Marine Britton fought racism, perceptions during WWII, Korea

Ambassador Theodore Britton, right, with Gen. James F. Amos, commandant of the U.S.Marine Corps.

CONYERS -- Theodore R. Britton Jr. dealt with racial segregation at home but was a brother in the U.S. Marine Corps as World War II wound down. Denied a commission during the Korean War, he led a successful life of learning that culminated in an ambassadorship to Barbados and Grenada.

Britton lived in Rockdale County for several years before moving to Atlanta where he now resides. Born in North Augusta, S.C., he moved with his family to New York City for better opportunities. He was drafted out of high school shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. His military physical and written exams qualified Britton for any branch of service, and he chose to join the Marines.

In a segregated America, black Marines were trained at Montford Point on the western tip of Camp Lejeune, N.C.

"We essentially built the base, lived in wooden huts, fought off insects, and chased away the occasional bear," he said.

"In 1942, the Marine commandant said given a choice, he'd prefer 5,000 whites to 250,000 'coloreds' because blacks couldn't fight," he said. "Apparently, he'd never walked through a ghetto after midnight."

Marines always take care of other Marines. Britton told a story about a black Marine at a bus station who was denied seating on two buses because they were first filled with white passengers. Then a white Marine MP (military police), who had survived Guadalcanal, noticed the black Marine.

"Advised of the situation, the MP summoned the station manager, pulled out his .45 automatic, and warned the station manager, 'Either this Marine gets on the next bus or your brains hit the wall,'" Britton said. "Well, that black Marine was on the next bus."

Britton trained for military intelligence and administrative duties and then sailed to Guadalcanal.

"The battle for the island was over by then," he said. "But it turned out to be the most glorious eight months of my life. I love books, and books were all over the place. We had excellent white officers that shared their knowledge with me, and I kept my head buried in those books."

The battle for Saipan in June 1944 changed negative attitudes concerning combat worthiness of black Marines. Given the opportunity, black Marines proved their mettle.

"A Marine outfit was being overrun by Japanese, but the only available reinforcements were black Marines unloading supplies on the beach," Britton said. "They were ordered into the brawl and were happy for the chance to fight. They saved their brother Marines, and won commendations for their fighting ability."

Sent to Hawaii to prepare for the invasion, Britton and his fellow Marines knew the casualties on both sides would be in the millions.

"Thankfully, two atomic bombs ended the war," he said.

Discharged in 1946, Britton attended City College in New York followed by New York University, but was called back for duty during the Korean War on Oct. 2, 1950.

"I wanted to fight," he said. "I applied for a commission and passed all the exams and tests but was denied my commission and received my discharge in 1951."

Britton returned to NYU. He received his degree in 1952, majoring in banking and finance.

He covered several countries of Central America as a real estate manager for the American Baptist Convention. He traveled to England and Spain to develop expertise in housing and soon accepted a position with the federal department of Housing and Urban Development as its deputy assistant secretary for research in housing and finance.

With a recommendation from Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, Britton received his ambassadorship to Barbados and Grenada in 1974. He served concurrently as U.S. Special Representative to Antigua, Dominica, St. Lucie, St. Vincent, and St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla.

From 1981 until 1989 Ambassador Britton served as chairman of the US-China, and Soviet Union Agreement on Housing and Planning. Maintaining his continuing education and life-long interest in diplomatic affairs and international activities, he has visited more than 150 countries as a lecturer and speaker. He's served on several peace initiatives to the Middle East and was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Albania's Kristal University in 2009.

"You know, education can take you places, open doors, open hearts, even change a nation. I don't care what anyone says, the United States of America is still the best thing going on the planet," Britton said. "Read, educate yourself, don't give up. Make something of your life."

Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran and author of "A Veteran's Story," a regular feature of the Citizen. Contact him at

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