Fighting for the “Right to Fight:” Black contributions to the Pacific Theatre of World War II

The Pacific Asia

This article is the first in a series leading up to Memorial Day, seeking to highlight the contributions of Black Americans to US military engagement in the Indo-Pacific region and how these experiences shaped their life in the region and at home. Future additions to this series will cover the Philippine-American War, and the Vietnam War, which will commemorate its 50th anniversary this year.

World War II is etched in collective memory as “The Last Good War.” Yet, many of those who fought to secure the world from unprovoked aggression faced similar kinds of prejudice and injustice as the kind they fought against. Units such as the Harlem Hellfighters and Tuskegee Airmen are well-known for their respective service in the European theatre of World War I and World War II. This article aims to highlight the experiences of two groups of Black Americans who served in the Pacific theatre: the Montford Point Marines in the West Pacific, and the 77th Coast Artillery in Tonga.

Montford Point Marines

On June 25, 1941, under pressure from Black activists such as Phillip Randolph, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, which instituted a policy of no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government on the basis of, “race, creed, color, or national origin…” However, reflecting a common theme in US history, Roosevelt’s vision on paper was markedly different from actual practice.

The first cadre of volunteer Black Marines began training at Montford Point in Jacksonville, North Carolina on August 26, 1942 under unusually rough conditions. Montford Point Marine Sergeant Carrel Reavis summarized the conditions at the segregated facilities: “Even though we were all Marines we were kept separate. We didn't have barracks, we lived in huts, built from cardboard, painted green. Camp Lejeune had barracks but we had huts. It was located in the backwoods, amid water snakes and bears." The attitude of the Marine Commandant at the time, Thomas Holcomb, made it clear that this was not an isolated incident. In a Navy General Board meeting, Holcomb said, “If it were a question of having a Marine Corps of 5,000 whites or 250,000 Negroes, I would rather have the whites.”

In addition, their training was more intense than their white counterparts. This was even more so when they eventually had Black drill instructors by May 1943, who “pushed them twice as hard with the notion that failure is not an option,” according to Joseph Shinal, the National Monument Director of the National Montford Point Marine Association. On a more granular level, as per Joseph Geeter III, former President of the National Montford Point Marines Association, the difference between the two types of drill instructors was mainly down to the racially motivated nature of the insults white instructors would use compared to Black instructors.

Various units of the Montford Point Marines served and saw combat throughout key battlefields during the Pacific Campaign. The 51st and 52nd Defense Battalions conducted patrols against surviving Japanese enclaves after the recapture of Guam. However, it was mainly units originally intended as combat support companies that saw the most action in battlefields such as Saipan, Tinian, Guam, Peleiliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. Saipan was the first of these battlefields where Montford Point Marines faced combat. Until then, Black marines were limited to support staff positions such as cooks, busboys, and servants. However, Lieutenant General Holland Smith’s force by the Battle for Saipan was depleted. The Black Americans of the Montford Point Marines were vital to the recapture of that island. Their performance was so critical that the Marine Corps Commandant at the time, Lieutenant General Alexander Vandegrift, declared, “The Negro Marines are no longer on trial. They are Marines period.”

The military has since been desegregated due to Executive Order 9981, signed by President Truman on July 26, 1948. The Marine Corps desegregated its own forces in full in 1960, and now, Montford Point is known as Camp Johnson after one of the first Black Americans to enlist in the Marines, Sergeant Major Gilbert “Hashmark” Johnson. In 2012, the National Montford Point Marine Association, through an initiative under its former president and current public relations officer, Joseph Geeter III, successfully lobbied Congress to institute a Congressional Gold Medal for their service.

Today, members of the Association are trying to locate the remaining 17,000 out of 20,000 Montford Point Marines’ families who have yet to receive their medal, according to the current president of the Montford Point Marine Association, Dr. James T. Averhart Jr. In a statement to The East-West Center’s Young Professional Angelo Paule, he said, “After all, this is not simply Black History or Marine Corps History but American History and the world needs to know about these African American Marine Pioneers!"

77th Coastal Artillery

While Black Americans in the Western Pacific seemingly had to 'earn' their respect among their white peers, this was not necessarily the case in some of the Pacific communities where they served. The Tongan occupation from 1942 to 1945 encapsulates the divergent ways in which Black Americans were treated abroad by locals, in contrast to their own fellow citizens.

When Britain declared war on the Axis Powers in 1939, Queen Sālote Tupou III of Tonga put all of her country’s resources at Britain’s disposal, assuring Britain that “Tonga will continue to help in every possible way until the victory for which we fight is completely won.” The Queen then quickly established the new Tonga Defense Forces in addition to providing access to Tongatabu Harbor for British and American use as a naval and air base. From 1942 until the occupation ended in 1945, Tonga hosted over 8,000 soldiers and sailors in addition to hundreds of US vessels. One of the regiments stationed in Tonga was the 77th Coastal Artillery, an all-Black regiment.

Beyond segregation, Black soldiers were unrepresented in the regiment’s officers and were routinely subject to disciplinary action. As such, the men of the 77th Coastal Artillery occupied a peculiar position in Tonga, suffering under US systems of racism brought abroad yet receiving warm welcomes from the local Tongans.

Initially, while several British-aligned or dependent governments, such as Australia, requested that Washington not send Black Americans to participate in their defense, Tonga accepted Americans of all races. On several occasions, members of the 77th were invited by locals to dances on palace grounds, as well as being invited to Queen Sālote’s own village.

This overlooked anecdote in Pacific history highlights the hypocritical nature of the American predicament at the time. Black Americans fought to promote democracy and freedom abroad, yet were subject to Jim Crow laws and racism at home. Black Americans abroad and at home challenged this hypocrisy with the launch of the “Double V” campaign in 1942. It called for victory abroad in the war as well as achieving civil liberties at home. The “Double V” campaign and the activism associated with it formed the foundation of the Civil Rights Movement in the following decades.

The story of the Tongan occupation demonstrates how Tongan good graces not only advanced the American war effort but also supported Black Americans. While the United States is often heralded as the saviors of Pacific liberty against Japanese aggression, the agency, support, and inclusivity of the United States and Britain’s local partners were vital to achieving success.

This article highlighted key Black American experiences in the Pacific Theatre of World War II and how they previously reckoned with what it meant to be both Black and American while serving their country in the Indo-Pacific region.

Next week, East-West Center Young Professional Ramil Mercado will write about US “Buffalo Soldiers” during the Philippine-American War.

This article was co-written by Spring 2023 East-West Center in Washington Young Professionals Angelo Paule and Alec Weiker.

Angelo Paule received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science at the University of Guam. He will begin Georgetown University’s Master of Science Foreign Service program in Fall 2023.   

Alec Weiker is a fourth-year undergraduate at Georgetown University studying International Relations with a double focus on the Pacific and National Identity.