World War II became a major turning point in the desegregation of the U.S. military when African-American service members continued an honored legacy of military service in newly established organizations such as the Tuskegee Airmen. It was also during this period the U.S. Marine Corps first began inducting African-American recruits into an elite group that became known as the Montford Point Marines.
Lawrence "Larry" Diggs, of Columbia, explained he was raised on Mississippi Delta farmland but was living in Chicago when he received his draft notice and was inducted into the Marine Corps on Oct. 14, 1943.
"Before World War II, blacks had not been allowed to serve in the Marines," Diggs said. "During the induction process, there was no rhyme or reason to how they selected us for a specific branch of service, they just pointed out a few of us and said, 'You're going to be Marines' — I didn't have any choice in the matter."
From Chicago, Diggs and his group of fellow inductees traveled by bus to Jacksonville, North Carolina, and from there were taken to nearby Camp Lejeune. Upon their arrival at the camp, they were transferred to a segregated training area known as Camp Montford Point.
"We didn't have barracks or anything like what the white Marines had," Diggs recalled. "During our training, we lived in tents and all of our instructors were white."
For several weeks, they underwent basic training, which Diggs described as being "brutal" at times. During this timeframe, in addition to learning drill and ceremony and conducting maneuvers, they trained with weapons such as the M-1 rifle, mortars, grenades, all of which was supplemented by instruction on the effective use of bayonets in combat.
"Most of our instructors didn't want black Marines and didn't support the idea of integration in the military, so they tried to drill us hard enough to break us down and make us give up, but that only made us more determined to succeed," he affirmed.
When his initial training was finished in the early weeks of 1944, Diggs was assigned to the 7th Ammunition Company. He was soon transferred to the island of Guadalcanal in the southwest Pacific to complete jungle warfare training and additional instruction on the operations of several types of machine guns. In early September 1944, he boarded an ammunition ship in preparation for the Battle of Peleliu.
Peleliu, in the Palau Islands, became part of the island-hopping campaign in the Western Pacific, implemented to capture areas of strategic importance held by the Japanese forces. The Battle of Peleliu began in September 1944, with Marine forces conducting an amphibious assault against Japanese troops who were concealed across the island through a network of underground caverns.
As Diggs explained, "We were attached to the 1st Marine Division and sent as replacements for Marines that had been lost in the fighting. When we got to Peleliu, we watched from the ship as the Navy bombarded the island; there was smoke everywhere and they had knocked down most of the trees."
Serving as a rifleman, Diggs became part of a group of Marines ordered to go ashore for the assault. Departing the ship aboard amphibious duck boats, as soon as the Marines hit the beach, they quickly dug foxholes while mortars fell around them like hail in a thunderstorm.
The battle for the island continued for several weeks, with Diggs and his fellow Marines experiencing hand-to-hand combat and using devices such as flamethrowers to drive the entrenched Japanese soldiers from their network of caverns. Other times, they had the unenviable responsibility of burying the dead and decaying Japanese corpses.
In spite of all the hardships, Diggs possesses some humorous reflections from his time in a combat environment.
"We all wore green-colored undershirts, but we had this one guy named Douglas, who was a scout and who liked to wear white undershirts that weren't Marine Corps issue. He was a great scout; and one time, while surveying enemy positions, he stole a Japanese bike and rode it back into camp."
Diggs went on to explain that when the scout returned to camp at dusk, he jumped into his foxhole and removed his outer shirt, but when a crab crawled across his body in the dark, he let out a holler in surprise.
"The Japanese shot up a flare and saw him in his white undershirt," Diggs said. "They started shooting at us, and he's lucky that one of our own guys didn't kill him for giving away our position." Grinning, he added, "He survived, and it was all funny enough after it was over."
The battle for the island came to an end in late November 1944, and Diggs remained on the island for several months, serving as a truck driver delivering supplies and training other soldiers to serve as drivers. He returned to Montford Point in the spring of 1945, where he remained until receiving his discharge on May 11, 1946.
Returning to Chicago, he was eventually hired by the U.S. Postal Service and went on to retire with 30 years of service. The married father of five children moved to Columbia in 1980, where he and his wife continue to enjoy their retirement years.
Recognition for the achievements of the Montford Point Marines came in 2012, when Diggs joined 400 of his fellow Marines at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., to receive the Congressional Gold Medal.
The period of World War II was a "different time," the veteran admits, but he remains contented in knowing the efforts of he and his fellow black Marines during the war helped inspire desegregation of the military and moved the country forward in the spirit of civil rights.
"Once I became of age to enter the service, I had no choice — they got me right after I turned 18," he chuckled. "But once I was there, I made the best of it."
He concluded, "They didn't want us in the Marine Corps; they weren't ready for us and they did their best to make sure that we didn't succeed. We just performed the best that we could and were determined to prove them wrong."
Jeremy P. mick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.