ten men, for larger groups lost cohesion in the jungle undergrowth. On 1 April, Sergeant Ezra Kelly killed on of two Japanese discovered within a thousand yards of the camp. Subsequent probes of the jungle during April killed two more Japanese and wounded one of the Marines, Private First Class Ernest J. Calland.

During the summer of 1945, the 52d Defense Battalion — the rest of the unit had reached Guam early in May — prepared to deploy to Okinawa, where aircraft based in Japan still posed a threat. Loading had already begun when, on 9 July, orders were changed; the unit would remain on Guam. According to Private First Class John Griffin, "morale dropped 99 percent, for the next week or ten days the men stayed around their tents writing letters and what not. Instead of being a Defense Unit, we turned out to be nothing more than a working battalion." The procession of trucks roaring into the area to take working parties to the harbor startled, "Hashmark" Johnson, taking over as sergeant major of what he thought was a combat unit. He persuaded Lieutenant Colonel Moore to resume aggressive patrolling, as much to restore unit morale as to eliminate the die-hard Japanese. During this activity, Ezra Kelly added to his toll, killing a total of six Japanese on Guam; he received promotion to platoon sergeant, and earned high marks from Johnson, who described him as "really gun ho. Absolutely fearless." Like Kelly, Johnson led patrols into the boondocks and set up successful ambushes.

The final objective of the Marianas campaign was Tinian. African-American Marines who had seen action on Saipan boarded landing craft there and proceeded directly to the nearby island. Elements of the 3d Marine Ammunition Company joined the assault troops of the 4th Marine Division on 24 July, and the depot companies followed up in support of that organization and the 2d Marine Division, which landed on the 26th. Because of the performance of the black Marines on Saipan and Tinian, the 3d Marine Ammunition Company and the 18th, 19th, and 20th Marine Depot Companies, components of the 7th Field Depot, shared in the Presidential Unit Citation awarded the 4th Marine Division.

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division