Capt. Frederick C. Branch, the first black commissioned officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, was buried at the Quantico National Cemetery on Wednesday with full military honors. Branch died April 10 in Philadelphia after a short illness. He was 82.
He was “unassuming, nonetheless, a brilliant man,” his brother William Branch said. “He accomplished so much, but didn’t brag about it. He was very proud. Not just because he was a Marine, but because of the impact it made in U.S. history by becoming the first Marine officer of African descent.”
A viewing and a memorial ceremony took place at the Quantico base chapel, followed by interment at the Quantico National Cemetery.
“The ceremony was fitting and beautifully done,” said Christopher Cooper, Branch’s nephew. “He just loved the Marine Corps so much. He would have been so proud.”
After serving as one of 20,000 black Marines in World War II, he was commissioned on the Marine Corps’ 170th birthday — Nov. 10, 1945.
Branch was born May 31, 1922, in Hamlet, N.C. After studying at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C., he transferred to Temple University in Philadelphia, from where he was drafted in May 1943.
The Marine Corps had barred blacks until President Franklin D. Roosevelt forced the opening of ranks with a 1941 executive order, though recruit training remained segregated until 1949.
After Branch was drafted, he, along with other black wartime Marines, was trained at Montford Point, N.C., now known as Camp Johnson, near where the white Marines were trained at Camp Lejeune.
William Branch said that his brother wanted to follow in the footsteps of another Branch brother, Matthew D. Branch, who was already a lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Matthew Branch was a lieutenant colonel when he died in 1960 at the age of 43.
After applying to Officers Candidate School at Quantico, Branch was not only denied, he was humiliated.
“They told me to shut that blankety-blank stuff up about being an officer,” he said in a 1995 interview. “You ain’t going to be no officer.”
Although Branch was persistent about becoming an officer, he needed a recommendation before being accepted. He finally got his recommendation after impressing his commanding officer while serving in the South Pacific in 1944.
Branch went through the Navy’s V-12 program at Purdue University in West Lafayett, Ind. Although he stood out as the only black in a class of 250 future officers, he also stood out by being awarded a spot on the dean’s list. He subsequently attended the 16th Platoon Commander’s Class in Quantico.
By the time Branch was commissioned, the war ended and he went into the Marine Corps Reserve. He completed a degree in physics at Temple and founded a science department at Philadelphia’s Dobbins High School. He taught there until 1988, when he retired.
Branch was reactivated during the Korean War and sent to Camp Pendleton near San Diego, Calif. After he was discharged in 1952, he returned to the Marine Reserve, was promoted to captain, and eventually left the Corps in 1955.
The Marine Corps honored Branch in 1977 for leading the way in integration by naming a training building for him at Officer Candidate School.
Branch’s wife of 55 years, Camilla “Peggy” Robinson, died in 2000. Branch is survived by two brothers, William of New Rochelle, N.Y., and Floyd of Washington, D.C.; and a godson, Joseph Alex Cooper.