Hugh Victor Browne II of New Jersey was excited to sign up for the U.S. Marines in 1943 because that distinguished him from his four older brothers who served in the U.S. Army, according to his daughter, Lovie Browne Tarver.
Two years earlier, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had signed an executive order that ended racial discrimination in the national defense industry, which in turn allowed the Marines to recruit Black soldiers.
Hugh Victor Browne II surrounded by his children. (Courtesy photo)
But Tarver, of Bowie, Md., remembers in later years that her father talked about how angry he was when he found out he wasn’t going to boot camp at Camp Lejeune, one of several training grounds for White Marine recruits. Browne, like all of the other Black Marine recruits, was sent instead to Camp Montford Point, a training facility in Jacksonville, N.C., near Camp Lejeune.
“He felt as if he had been tricked and he didn’t like that,” Tarver said. While Browne considered the conditions at Montford Point to be subpar, Tarver said her father, “made the best of a bad situation.”
Despite facing racism at home and abroad, Montford Pointers made history with their service. About 13,000 of the Black marines from Montford Point went abroad during World War II, with nearly 2,000 of them helping Allied forces take Okinawa, in the largest amphibious landing in the Pacific theater of the war.
The U.S. Armed Forces were racially segregated back then, and wouldn’t start integrating until after President Harry S. Truman signed an executive order forcing them to do so in 1948. Nearly 20,000 Black men enlisted in the Marines during World War II, and Montford Point trained America’s first Black Marines from 1942 through 1949.
Jacksonville, North Carolina followed Jim Crow laws that made it illegal for them to patronize “White’s only” establishments. Browne also made the trip to Montford Point in a “colored” train car and packed plenty of food for the journey because he wasn’t allowed to eat in the dining car.
At Montford Point, the men were housed in corrugated metal huts with no running water and walked “half a block” to go to the bathroom, according to an article written about Browne on nj.com. Alligators, snakes, mosquitoes and muskrats roamed the grounds as well, the article said.
On the few occasions her father ventured into town, he’d go with other Black Marines, take care of his business, and immediately head back to base.
“If you’re looking at White women in the town, that’s going to be a problem for a Black man, so they rarely went into town and if they did, they went in groups,” Tarver said.
Once they graduated from boot camp, racism often relegated Montford Pointers to support roles during the war that typically meant packing and unloading ships or delivering ammunition to front-line troops, and only took arms when they were ordered to, historians say.
Browne, for example, joined thinking he’d get to fight. He was instead sent to clean up the aftermath of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii for eight months, an experience he found disappointing.
“They thought they had signed up for something much different than that, something much more noble, something more rewarding,” Tarver said. “You think you’re signing up to defend your country and you see no action … I don’t think that sat very well with him.”
The New Jersey man had come from a long line of military men.
His great grandfather Michael Brown, a slave and master blacksmith, shoed horses for the Confederate Army during the Civil War, Tarver said.
Browne’s father, Sylvanus Brown, served two tours in the U.S. Army, first as a Buffalo Soldier keeping peace between Native Americans and white settlers, and then as support personnel in France during World War I.
His older brother, Moses Douglas Browne, saw action in Italy with the U.S. Army’s 92nd Infantry Division in World War II. And his famous brother, Emmy-award winning actor, Roscoe Lee Browne, served the Army during World War II as well. Hugh Browne wished his experience had been more fulfilling, his daughter said.
After Pearl Harbor, Hugh Browne served three years as a Marine payroll manager, a job that made him much happier, his daughter said.
“He thought that that was a position of power, a position of prestige because he was responsible for making sure everybody got paid,” Tarver said. “Everybody had to come to him for their pay, so I think he liked that.”
After discharging from the Marines, Browne studied pre-law at Lincoln University, where he met and later married Tarver’s mother, Erma E. Browne. He became an entrepreneur, opening a deli and three dry cleaning shops in New Jersey.
Nearly 70 years after he set foot on Montford Point, Browne and hundreds of his fellow Montford Pointers received the Congressional Gold Medal in 2012 in recognition for their service. It’s the highest civilian honor the U.S. Congress gives.
“He was elated that finally someone had recognized them for their service and for all that they persevered through and they endured,” Tarver remembered. “He kept kissing the medal and he kept holding it.”
Browne died at the age of 90, three years after he got the gold medal, but his legacy lives on in his family. Tarver said.
“The thing that he instilled in us is pride,” Tarver told The AFRO. “Pride in serving and … that’s something that I think my grandfather and my great grandfather they’ve all instilled through the generations in our family is to take pride in the opportunity to serve in whatever capacity that is, whether its military service or you’re just serving in your church or in your community. I mean, they did all of that.”