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Frederick C. Branch; Was 1st Black Officer In U.S. Marine Corps

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 13, 2005; Page B06

Frederick C. Branch, the first African American officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, died April 10 of an infection at a hospital in Philadelphia, where he lived. He was 82.

Two years after entering the Marines as an enlisted man, and after serving in the South Pacific during World War II, Mr. Branch completed Officer Candidate School as the only black student in a class of 250. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant Nov. 10, 1945, the 170th anniversary of the founding of the Marines.

Frederick C. Branch's wife, Camilla "Peggy" Branch, pins her husband's lieutenant's insignia on his uniform at Montford Point Camp, N.C. (Department Of Defense)

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It took an executive order in 1941 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to force the Marine Corps to admit African Americans to its ranks. Six other black candidates had entered the Marines' officer training program and had been eliminated, for one reason or another, before Mr. Branch received his commission.

He said he did not face "any flak during training at all," but Mr. Branch fully understood the difficulty of being a black man in America before the civil rights era. As an enlisted man, Mr. Branch and other black Marines watched as their white compatriots ate in restaurants that refused to admit African Americans.

While in officer training at Purdue University in Indiana, he refused an usher's request to go to a theater balcony, where African Americans were expected to sit. The usher returned to Mr. Branch, telling him he was wanted on the telephone.

"It was my commanding officer," he recalled in a 1997 interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer. "He said, 'Branch, your liberty's up. Get back to your dormitory.' "

"For a person of color to aspire to be an officer in the Marine Corps was a danger," Maj. Gen. Cornell A. Wilson Jr. said last year, when Mr. Branch was given an award by the NAACP. "We still had Jim Crow laws. We still had unwritten rules and regulations in the country. . . . He could very well have been lynched or injured in some way."

In 1995, the Senate passed a resolution honoring Mr. Branch on the 50th anniversary of his officer's commission. Two years later, a building at the Officer Candidate School at Quantico Marine Base was named in his honor.

"Every African American officer can trace his beginnings back to Fred Branch," said Joe Geeter, vice president of the Montford Point Association, a black Marine veterans group. "Each of these officers owes his success to the courage and dedication he showed while going through Officer Candidate School during World War II."

Frederick Clinton Branch, the son of an African Methodist Episcopal Zion minister, was born in Hamlet, N.C., the fourth of seven sons. He graduated from high school in Mamaroneck, N.Y., and attended Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte before transferring to Temple University in Philadelphia.

An older brother, Douglas M. Branch, was an officer in the Army when Mr. Branch was drafted into the Marines in 1943. After training under white officers at the otherwise segregated Montford Point Camp in North Carolina, Mr. Branch applied to Officer Candidate School but was turned down.

"I read all the requirements to be an officer," he later recalled, "and nowhere in there did it say anything about race."

Based in the South Pacific during World War II, he won the notice of his commanding colonel with his starched uniform and conscientious manner. When the colonel asked if Mr. Branch had put in an application for Officer Candidate School, he said, "Yes sir, but I was turned down."

"Well, Branch," the colonel told him, "if you keep up the good work, I'll approve it."

Mr. Branch was on active duty for less than a year before he reentered Temple, from which he graduated in 1947 with a bachelor's degree in physics. He remained in the Marine Corps Reserve until he was recalled to active duty during the Korean War. He was promoted to captain in the Reserve but left the military in 1955, somewhat disappointed that his opportunities in the military seemed limited.

In Philadelphia, Mr. Branch developed the science program at Murrell Dobbins High School, where he taught for 35 years and was department chairman. He retired from teaching in 1988.

He received an honorary doctorate from Johnson C. Smith University in 1995.

His wife of 55 years, Camilla "Peggy" Branch, died in 2000. They had no children. A godson they raised from infancy, Joseph Alex Cooper, lives in Philadelphia. Other survivors include two brothers, William B. Branch of New Rochelle, N.Y., and Floyd Branch of Washington.

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