Make a note of the day, date, time and place: 3 p.m. Wednesday, June 27, 2012, at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center.
It was there that the Montford Point Marines finally got their due.
The black men that were the first to serve in the United States Marine Corps were trained at a segregated camp in North Carolina named Montford Point. No black men – or women – served in the Marine Corps until 1942. It took an executive order from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to get those first African-Americans admitted to the Marine Corps.
On June 27, those surviving Montford Point Marines will receive the Congressional Gold Medal. The next day, according to the official Montford Point Marines web site, the Marine Corps honored the Montford Point Marines with a reception and parade at the Marine barracks at 8th and I streets in the nation’s capital.
Recognition of the first black Marines is long overdue. The black men that served bravely on the Red Ball Express in Europe have already got their props, and rightly so. It was the Red Ball Express that kept Allied troops supplied as they pushed the Nazis out of France and back into Germany during the summer and fall of 1944.
The Tuskegee Airmen have also gotten recognition, and at least two movies as well. But the blacks that served in the Marine Corps during World War II we seldom, if ever, hear about. You sure as heck don’t see any in any World War II films.
The black sailors that did the dangerous, thankless work of loading bombs, ammunition and other ordnance onto ships at Port Chicago have received their due, and at least one movie has been done about them.
But black Marines there were, and their contribution was significant to the war effort. Black Marines, like their counterparts in the Army and Navy, were confined to service units, doing the dirty work white servicemen felt they were too good to do.
This included loading and unloading ammunition and other ordnance. The first black Marines were primarily confined to such units, until American troops invaded Saipan 68 years ago this month.
It was on Saipan that Kenneth Tibbs became the first black Marine killed in combat. It was on Saipan that at least one American commander saw fit to use black Marines in combat, if for no other reason than that he had no choice.
The Japanese inflicted such heavy casualties on American troops that this particular commander – a Col. Louis Jones – didn’t hesitate to use black Marines in combat. (American commanders in Europe faced the same situation in early 1945; because of heavy casualties that the Germans inflicted on Allied troops, guns were thrust into the hands of black soldiers previously confined to service units.)
Author James Campbell, in his book “The Color of War,” paid tribute to those first black Marines and the black sailors at Port Chicago.
Campbell told the story of the so-called “mutiny” of the Port Chicago sailors, who refused to load ammunition after an explosion killed over 300 men on July 17, 1944.
About the black Marines on Saipan, Campbell gave this account of the men in the 18th Marine Depot Company:
“That night on the 4th Division’s left flank, Japanese infiltration probed the gap that More had warned the men about. Again, had it not been for the 18th Marine Depot Company, whose members shot and bayoneted enemy soldiers trying to penetrate the security perimeter, the Japanese might have gotten through and wreaked havoc. If initially Colonel Jones had been opposed to using blacks in a war zone, he had become a convert, and again lavished praise on the ‘colored units forming part of the Shore Party.’”
The importance of taking Saipan – and the role of the first black Marines in helping American forces do it – can’t be stressed enough. As a summary of “The Color of War” in the book’s inner cover says, “historian Donald Miller calls (the battle of Saipan) ‘as important to victory over Japan as the Normandy invasion was to victory over Germany.’”
Those black Marines that fought at Saipan – as well as their comrades that didn’t – finally get their recognition this week. And it’s about darned time.