After Pearl Harbor, African-Americans wanted to fight for their country. A select few obtained the toughest training available: the U.S. Marine Corps.
Recruiting began on June 1, 1942. Black men volunteered in droves, but under segregation, they were trained separately in a snake-infested area of Camp Lejeune, N.C., called Montford Point.
Theodore R. Britton was one of the select few.
He recalled, “I wanted the best, I wanted the United States Marine Corps.” His path to becoming a Marine was grueling and fraught with stereotypes. Britton recalled, “The Commandant of the Marines, Thomas Holcomb, publicly stated that if given a choice between 5,000 white Marines vs. 500,000 black Marines, he’d rather have white Marines because black men can’t fight.”
The Montford Point Marines did their share of walking through hostile territory in the South Pacific, but primarily as support troops, stretcher bearers, and ammo carriers. They finally entered combat on the island of Saipan.
Britton said, “Marines were surrounded and in danger of being overrun, so an officer ran for reinforcements. He found black Marines unloading supplies on the beach and ordered them to grab their guns. They were going into combat. The black Marines fought courageously and saved the day.”
The new Commandant of the Marine Corps, Lt. Gen. Alexander A. Vandergrift, after reviewing reports of conspicuous gallantry by black Marines, announced, “Negro Marines are no longer on trial. They are Marines, period!”
Britton served on Guadalcanal for eight months.
“The fighting was over, so I frequented the library. I fell in love with books and read everything I could get my hands on: philosophy, geography, chemistry and history, among others. Books whetted my interest in international affairs and diplomacy.”
Sent to Hawaii for extensive training in preparation for an invasion of Japan, Britton’s and millions of other lives were saved by atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
After the war Britton earned a degree from NYU in banking and finance. He covered several Central American countries for the American Baptist Convention. After serving in England and Spain to achieve expertise in housing, he accepted a position at the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. On the recommendation of South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, Britton received an ambassadorship in 1974 to Barbados and Grenada.
He served concurrently as Special Representative to Antigua, Dominica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, and St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla.
Ambassador Britton has visited more than 150 countries, served in peace initiatives in the Middle East, and in 2009 was awarded the degree of Doctor of Laws (Honoris Causa) by Kristal University in Tirana, Albania.
His final thoughts: “An education opens doors for you. Read, educate yourself, and don’t give up. Make something of your life.”
From a sermon by Chaplain Roland Gittlesohn at the dedication of the Iwo Jima cemetery, 1945: “We dedicate ourselves, first, to live together in peace the way they fought and are buried in war. 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 prejudice. No hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy.”