MARINE CORPS AIR STATION BEAUFORT, SC -- A Marine Corps legend was lost in April, but the Marines he inspired will never forget the trails he forged.
Frederick C. Branch, the first black commissioned officer in the Marine Corps, was buried in Quantico National Cemetery April 20. Branch died April 10, in Philadelphia at the age of 82.
After being turned away from Officer Candidate School before he was drafted in 1943, the Hamlet, N.C., native became a pioneer when he was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant on Nov. 10, 1945, the 170th birthday of the Marine Corps.
Although an executive order in 1941 from President Franklin D. Roosevelt banned discrimination in the military, Branch was the only black officer to graduate in a class of 250 candidates. After being drafted, Branch went to boot camp at Montford Point Camp, N.C., today known as Camp Johnson. Montford Point was a segregated Marine Corps training facility near Jacksonville, N.C., created in 1942 to train black Marines. Recruit training remained segregated until 1949.
Today, the Montford Point Marines Association is a non-profit charity group that supports Montford Point veterans and performs community service, with 28 chapters in the United States and Japan. For Montford Point Marines, Branch was an icon whose spirit will never fade, according to retired Gunnery Sgt. Elijah Abram, chapter president, Beaufort MPMA.
“He was an inspiration to black Marines, enlisted and officers,” Abram said. “He was a great educator and fighter, but he never forgot where he came from. He never got big-headed about who he was or what he did.”
Branch left the Marine Corps in 1955 as a captain and joined the staff at Murrell Dobbins High School in Philadelphia, where he founded a science department and taught for 25 years before retiring in 1988.
“(My brother) was unassuming, nonetheless, a brilliant man,” said William Branch. “He accomplished so much, but didn’t brag about it. He was very proud. Not just because he was a Marine, but because of the impact it made in the U.S. history by becoming the first Marine officer of African descent.”
After retirement, Branch remained involved with the MPMA and Abram had several opportunities to meet him during his time with the association.
“One of my great honors was to receive the ‘Man of the Year’ association award from Branch,” Abram said. “He was a friend to the association and the enlisted Marines and officers of yesterday and today.”
In November 1995, the 50th anniversary of his commissioning, Senate Resolution 195 honored Branch for his contributions in spite of the racial segregation of his time. In 1997, a building at the Officer Candidate School aboard Quantico was named in his honor. A congressional resolution submitted for consideration in February commemorates the service to the nation during World War II of the Marines like Branch, who came to be known as the Montford Point Marines.
“Every African American officer can trace his beginnings back to Fred Branch,” said Joe Geeter, vice president, MMPA. “Each of these officers owes his success to the courage and dedication he showed while going through OCS during World War II.”
While Branch may have passed on from those that loved him, the paths he created will continue to be followed and his spirit will never weaken, according to Abram.
“This was a loss to the association,” Abram said. “He was a one-of-a-kind person and he will be sorely missed, but never forgotten.”
For more information on the Montford Point Marines Association, visit www.montfordpointmarines.com.