Carroll (Top) Braxton used to admire the Marines at Quantico when he was growing up in Manassas. "The way they were built, their clothing -- there was just something a little more distinctive about the Marine Corps than there was about the Army or the Navy."
There seemed little chance, however, that Braxton could join the Corps. There were no black Marines.
But at the height of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order for the armed services to accept ll recruits "regardless of color, race, creed or national origin." In 1943, Braxton and several of his high school classmates volunteered.
With that action, Braxton became one of the first blacks to join the Marines.
"We were 'the chosen few,'" he said recently. "We were an experimental group and had to prove we could make it."
On Sunday, Master Gunnery Sgt. Braxton will end his 33 years with the Marines in a brief ceremony at the Armed Forces Reserve Training Center at the Anacostial Naval Annex. During those decades, he has witnessed some of the most significant changes in Marine Corps tradition. h
Braxton recently recalled his early days at boot camp at Montford Point at Camp LeJeune, N.C., the first black Marine Installation. He remembered the segregation and the rumors that white officers -- there were no black officers then -- did not believe blacks could prove themselves as Marines.
Black recruits were grouped in platoons of about 28 men -- much smaller than regular platoons of 70 or 80 men.
But the hints of resentment, he recalled, made his platoon -- the 79th -- and other all-black platoons "determined, if anybody could make it as Marines, we could."
Braxton also remembered the swarms of mosquitos that were so thick at Montford Point his mother thought he had measeles, not mosquito bites, when he came home on his first furlough.
Despite those trials, Braxton said, there was no blatant discrimination by fellow Marines at the camp -- just the reverse.
Black Marines often found themselves up against the "Jim Crow" laws practiced by civilians in towns like Jacksonville, just outside Camp LeJeune.
"There was always a problem, particularly with the buses" that Marines used on furlough, Braxton said.
"If you were black, you not only had to ride in the back of the bus, but you also had to wait until all the whites got on the bus," said Braxton. "That's when the white Marines from Hadnot Point (part of Camp Lejeune) would step in and let the civilians know we were Marines, too. And most of the time, if there was a conflict, the white Marines would help the black Marines against the white civilian."
When Braxton completeed boot camp, he bacame a private in the Marines' only black battalion, the 51st, and was sent to drill instructor (DD) school, a prestigious assignment.
"I wanted to go to war with my buddies," Braxton said, "but I was told whether I wanted to or not I was chosen by my DI to be a DI, and I was going to be a DI."
While Braxton was a drill instructor at Montford Point, he recalled one low point of his Marine career. During a series of boxing match exhibitions, Maj. Gen. Henry Larsen the commander at Camp Lejeune, gave a speech.
"He said he'd been overseas . . . but didn't realize there was a serious war going on until he came back and saw 'you, people -- meaning blacks -- in my uniform,'" Braxton said.
"It was kind of a slap in the face to us. But we were determined . . . that we could do what any other Marine could do."
In 1945, Braxton got his chance to go overseas with the Fifth Replacement Depot Company. During his tour of Saipan, Okinawa and the Hawaii, he earned his sergeant's stripe.
In 1946, Braxton left the Corps. Three years laterr he joined the Marine Reserves, and wa put on active duty at Camp Lejeune for a year during the Korean War.
By that time, the Corps was integrated, Braxton said, and there were black officers and pilots. And I know that blacks in combat units got the chance to prove themselves in the Korean War."
After the war, Braxton returned to Manassas, where he married his wife Celestine and became active in church work. They have two children, Monique, 20 and Robert, 18. Braxton, a procurement analyst at Cameron Station Army Base in Alexandria, is a deacon and chairman of the board of trustees of the First Baptist Church of Manassas.
Braxton has only one regret about leaving the Marine Corps: He won't be able to help the young people he has supervised as an adminstrative supply chief.
"I was able to help a lot of youngerster with problems -- not just Marine problems," he said. "I tried to instill in them that they were civilans, but they were still Marines, too -- the best. I hope someone else will get that across to the ones still coming in."