Sgt. Maj. William “Movin” Vann’s wife leaned over to adjust his white Marine’s hat, which had fallen back against the heavily cushioned wheelchair back.
Although he could not respond, she whispered in his ear as House Speaker John A. Boehner extolled the vigor and courage of Sgt. Maj. Vann and about 400 other Marines who received the Congressional Gold Medal this week. The once-burly Marine gazed absently back at Mr. Boehner. His helpless body, shrunk by exposure to Agent Orange, was weighed down by the medals decorating his dress blues, his weathered face broken by a vacant smile.
“It’s like the country has finally said, ‘You are a Marine,’ ” Mrs. Vann said.
Seventy years after the first black recruits were admitted into the Marines and began training at a segregated North Carolina facility, the men who went through Montford Point were awarded the highest civilian honor Congress can grant.
The surviving Marines arrived from as far away as the Virgin Islands to attend a ceremony Wednesday to receive the Congressional Gold Medal. They also sat through a military parade in their honor Thursday at the Marine Barracks Washington, helping each other to rise from their seats for the presentation of the colors in the sweltering heat, yet firmly saluting active-duty Marines who walked by.
Pfc. Charles E. Norman Jr. was one of more than 20,000 black Marines who trained at Montford Point, the segregated facility at Camp LeJeune, between 1942 and 1949. Drafted at age 18 in 1944, Mr. Norman was eager to go off to war, but had to serve as a Montford Point administrator while many of his friends entered combat in the Pacific Theater.
“I did not leave Montford Point at all, only for weekends,” he said. “But that was the hardest part, because there was segregation. I had to wait until they could find a seat for me on the bus.”
But even while he endured basic training that was often harsher than his white counterparts got, he did not complain.
“Even through segregation, we had rules to follow,” he said. “Follow them. And don’t become upset.”
This attitude is shared by the hundred of active-duty Marines, black and white, who attended the ceremony Wednesday, looking on as 1st Sgt. William McDowell accepted the medal on behalf of all Montford Point Marines.
After Sgt. McDowell received the medal, his next move on stage was greeted with a decades-old Marine tradition, based on the “Devil Dogs” nickname bestowed on them by their German adversaries in World War I.
“Woof, woof, woof,” barked his elderly comrades and their younger counterparts as he slowly walked up to the podium to speak on all behalf of all of them.
“This day, and that gold medal, that Congressional Gold Medal …” he trailed off, unable to speak, and received a standing ovation.
The next morning, while Pfc. Norman’s daughters and their families looked on, he proudly stood to receive his bronze replica of the medal presented to Mr. McDowell the day before.
“I was so happy that they were hanging the medals around our necks. And then when they called my name, I raised both hands up. I was happy that it had happened,” he said. “I feel so much better now that things have worked out like they have.”
The Marines did not accept black recruits until 1942, and the practice was intended as a temporary wartime measure. But after World War II ended, black recruits were instead reassigned to any unit that needed men, regardless of color. The last all-black unit was canceled in 1951 just after the Korean War broke out and President Harry S. Truman had ordered the military to desegregate.
The newest Congressional Gold Medal recipients will join two other World War II units the Navajo Code Talkers, American Indians who used their native language to provide the Navy with a code the Japanese could not break, who recieved the award in 2000, and the Tuskegee Airmen, the first black pilots and aircrew, who were honored in 2006.
“Once upon a time, there were giants that walked this country,” Rep. Allen West, Florida Republican, said in a ceremony that also included speeches from House and Senate majority and minority leaders; the two senators from North Carolina; the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Corrine Brown, Florida Democrat; and Gen. James Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps.
“They were giants because of their resolve, their vigilance and their commitment to a country that had not yet committed to them,” Mr. West said.