Marine Corps Desegregation: WWII Begins to Break Barriers

Posted on October 10, 2016

Michael E. Haskew

Although President Harry S. Truman did not sign the legislation that officially ratified Marine Corps Desegregation the U.S. armed forces until July 26, 1948. African-American Marines had trained and served in a segregated Marine Corps since early in World War II. In June 1942, the Marine Corps authorized African-Americans to enlist in all-Black units, and separate training facilities were then established for them.

Marine Corps Desegregation

Members of the 3rd Ammunition Company, part of the 2nd Marine Division, relax with a captured bicycle during a break from their role in the Battle of Saipan. By Unknown. Image is in the public domain via

African-American Marines received basic training at Montford Point, North Carolina, and the first group of 13 recruits arrived there on August 26, 1942. These men formed the nucleus of the 51st Composite Defense Battalion, a coastal artillery formation. Opportunities for African- American Marines were quite limited—rather than allowing them to train fully as combat infantrymen, the Corps restricted their assignments to those of cooks, stewards, supply, and other non-combat roles.

Marine Corps Desegregation and the Battle for Saipan

Nevertheless, when manpower was short and the Japanese threatened to counterattack on the island of Peleliu, the African-American 11th Marine Depot Company and 7th Marine Ammunition Company responded to the call for replacement combat riflemen. “My company, when we went in, we went in with our rifles blazing”, remembered Marine Lee Douglas, Jr. After the battle, Major General William H. Rupertus, commander of the 1st Marine Division, sent letters of commendation to the commanding officers of both companies. Following a similar performance on the island of Saipan in the Marianas, General Alexander A. Vandegrift asserted, “The Negro Marines are no longer on trial. They are Marines, period.”

During World War II, approximately 8000 of the more than 19,000 African-American Marines in uniform served during combat operations. Although their total manpower accounted for less than five per cent of total Marine strength, their contribution to the U.S. victory over Japan is significant.  However, not only in the triumph itself, but also in the advancement of equal rights at home.

Michael E. Haskew is the editor of WWII History Magazine and the former editor of World War II Magazine . He is the author of a number of books, including THE MARINES IN WORLD WAR II. The Sniper at War and Order of Battle. Haskew is also the editor of The World War II Desk Reference with the Eisenhower Center for American Studies. He lives in Hixson, Tennessee.

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