They were greeted with a fanfare they could not have imagined when they were training at Montford Point, a segregated and substandard boot camp about five miles from all-white Camp Lejeune, N.C., from 1942 to 1949. About 13,000 black men trained at the camp, with many going on to serve in the Pacific, providing support services for white Marines who battled the Japanese on Saipan, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and other locations.
They were assigned to guard duty. Others served in segregated ammunition and depot companies under the leadership of white officers. Their units delivered supplies to troops on the front lines throughout the Pacific Theater.
"I feel precious and pleased," said Phillip Herout, 85, of the Yorktown section of North Philadelphia, who trained at Montford Point and served in the South Pacific. "There are no words for how I feel today. Today is my birthday. It's emotional, and I am a very emotional guy. I am glad that this moment came when it did, while I'm still alive."
House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) greeted the crowd of Marine veterans, many in uniform and many accompanied by their wives, children, and grandchildren. "On behalf of every American, we're humbled by your presence here today," Boehner said.
He said the Montford Point Marines' "loyalty to the corps and courage under any and all circumstances stands as an example - now etched in gold - to any Marine of any color. Thank God for the Marines of Montford Point."
In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt banned race-based exclusion from employment in the military and defense industries. That allowed blacks to join the Marines, which then adopted a policy of strict segregation.
A year later, amid World War II, the corps built the training base at Montford Point. The men lived in huts made of thick corrugated cardboard, sometimes housing as many as 40, with only a stove providing heat on cold, rainy nights.
The Rev. Joseph Ginyard, 87, pastor of Cavalry Gospel Chapel in West Philadelphia, who trained at Montford Point and served on Guam, Saipan, and other islands in the South Pacific, said receiving the Congressional Gold Medal was "a blessing."
"It's great to be here with all these Marines, and we still have that comradeship," he said.
His daughter Joanne Hayward of Atlanta said, "I had to be here with my dad. It's an awesome experience to see all the men and all the young Marines who stand on their shoulders."
In a statement released before the ceremony, Gen. James F. Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, hailed the Montford Point Marines for determination and bravery. "By breaking the color barrier in 1942, the Montford Point Marines became part of the rich legacy of the corps," Amos said.
"They answered the call despite our society being deeply divided along racial lines. As such, their contributions went largely unrecognized, and many times they were not given the respect and recognition they deserved as Marines, as Americans, and as patriots."
The Montford Point Marine Association, a nonprofit group, was founded in Philadelphia in 1965 after a group of Montford Point Marines, including the lawyer and civil rights activist Cecil B. Moore, a former drill sergeant at Montford Point, held a meeting in a hotel in Center City. Chapters were later opened across the country.
William Carney, a Philadelphia jazz musician known as "Mr. C," said he was pleased to be at Wednesday's ceremony and honored for his military service. "I think it's a special honor that officials of the United States have finally seen fit to make this dedication and recognition to the ones of us who are still alive, because we had to pay some dues. It's gratifying to see a lot of young Marines here, master sergeants, a colonel. Semper Fi."
Maj. Joseph Plenzler, a spokesman for the corps, said in an interview, "Not only is the Marine Corps better for what the Montford Point Marines did, but the United States is better for what they did. I think there is no single greater story of character than the Montford Point Marines, considering what they faced, not only racism on the national front and institutional prejudice from people who really didn't want to have them in the corps. They built their own camp. It's a testament to their courage."
During the hour-long ceremony, the Congressional Gold Medal was presented to William McDowell, a representative of the Montford Point Marines. The medal will be kept at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Va. Each living Montford Point Marine will receive a bronze replica of the medal, which bears the inscription, "For Outstanding Perseverance and Courage that Inspired Social Change in the Marine Corps."
On the other side are images of three black Marines in uniform. A parade for the Montford Point Marines is scheduled for Thursday morning near Robert F. Kennedy Stadium.
Hugh Victor Browne, 87, of Woodbury, N.J., said he was awestruck by the sight of his fellow black Marines in the hall. "I would never had believed that I would see this many black officers and noncommissioned officers and female officers in one room," he said.
Standing next to Browne, U.S. Rep. Jon Runyan (R., N.J.) looked across the hall and said, "These are great Americans. We all need more like them. They're outstanding."
U.S. Rep. Allen West (R., Fla.), a retired Army lieutenant colonel, said he had walked "the sacred ground" at Montford Point and was proud of those who trained there. "Thank you for the inspiration you gave me. . . . May all Americans remember you and find inspiration."
U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown (D., Fla.), who wrote the legislation to have the Congressional Gold Medal presented, said, "The Montford Point Marines set the standard for the Marines. In fact, they laid the groundwork for what America would stand for before Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King."
John "Zeke" Clouser, 90, of Philadelphia, who served 23 years in the corps, said he was overwhelmed during the ceremony. "I can't explain it," said Clouser, a former gunnery sergeant who came in his wheelchair. "I'm so full of emotions right now, I'm just enjoying myself. What really makes me feel good is seeing black generals and top officers. When I came through, there was no such thing."
After McDowell received the gold medal, his voice cracked with emotion. He paused, pointed to the audience, and said, "I saw my sergeant, Zeke Clouser, out there saying, 'Suck it up, Marine.'"
Contact Vernon Clark at 215-854-5717 or firstname.lastname@example.org.