Black Marines

Many people feel these times are abnormal, but racism has been part of the fabric of humanity since recorded history. Often, racism was between tribes, between different religions, and of course, between peoples with different epidermal color variations. However, when did skin color start? Has there always been a variety of skin tones? The answer to this question is emphatically, “no.” At one time, all humans were the same color (probably a blend of white and black making the universal skin color thousands of years ago a nice brown). So, when did variation in pigmentation of the skin in homo sapiens begin?

According to many leading evolutionary biologists, the bipedal species of homo sapiens probably evolved in its present form around 200,000 years ago. However, skin color variation probably did not happen until around 20,000 years ago within this group. Why? Well, the answer is quite simple. Skin variation is a natural, observable byproduct of evolution, according to Darwin’s theories of adaptability, evolutionary change and natural selection. As homo sapiens moved north into regions now known as Sweden or Finland, they developed lighter skin in order to absorb Vitamin D more readily so the body could better heal itself and cell function could maintain itself at maximum capacity, since there is so much less sunlight in northern regions. However, homo sapien cousins to the south in the Middle East and Africa developed darker skin to protect themselves from the sunlight—natural sunscreen so to speak. People living in both these regions shared the same grandparents (one group stayed where they had evolved from and the other group pulled up their tents and migrated north). In fact, according to some scientists, we can trace the human race to six “Eves,” or six female mitochondrial groups that started this tribe that eventually split into groups of humans who went north and humans who stayed in Africa (the homeland of all humans). 

With this knowledge, why do people hate other people with different skin color? Academically, and morally one might add, it makes no sense whatsoever. There have been two places where I have seen racism disappear. One area was football, which I played all the way to the college level (there, your athleticism and ability to be a good teammate were all that mattered—not your skin color). The second place where I saw racism disappear was when I was in the Israeli Defense Force and the United States Marine Corps. 

When I was at OCS, I had men in my platoon who were Hispanic, Black, White, Asian, Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, Atheist, Republican and Democrat, all willing to die for each other and excited to call one another comrades and Brother Marines. We sometimes joked, but there was a strong element of truth to the matter, that there is only one color in the Marine Corps—Green. The non-commissioned officers who trained us, and who were the gatekeepers to the halls of the Marine Corps for us officer candidates, were diverse in their ethnicities and backgrounds. Platoon Gunnery Sergeant Hill was a big man with very dark skin and a speech impediment (I also have one, so I related to him). However, he commanded our unit with confidence, authority and strength. We all looked up to him (figuratively and literally, since he stood 6’3” or 6’4”). Sergeant Instructor Staff Sergeant Wilson was a muscle-bound, light-skinned African-American, denoting that he probably had some Caucasian background. This linebacker-looking NCO was the type of drill instructor who had mastered the game at OCS and was one of the funniest, most sarcastic, and caring DIs we had. Then we had Sergeant Instructor Staff Sergeant Lawson. He was a good old White boy with strong Southern roots, who did not take shit from anyone, encouraged strong candidates and was brutal with weak ones. In short, at Officer Candidate School, our extremely diverse unit was trained and guided but three men who were extremely different and we all respected each other and later, would all fight to the death for each other when the War on Terror broke out in 2001. I wish all Americans could go through Marine Corps Boot Camp or Officer Candidate School before being able to vote and be a citizen. These institutions, including those in the other branches of the service, help young men and women open their eyes to the differences we have as humans and Americans and learn to respect those differences instead of fearing them.

Sadly, our military has not always been tolerant. During World War II, we had segregated units. Nonetheless, everyone who could, served, and I believe their interaction helped motivate President Harry S. Truman to integrate the services in 1948. It was brave Black servicemen, like the Tuskegee Airmen; and Japanese-Americans, like those in the 442nd Army Regiment; who showed many Americans that we all bleed the same color and come from a nation that says all men are equal under the law, due the same considerations. 

Now, I am not so naïve to think we have a society in the military that is perfect, but it sure as hell is better than 1945. And one reason why it is better than 1945 was due to African-Americans proving themselves as strong, patriotic and brave warriors, including the Marines who were trained under segregated conditions in Montford Point, N.C. The following story of a Medal of Honor Recipient from Iwo Jima and his Black Marines is a story few know today, but it should be better known (sad I have to say Black Marines instead of just Marines, but I am putting this story into its historical context). I am one of the few historians to my knowledge to have looked at this Medal of Honor recipient’s personnel file and I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. So, in the midst of the racial mess we find ourselves in right now in America, let the following story give us strength for what American should be based on this inspiration from the past.

At the end of the battle of Iwo Jima, some of the American Marines, Army Airforce pilots, and Navy Seabees in the rear echelons started to become lackadaisical about security measures. In their opinion, all the fighting was to the far north of the island and the Japanese garrison had been largely destroyed and those few soldiers who were still fighting were running out of ammunition, food and water. The island seemed well in hand. However, many failed to truly understand that this 8-square-mile island had 11 miles of tunnels under its surface and the Japanese knew how to use them and perform infiltration attacks. However, these Americans on the southern tip of the island didn’t believe the Japanese would attack. They were sadly wrong.

