The faces of freedom: America's first African American Marines

Byron Spires

Like many young men of his era Chester Davis Sr., would accept the call of his country and go to war. It was 1943 and the 18-year-old native Gadsden countian had a choice to make. Should he allow himself to be drafted into the Army or should he join the Marines? He chose the Marines and made his mark on history at the same time. Davis would become one of the first African American Marines. His choice to join the Marine Corps wasn't neccesarily driven by a overwhelming desire to be the first, but instead, Davis wanted the esprit-de- corps offered by the Marine Corps. "To my father it was the prestige of the Corps and his desire to do something different that led him to the Marines," son Chester Davis Jr. said. The senior Davis passed away in 1981. This is the story of his experiences as relayed to his son and historical documentation of the first African American Marines. Chester Davis Sr. was next to the oldest child of nine children born to Tommie and Iola

Davis Sr. grew up working in the tobacco fields of Gadsden County. He was familiar with the daylight to dark schedule of farming and knew he had what it took to be Marine. Davis had another distinction as well. He is a direct descendent of slaves who worked on Gadsden County's soil. His great-great uncle Mat is listed in the white Davis family history as a loyal and trusted worker and friend of the family. The Davis family lived in Mt. Pleasant on a small ten acre farm until just before the war broke out. Tommie Davis picked his family up and moved to the Orlando area. The Davis family would be back in Gadsden County by 1943. It was in Orlando that the 18-year-old Chester Davis Sr. would make his decision to join the Marines. After induction Davis was sent to Montiford Point Camp, about ten miles from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. This was in early 1943, before the days of Civil Rights laws. It was a time of segregation and although there was a war waging on two fronts, segregation held a firm hold on this country and especially the military. It is in this light that Davis' decision to become a Marine gains importance. The Navy and the Army had allowed African Americans into their ranks, but delegated them to stewards, truck drivers and maintenance duties. There were exceptions, such as the Horse Soldiers during the American West campaigns. The idea of African American Marines was so new that the Corps needed to recruit African American drill instructors to train these new Marines. Early training would be given by white non-commissioned officers until a crew of African American NCOs could be chosen out of the first recruits. The word went out to recruiting offices all over the country to only send the very best African American recruits to the Marines. Davis fell into the third actual group of young men to be trained at Camp Montiford. His drill instructors were African American. Two of those instructors would become legends in the Marine Corp: Sergeant Major Edger H. Huff and Sergeant Major Gilbert H. "Hashmark" Johnson. Huff would become Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps before he retired. It would be at the end of the war before any African American Marines would hold officers bars. In addition to being segregated, the new Marines under the tutelage of white NCOs found themselves in a living hell. There had been a lot of opposition to African Americans joining the Marines. That became evident to Davis as he was moved from Montiford Point to the main Camp LeJeune for drill instructions. The new marines received a lot of insulting gestures from the white Marines, he told his son. Nearly 18,000 African American Marines would be trained at Camp Montiford Point before the war ended. An interesting note of Davis' early years in the Marines would be a card that noted physical characteristics. The card by a medical examiner listed: eyes -Negro; hair -Negro; complection-Negro. The card was signed by Lt. J.R. Westmoreland, later to become General Westmoreland of the Vietnam era. Davis started his Marine life in the 2nd Marine Depot Company, training as a 75 MM anti-aircraft battery gun operator, and in handling and movement of ammunition. Until the last year of the war, African Americans were delegated primarily to support for front line troops. Davis' job was to transport ammunition and supplies to the Marines. Once he reached the war zone, things began to change very quickly. American aircraft carriers had won the Battle of Midway Island, and the tide of the war had started to turn. The Marines started island hopping across the Pacific. Davis was assigned to the 3rd Marine Depot Company Marines and was there with the troops all the way. Many times transports were unloading while the fighting was still going on for the beaches. In addition to moving supplies Davis went on patrols and guarded perimeters of the supply dumps. Although Davis did not talk often of his war experiences, he did tell his son that over the four years he was in the Marines he lost many of his friends in combat. There were many times he said that he dove for cover and several times he was nearly hit by sniper fire. One experience he did talk about saved his life. He and another Marine had been clowning around and Davis was accidently stabbed in the foot. Because of his injury he missed that night's patrol. No one from the patrol ever came back. They had all been killed in an ambush by the Japanese. Davis Jr., who also chose the military as a career, retiring as a Captain in the United States Air Force, asked his father about his part in the war. Reluctantly Davis told his son that he had been there to do a job and that is what he did. He did his job he said because he was a Marine. "I'm proud to be a Marine," he said. Davis saw action in the following areas: Noumea, New Caledonia, Guadacanal, British Solomon Islands, Ryukya Rotto, Marshall Islands, Carolina Islands Guam, The Marianas Islands and Okinawa. After the war Davis, now a corporal in the Marine Corps, left the service and returned to Gadsden County, and at the age of 27 married Rosa Lee Johnson. The couple had two sons, Chester Jr. the eldest, and Tom. The pair would later divorce and both remarry. Chester Davis Jr. said that as Monday's holiday neared he thought about his father. He thought a lot about all of the sacrifices made for this country and he hoped this Memorial Day everyone would remember all of those young men that went away to war and especially those that did not return.