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Branching Out

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    Branching Out

    By David Danelo
    Proceedings, June 2005

    It took 170 years for the Marine Corps and Frederick and Peggy Branch to reach this moment. In the entire history of the Corps, no African-American had been commissioned until she pinned on his second lieutenant's bars at Quantico on 10 November 1945.

    In June 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an Executive Order prohibiting racial discrimination by any government agency. In protest, Lieutenant General Thomas Holcomb, the 17th Commandant of the Marine Corps, told Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, "There would be a definite loss of efficiency in the Marine Corps if we have to take Negroes."

    Secretary Knox disagreed. A World War I veteran and former publisher of the Chicago Daily News , Knox told Holcomb to carry out Roosevelt's orders. At that time, the Marine Corps remained the only all-white branch of service in the United States military. Leaders of the Corps strongly resented the directive, objecting to civilian interference in "matters concerning military effectiveness and morale."

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    Recruiting began on 1 June 1942. A policy letter from Quantico identified a quota for 900 "colored recruits." In addition to the existing Marine standards, black recruits were enlisted as Class III (c), Marine Corps Reserve, and assigned to inactive duty. The recruit's service record book and enlistment contract were stamped COLORED.

    Against this backdrop, 21-year-old Frederick C. Branch received his Army draft notice in May 1943 while attending Temple University in Philadelphia, and reported for induction at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Two sergeants wearing starched khakis approached him. They looked him over and said, "Come with us. You're going to be a Marine," as quoted in the Philadelphia Inquirer .

    Branch went with them to nearby Montford Point, a colored-only training camp separated from Camp Lejeune by twelve miles of dense North Carolina forest. Now called Marine Corps Base New River, Montford Point was built in 1942 in response to Roosevelt's order ending government-sponsored segregation. Reflecting the cultural norms of the time, nearby Jacksonville's railroad tracks divided the town into white and black.

    At that time, Colonel Samuel A. Woods Jr. commanded the Montford Point garrison. Colonel Woods espoused the "father to son, teacher to scholar" principles of leadership in handling his recruits. Although Woods never challenged the separation of the races—that change would not occur for several years—he treated his men with fairness, respect, and compassion. When Branch and other black recruits were out on liberty, white bus drivers often refused them seats during busy weekend activity. Woods allowed his beleaguered recruits to commandeer the buses and quietly reimbursed the travel agencies for their inconvenience. 1

    Unfortunately, Branch was stationed at Montford Point when Major General Henry L. Larsen, a veteran of the Pacific theater, assumed command of Camp Lejeune. Later that summer of 1943, Larsen spoke to a large group of Montford Point Marines—men who fell directly under his command. Prior to the address, energy and enthusiasm filled the air. No general had ever spoken to the Montford men. They assumed Larsen would bring both news of the Pacific fight and a promise from the Marine Corps that black units would soon engage the enemy in combat alongside their white Marine brethren.

    Larsen began. "I have been fighting day and night in the jungles. But I didn't realize a war was on until I got back to the United States." He paused. His warriors smiled; the general understood.

    Or so they thought. "When I returned from overseas and found you people here at Montford Point wearing our Eagle, Globe and Anchor, I realized a grave state of war existed right here in America." Insulted and furious, the recruits shouted Larsen down. The general left under armed escort without having an opportunity to finish his diatribe, according to the Inquirer .

    Months later, by then a corporal, Branch was stationed with a black supply unit on a group of Pacific Islands near the International Dateline, far from any front-line fighting. He reviewed the requirements for the Navy's V-12 Program, a wartime commissioning opportunity available to drafted college students. He found no restrictions involving race on the application, presumably because those responsible had not conceived the possibility that a black man could ever become a corporal, much less an officer. Branch's first application was rejected. No explanation was given.

    Undaunted, the corporal starched his parade khakis and volunteered to deliver the daily mail to his commanding officer. This gave him an opportunity to demonstrate his capabilities and his CO approved the second application, personally lobbying officials in Washington on Branch's behalf.

    In 1944, Branch reported to the V-12 program at Purdue University. He performed well in classes, earning a spot on the Dean's List. His only infraction occurred when he went to an off-campus movie theater, in uniform, and refused to move into the colored-only balcony section. Theater officials called his CO, who ordered Branch back to the barracks and revoked his liberty pass.

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    He later attended the 16th Platoon Leaders Class. On 10 November 1945, the 170th birthday of the Corps, 2nd Lieutenant Branch smiled as his wife, Peggy, pinned on his bars in a ceremony at Camp Lejeune. That evening, he and his wife went to the Montford Point theater to celebrate and sat in the balcony. Word spread. After the show, Marines of many ranks stood and offered Branch and his bride a spontaneous ovation, as reported in the Inquirer .

    During the Korean War, Lieutenant Branch was sent to Camp Pendleton, designated an infantry officer, and given command of an antiaircraft training platoon. He was barred, however, from attending advanced training courses on how to use the weaponry. He learned anyway, and his men admired him for it. One Marine's father who visited his son asked why he was saluting a colored man. "That's my commanding officer," the Marine replied, said the Raleigh News & Observer .

    Branch resigned his commission as a captain in 1955. He never saw combat; senior Marines of his era probably feared the social repercussions if Branch performed with valor and distinction. After obtaining his physics degree at Temple University, he established a science department at Dobbins High School in Philadelphia where he taught for more than 30 years.

    Captain Frederick C. Branch died on 10 April 2005; he was 82. Ten days later, he was laid to rest at Quantico National Cemetery with full military honors. The United States Senate passed a resolution in honor of his life accomplishments. An academic building at the Officer Candidate School in Quantico bears his name. His wife Peggy preceded him in death; they had no children. Nonetheless, Branch's legacy endures through the thousands of high school students he taught and in the leadership and character of today's African-American Marines.

    1. Gerald Astor, The Right to Fight: A History of African Americans in the Military , (New York: Ballentine Books, 1998) back to article

    David Danelo, a former Marine Corps officer, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy. He is working on a book about combat in Iraq.

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