THE DEFENSE BATTALIONS
Marine defense battalions were seen as an ideal platform for integrating African Americans into units with white leaders, since they trained independently and fought in isolated areas. Those recruits slated for defense battalions were trained at the then-segregated Montford Point (now known as Camp Gilbert H. Johnson, part of the Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune complex in North Carolina). They would then be assigned to the two black defense battalions, the 51st and 52nd
Throughout the first six months that blacks served in the Marine Corps, the focus of attention was the 51st Composite Defense Battalion of which my father was a part. It was to be the first (and for a time the only) black combat unit. Its initial stages of training were hampered by equipment shortages, but even more by the complete unfamiliarity of the men with the weapons and supporting equipment they encountered.
On June 07, 1943, the qualifier "Composite" was dropped from the title of the 51st Defense Battalion; the 155mm Battery became a group, and the Machine Gun unit evolved into the Special Weapons Group, with 20mm and 40mm weapons, as well as machine guns. A month later, the 155mm Group became the Seacoast Artillery Group, and the 90mm outfit, with its searchlights, the Antiaircraft Artillery Group. No further changes took place before the battalion went overseas.
The tempo of training picked up throughout the summer and fall of 1943 as African-American noncommissioned officers replaced white enlisted men who had taught them to handle weapons and lead men into combat. On August 20, 1943, the 51st Defense Battalion suffered its first fatality. During a disembarkation exercise, while Marines of the 155mm Artillery Group scrambled down a bet draped over a wooden structure representing the side of a transport, Corporal Gilbert Fraser, Jr. slipped, fell into a landing craft in the water below, and suffered injuries that claimed his life. In memory of the 30-year old graduate of Virginia Union College, the road leading from Montford Point Camp to the artillery range became Fraser Road.
Although the men of the 51st Defense Battalion had to assume the responsibilities of squad leaders and platoon sergeants even as they learned to care for and fire the battalion's weapons, the black Marines met this challenge, as they demonstrated in November 1943. During firing exercises - while Secretary of the Navy Knox, General Holcomb, and Colonel Johnson of the Selective Service System watched, an African-American crew opened fire with a 90mm gun at a sleeve target being towed overhead and hit it within just 60 seconds. Lieutenant Colonel Stephenson, listening for the Commandant's reaction, heard him say, "I think they're ready now." Few other crews in the 51st could match this performance, and a number of them clearly needed further training, as some of their officers warned at the time. The four days of firing at the end of November could not be repeated, however, for the unit would depart sooner than originally planned on the first leg of a journey to the Pacific. Whatever its ultimate destination, the 51st Defense Battalion started off to war early in January 1944, and by the 19th, most of the unit - less 400 men transferred to the newly organized 52nd Defense Battalion - and the bulk of its gear were moving by rail toward San Diego.
The 51st Defense Battalions'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 MP's, 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. Colonel Stephenson tried to make up for the mistreatment of his Marines by liberally granting passes so they could find entertainment in nearby San Diego.
Because they were replacing 7th Defense Battalion already established in the Ellice group, the black Marines turned in all of the heavy equipment they had brought with them from Montford Point and boarded the merchantman SS Meteor which sailed from San Diego on February 11, 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 Lt. Colonel Gould P. Groves, the executive officer, would garrison Nanomea Island, while the rest of the battalion, under Colonel Curtis W. LeGette, manned the defenses of Funafuti and nearby Nukufetau. By February 27, the 51st completed the relief of the 7th Defense Battalion, taking over the w hite 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."
The 51st Defense Battalion remained in the Ellice Islands rough;y 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. Colonel LeGette's , of which my father, James Albert Ferren was a member, unit set sail on September 8, 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 90 mm battery and exchanging its machine guns and 20mm weapons for a second 40mm battery. The reconstructed unit kept its searchlights and radar. While the black Marines manned positions on four of the atoll's islands, Colonel LeGette on December 13, 1944, handed over the battalion to Colonel Groves. A member of the unit, Herman Darden, Jr., whom I had the pleasure of meeting in 1998 at the Montford Point Association's 33rd Annual Convention, 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 l
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bmarines and the possibility of aerial attack. One night, while the men were watching a movie, the film abruptly stopped. Condition Red; Japanese aircraft were on the way. "I never saw such jubilation in my life," recalls Darden, for everyone responded eagerly. A Marine on a working party unloading ammunition might grumble about lifting a single 90 mm 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 battalion's gun crews, and from that moment on," Darden said, " the mental attitude seemed to dwindle."
