WASHINGTON — Hundreds of African-American veterans who helped to integrate the Marine Corps during World War II at a time segregation was an everyday reality are now proud recipients of the nation's highest civilian honor.
Nearly 70 years after the Marines of Montford Point became the first African Americans in the Corps, Congress on Wednesday awarded them the Congressional Gold Medal. The Corps was the last branch of the U.S. military to allow blacks to serve.
Originally from Washington, D.C., then-19-year-old Charles Manuel Jr. enrolled with the Marines in 1942 straight out of high school.
Manuel was sent to Montford Point, a North Carolina base that the Corps created to keep African Americans away from bases where other Marines trained. Roughly 20,000 other African- American Marines trained at the base, which operated from 1942 to 1949.
He said that the training at the base was rough, because for many recruits it was their first time experiencing boot training and their instructors were White. "Our drill instructor told us, 'You people want to be Marines, I'm going to make Marines out of you dead or alive.'"
Manuel, now in his late 80's, sat next to his daughter, Rosetta Holloway at the ceremony.
"It was more than overdue," Holloway said. "I'm very excited and pleased for my father, who's really proud of being in the Marines."
William McDowell, who was selected to represent Montford Point, received the medal on behalf of the roughly 400 Montford Point Marines in attendance. "It does sadden me that some of our brothers are not with us today. The upside of it all is that we do remember each and every one of them. They are in our hearts and minds and they should never be forgotten," McDowell said before taking a pause to dry his eyes.
The medal will be on display at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Virginia. The Marines received bronze replicas.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt banned racially based employment discrimination by all federal agencies in 1941, and a presidential directive allowed African Americans to serve the Marines in 1942.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi told the Marines: "You served our country at a time that it took an extra dose of patriotism to do so. Because all of the freedoms that you were fighting for were not afforded to everyone in our country at that time."
Speaker of the House John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell also spoke.
"Allowing blacks to serve the Marine Corps was seen as an experiment," Boehner told the crowd. "If it was an experiment, it didn't last any long. Before the end of the war, the Marine commandant at the time said the experiment was over. The men trained at Montford were Marines, period."
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