Black History Month, a look back at triumphs made in Marine Corps
MARINE CORPS AIR STATION IWAKUNI, Japan --
Today’s Marine Corps reflects the face of our nation with different ethnicities, genders, origins, beliefs and is supported by an illustrious history of change.
To commemorate that change, Black History Month, or National African American History Month, is honored every February to celebrate the achievements of black Americans and the vital role African Americans play in the U.S. military and throughout history.
The initial recruitment of African Americans into the U.S. Marine Corps began in 1942 after President Franklin D. Roosevelt established a presidential directive giving black Americans an opportunity to serve in the organization.
From across the nation, African Americans came to segregated basic training at Montford Point aboard Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
“For African Americans during that era, it was the norm to be segregated,” said Master Sgt. Matthew A. Sanders, operations chief with Marine Wing Support Squadron 171 aboard Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan. “I believe just being able to train and become a Marine was a big deal to them and that was a positive title they could take from it
Montford Point Marine Camp deactivated seven years later and renamed Camp Johnson in 1974 in honor of Sgt. Maj. Gilbert H. “Hashmark” Johnson.
Johnson was one of the first African Americans to join the Marine Corps and went on to become the first black sergeant major after serving 32 years in the military.
Approximately 20,000 African Americans received basic training at Montfort Point during this time and today’s Marine Corps continues to actively recruit and retain African Americans from across the nation.
Montford Point Marines were assigned to 51st or 52nd Marine Defense Battalions, which at the time were the only black combat units. With the increase in African American recruitment, a majority of black Marines in World War II would later end up serving in pioneer and labor units.
African Americans pushed for more career opportunities in the Marine Corps and although they achieved higher ranks, they yearned for the chance to work in other diverse specialties.
In 1945, the first three black Marines; two sergeant majors and one first sergeant, arrived to Officer Candidates School in Quantico, Virginia, in hopes of becoming the first black officers in the Marine Corps
The unexpected occurred when all three high-ranking men failed to make the grade and receive their commission.
Despite the letdown, the Marine Corps assigned more African American Marines to the following 16th Platoon Commanders Class and only one chose to continue with the course.
Pfc. Frederick C. Branch, a Marine formerly with the 51st Defense Battalion, befittingly commissioned as a reserve officer, Nov. 10, 1945, entitling him the first black man to achieve the rank of second lieutenant.
African Americans gradually began to hurdle over the racial obstacles in the Marine Corps and with this slow transition; more triumphs arose just a few years later.
On Sept. 8, 1949, Annie E. Graham enlisted as the first black female Marine. She reported to Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina, in February 1950, with one other black female into a fully integrated reception, training and housing environment
Female and male recruits transformed into Marines together as Marine Corps boot camp became desegregated.
“In my experience I really haven’t seen much discrimination. I don’t think we discriminate as much as other people do outside the Marine Corps. We have a brotherhood and sisterhood like no other that ties us together,” said Sanders. “This goes back to boot camp, we were integrated together and all trained together. In the end, you’d look to the man or woman on the left and right of you for help to get through the hard times.”
Black Marines progressively merged with their white counterparts as wars unraveled. Throughout the Korean War and Vietnam War, Marines fought as one in many positions, regardless of race, and sought out the enemy of foreign lands.
“It doesn’t matter where someone is born or what their race is. We as Marines don’t care,” said Sanders. “We care if you can go out and do your job. That’s what is important and we do it as a team.” The United States Marine Corps continues to make Marines, win our nation’s battles and develop quality citizens regardless of race.
Black History Month not only highlights the triumphs of everyday African Americans during an era of discrimination, but also the triumphs of the black Marines who chose to answer the call of duty for a nation that did not always accept them.
“I think the month as a whole is an educational period for everyone of different ethnicities to come together and learn of African American achievements,” said Sanders. “There’s a lot to learn and although I personally have not dealt with racism in the Corps … the turning points those African American Marines made led to the future success of today’s African American Marines.”