Routine settled over Eniwetok, enveloping the unit Colonel Groves now commanded. As one of its sergeants phrased it, "routine got boresome." punctuated only by the occasional crash of forced landing by American planes. A major change occurred on June 12, 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 gun, a 40mm platoon, and four searchlight sections, boarded an LST for the voyage. The contingent saw no combat at Kawajalen, nor did the remainder of the battalion at Eniwetok.
51st Defense Battalion
Activated 18 Aug. 1942 at New River NC. This was the first combat unit composed of black Marines in the Corps. Trained over 1100 enlisted men and also over 400 for the 52nd. Def. Bn. Split into two detachments, one defended emergency airfields at Nonomea and Nukefetu. Later it moved to Eniwetok, Engebi, Perry and Porky Islands. Another detachment served on Kwajalein
52nd Defense Battalion
Activated 18 Aug. 1942 at New River NC. This was the second combat unit of black Marines to be organized by the Corps. Composed of two administrative units and embarked for the Marshall Islands One group prepared to defend the air bases of MAG 13 and the other went to Roi-Namur.
A Depot Special Bulletin #1-44 dated 28 July 1943 references an article printed in Time Magazine on 24 July, 1944. "...Last week, as a footnote to the invasion of Saipan, Time correspondent Robert Sherrod wrote about the first to see action: Negro Marines, under fire for the first time, have rated a universal 4.0 (Annapolis mark of perfection) on Saipan. Some landed with the assault waves. All in the four service companies have been under fire at one time or another during the battle. Some have have been wounded, several of them have been killed in action. 'COOL IN COMBAT' When the Japanese counterattacked the 4th Marine Division near Charan Kanoa, twelve Negroes were thrown into the line. Their white officers said they accounted for about 15 Japanese.... They were under intense mortar fire and artillery fire as well as rifle and machine gun fire. They kept advancing until the counter attack was stopped. Negro Marines were at their best while performing their normal duties. Credited with being the work ingest men on Saipan, they performed prodigious feats of labor both while under fire and after beachheads were well secured. Some unloaded boats for three days with little or no sleep, working in water waist deep.... On an open transport, where a detachment of Negroes was left to load small boats, they volunteered to unload and tend the wounded who were brought to the transport...." 2. To the 18th, 19th, and 20th Depot Companies and the 3rd Ammunition Company, congratulations from their Commanding Officer. Well Done." Signed Earl H Phillips Col. USMC Commanding.
The Montford Point Story: Step by Step They Lead the Way
by: Cassandra L. Paschal
.....America's long history of racial ambivalence is observable in the story of integrating the Marine Corps. What it took to make integration work in the Corps was the recruitment of men identified by Tom Brokaw as "The Greatest Generation." These men recognized the terrorism of the two great Axis powers of the 1940's, Germany and Japan, because they, unfortunately, had been on the receiving end of such terrorism in their own homeland. They believed, with an earnestness that we don't often find today, that if they could show their homeland their valor they would return to a country that, in its gratitude, would give them all of the freedoms provided in our Constitution.
The military had already recruited soldiers into the Army and sailors into the Navy, but the Marines continued to bar African Americans from service until President Roosevelt's Executive Order 8802. Though there was initial resistance, the Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, complied with the order and decreed that the enlistment as African American Marines would begin on June 1, 1942. Though there was some resistance from most leadership within the Marine Corps, the Continental Marines had at least a few Africans - slaves and freedmen - that served during the American Revolution. A Delaware slave known as John Martin was recruited, without permission from his owner, to serve under Captain Miles Pennington of the Continental brig, Reprisal, and it is recorded that Private Martin served well, even assisting in the capture of five British merchant men.1 It took over 150 years for America to honor the sacrifices of that early Marine, but in doing so, a legacy of greatness and service to country was created by the Montford Point Marines about which all Americans can be proud.