On 26 March, a hidden underground barrack behind the advancing lines of the Marines just north of Airfield No. 2 housed almost 300 Japanese plotting a massive attack. They had used their underground tunnel system to travel from the north to infiltrate the rear areas. From their position behind the lines, they had the element of surprise and were poised to hit the Americans. 

In the early morning around 0200 on 26 March, a Japanese commander (some think the garrison commander General Tadamichi Kuribayashi), cunningly picked an area west of the second airfield in the island’s middle where there were many non-combat U.S. troops. Sleeping comfortably in their tents were pilots, crewmen, supply troops, shore parties, antiaircraft gunners and Seabees. Emerging from underground, the Japanese sliced through tents, killing many who were not armed or accustomed to this type of warfare. Most pilots carried only pistols, and many died in their cots not knowing what hit them. Unlike concurrent Banzais in areas that were not behind enemy lines, these Japanese were silent when they struck. As they attacked, they screamed, slashed, fired and threw grenades to kill as many Americans as they could. The spearhead of this attack also hit the 5th Pioneer Battalion full of Montford Point Marines (since the prejudice of the time dictated Black troops could not fight well, they were in logistical units behind the areas of combat). However, Marines have always been trained as combat troops as epitomized by the 29th Commandant of the Marine Corps Al Gray’s declaration: “Every Marine is, first and foremost, a rifleman. All other conditions are secondary.” 

The Montford Point Marines knew fire team tactics and proper weapon handling. Thus, their White officer, 1st Lt. Harry L. Martin was able to organize a skirmish line largely manned by his men. Martin, a 34-year-old reserve officer, counterattacked along with the Black Marines beside him, overrunning a machinegun position and killing four Japanese with his pistol while “yelling abuse at them,” according to records. Seeing the Japanese using a ridge to hide themselves in order to mass another charge, Martin “let out a yell to ‘Follow me; I can hold the bastards for a while.’ Then I heard him yell, ‘Come on out you little yellow bastards or I’m coming in and get you,’ and before any of us below could move, he had run down towards the rear of the ridge.” 

Several Black Leathernecks followed Martin and joined his charge, attacking and killing the stunned Japanese, many of whom were wielding swords. Many Japanese had never seen a Black man before, and seeing these young, strong, determined warriors yelling and fighting must have shocked them. 

Martin was hit in the head and buttocks with shrapnel, but refused to leave the battle, standing shoulder to shoulder with his Black comrades as they fought. A grenade finally killed Martin as he led his men from the front. For his heroic leadership, he would receive the Medal of Honor posthumously. His Montford Point Marines fought tenaciously and two of the Marines, Pvt. James Davis and Pvt. James M. Whitlock, received Bronze Stars. The Marine Corps shore party commander noted that he “was highly gratified with the performance of these Colored Troops… while in direct action against the enemy for the first time. Proper security prevented their being taken unawares, and they conducted themselves with marked coolness and courage.” What? Black Marines acting with cool heads and bravery? You bet your ass they did. As one sees, occasionally in war, racism disappears and merit trumps all, especially in the moments of life and death.

Such events like with these “Negro” troops prove that indeed that only one title matters: “Marine.” Their actions in 1945 helped our society and our military to become stronger and more diverse. We still have a long way to go, but the racism and problems we face today are nothing like they were back in 1945 with the country was segregated and the evil Jim Crow laws awaited these heroic Black Jarheads returning to in the States after the war. Let us take strength that if these men could fight in a Corps that discriminated against them to support our Democracy in the hope they would see a better future of Civil Rights (which they did) and against an Imperial Japanese enemy that was one of the most racist foes America had ever faced, then we today can rise above the craziness we see now and fight for a more just society. 

Let’s not forget what rabbi and US Navy Lt. Roland Gittelsohn, one of the first Jewish chaplains ever assigned to the Marine Corps, said in his dedication at the 5th Marine Corps Divisional cemetery on Iwo Jima:

“Here before us lie the bodies of comrades and friends. Men who until yesterday or last week laughed with us…Men who fought with us and feared with us… Here lie officers and men, Negroes and whites, rich men and poor—together. Here are Protestants, Catholics, and Jews—together. Here no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color…Among these men there is no discrimination. No prejudices. No hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy. Whosoever of us lifts his hand in hate against a brother, or who thinks himself superior to those who happen to be in the minority, makes of this ceremony and the bloody sacrifice it commemorates, an empty, hollow mockery. To this then, as our solemn sacred duty, do we the living now dedicate ourselves: To the right of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, of White men and Negroes alike, to enjoy the democracy for which all of them have here paid the price…We here solemnly swear this shall not be in vain. Out of this and from the suffering and sorrow of those who mourn this, will come, we promise, the birth of a new freedom for the sons of men everywhere. AMEN.”

Let us go forward, and remember the sacrifice Black (African-Americans), White (Caucasians), Yellow (Asian), Red (Native American) and Green (Marines) made 75 years ago and make American the purest democracy we can. We are indeed the sons of men everywhere. We are all sons and daughters of the same tribe and should never forget our origins. We are all Green—we are all part of one race, the human race and should never forget it. 

For more information, visit bryanmarkrigg.com.

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