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Marine Corps Leader Praises Service of Black Troops

“The Marine Corps is better today because of the legacy of service of African Americans,” says Commandant Gen. James Amos. The Marine Corps is committed not only to honoring its first Black Marines with Congressional Gold Medals and by making their story a central part of Marine Corps training, but to doubling the ranks of Black Marine officers.

Amos made his remarks about honoring the first Black recruits at the Montford Point Marine Association’s 46th Annual National Convention on July 30. He talked about increasing the number of Black Marine officers at the National Naval Officers Association (NNOA), a group of predominantly Black officers from the Navy, Coast Guard and Marine Corps, at the annual gathering in San Diego Aug. 2.

Rep. Corrine Brown of Florida introduced the bill in the House, which seeks to grant the congressional gold medal to the Montford Point Marines.

“These Montford Pointers, and the ones who have passed, are as equally important to the history of the Marine Corps as the Tuskegee Airmen are to the Air Force and the Buffalo Soldiers are to the Army,” Amos said.

First Black Marines

President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 in 1941, prohibiting discrimination in defense jobs or government and opening all military branches to Blacks. From 1942 to 1949, 20,000 Black men trained at Montford Point to become Marines. It was a segregated camp the Black recruits had to build themselves on a part of Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Amos said the recruits were not allowed to become infantrymen or to serve in other mainstream military occupational specialties. Most worked in steward units serving meals to white officers.

But Black Marines served nobly in several wars, Amos remarked. Montford Point Marines assigned to segregated ammunition and depot companies in World War II had to fight their way to the front to bring supplies. On their return, they carried wounded white Marines back for medical care. They fought in Saipan and Okinawa. “Their courage under fire … began to erode the cruel and false generational stereotype within the Corps that Blacks could not, and would not, fight in the face of danger,” Amos said.

He cited several noted Black Marines in prepared remarks, including Lt. Gen. Frank Petersen, the first Black Marine aviator and the first Black general officer in the Corps; Maj. Gen. Gary Cooper, the first Black person to command an infantry unit in combat; Lt. Gen. Walt Gaskin, former commander of all Marine forces in Iraq and the first Black officer to command a Marine division and Frederick C. Branch, the first Black officer in the Marine Corps who also has a scholarship named for him.

Besides the accolades being sought for the surviving members of Montford Point’s first classes, Amos pledged to add their history to training curriculum. At the 69th anniversary of the first recruits arriving at Montford Point in August, there will be several events where the surviving Montford Point Marines will be the guests of honor. The Marines will also create a documentary about the first Black Marines.

Enlisting Blacks in the Corps

The Marines have a long way to go. It was the last branch of the military to enlist Blacks and has never had a Black commandant or four-star general. Today, the Marine Corps is nearly 11 percent Black, but just 5.6 of Marine officers are Black. The Corps has 88 generals today, but only six are Black, or 6.8 percent. Amos’ goal is to double the number of Black officers from 1,326 to about 2,860.

He’s made “minority officer recruiting” a top priority in the Corps recruiting efforts. To do so, Amos talked about broadening recruiting efforts beyond historically Black colleges and universities to Black neighborhoods and high schools, offering leadership courses for college students, hosting events celebrating cultural diversity, building stronger relationships with service organizations and increasing participation in Marine Corps mentoring programs.

So far this year, according to Amos’ presentation to the NNOA, the Corps is at 4.1 percent Black officer accession, on track for 5 percent by the end of the year. That rate would be the best accession rate for the Marines since 1995. The accession rate for Black officers in 2010 was 3.5 percent (or 60 of 1,703 total officer accessions).

Active-Duty Officer Corps

Black: 1,230, (5.6 percent of total)

Total: 22,155

Active-Duty Enlisted Ranks

Black: 19,176 (10.7 percent of total)

Total: 178,295

In 2010, 3.5 percent of officer accessions were Black (60 out of 1,703). The Marine Corps is currently at 4.1 percent for 2011, striving for 5 percent, the best accession rate in six years.

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