On August 18, 1942, the first camp to accept "Negro" Marines was opened in an area of Camp Lejuene, North Carolina. The Marine Corps created "…a camp with all the facilities of the white camps. Good barracks, dining halls, churches, medical facilities, entertainment and movie halls, camp stores, barbershops, training areas, and rifle-ranges and all other facilities on a par with 'white' facilities."2 Everyone in the military, and especially the Marine Corps, was watching this gallant experiment. The young men of color recruited from many states felt the pressure to be the best possible Marines. They wanted to "bring honor to the Corps" since they were the first. The young African American Marines trained hard, at first with white drill instructors. But as African Americans trained and showed promise, they were promoted and soon there was an African American corps of Drill Instructors. They were tough, but their hard work paid off when General Alexander. A. Vandergriff, the then-Commandant of the Marine Corps, came to review the troops. The Montford Point Marines gave such a precision drill that the general is said to have issued an order to lift all restraints on enlisting African American Marines. These young men were proud to have done well before the Commandant; however, their true tests were still to come.
The Marine Corps had a policy of assigning black regiments to support roles in combat. The 52nd Defense Battalion was sent to the Marshall Islands after the fighting had largely concluded. The area was so desolate that one of the incoming Marines suggested that the departing white Marines had "…never been so glad to see black people in their lives" a23 April, 2011 .....
The 51st Defense Battalion had no such lack of action. They arrived at Saipan in the Mariana Islands to support the 2nd and 4th Marine Divisions of V Amphibious Corps. While they were assisting the combat units, one of their own, Private First Class Leroy Seals of Brooklyn, NY, was shot and died the next day of his wounds. The Montford Point Marines picked up their rifles that day and fought back the Japanese and even destroyed one of the Japanese machine guns from the beachhead perimeter side-by-side with the white combat units. In February 1945, a group from the 51st landed on Iwo Jima with the 5th Division, 28th Regiment. The combat regiment came ashore and it seemed that taking Iwo Jima would be a cake-walk. The Japanese, however, had planned an ambush. They (the Japanese) had placed guns on either side of Mount Suribachi and were firing at will onto the Marines on the island. The black Marines of the 8th Ammunition Company landed during the second or third wave and somehow they kept ammunition in the hands of the combat units throughout this deadly firefight. Time and time again the black Marines delivered the much needed ammunition. Though the Japanese actually shot two trucks from under one of the drivers, he kept coming back. Combat Marines who thought they had seen everything cheered this young, black Marine from their foxholes. The Montford Point Marines knew their job was to keep the combatants supplied and they did so with great valor and at great expense to their company. The Japanese soon saw this and began to make their assault on the Ammo Company as well as the combat Marines. The Montford Point Marines rose to the occasion by fighting off these attacks as they continued their supply missions. This is the courage and stamina that lead Admiral Nimitz, Commander of the Fleet in the Pacific to say, "On Iwo Jima, in the ranks of all the Marines who set foot on that Island uncommon valor was a common virtue.
Those early Montford Point Marines were the catalyst for the great presence of African Americans in the Marine Corps. By the time that camp was closed for recruit training in 1949, over 21,000 recruits were trained and molded there. Harry Truman's order, Executive Order 9981, signed July 26, 1948, guaranteed the end of a segregated training facility for African Americans in the Marines. Montford Point was officially renamed for Master Sergeant Gilbert "Hashmark" Johnson (one of the first six African American Drill Instructors and an original Montford Pointer) in April 1974. The memories of the change Montford Point meant to the Marine Corps and America must never be forgotten. These men from the "Greatest Generation" made a sacrifice for their country that lead to changes in how African Americans are viewed by many segments of the population. They should have received even greater honor than they got. We must never forget the soldiers that had to fight and die to prove they could wear the Eagle, Globe and Anchor.
What would those young men who fought first so hard for their country overseas and in their country think of today's Marine Corps, a Marine Corps that has developed a system of promotion based on merit only? The Marine Corps they helped build is the one that promoted its first African American pilot, Frank E. Petersen, to the rank of three-star general; it is the one that developed Major General (retired) Charles Bolden, Jr. as an aviator who represented the Marines in the NASA space program, and, even more important to him was that he was able to pass his love of flying on to his son who is also a Marine Corps aviator; or the Corps that has given Gilda Jackson the opportunity to become its first African American Colonel and the Commander of the Naval Aviation Depot at the Marine Corps Air Station, Cherry Point North Carolina. This Corps is the place that retired Staff Sergeant Glynis A. Harvey came to love enough to write a poem about the foundation the Montford Point Marines, which provided for her success and the success of many other young people who came after her. This is a legacy worth celebrating. Today's Marine Corps honors those young men who willingly signed up in 1942 by opening itself up to anyone who brings the desire to succeed and the drive to be nothing less than the best. Those are the few, the proud, the Marines.