Congressional Gold Medal Awarded to First Black Marines

United States Marine Corps/AP Photo

When the Rev. Norflette Mersier became a  U.S. Marine, it was not so easy. His mother feared he would get killed in battle. His commanders would not let him go see his wife when he was picked for overseas duty. But perhaps the biggest obstacle Mersier faced was the rampant racism that existed when he joined the Marines in 1942.

Mersier is one of the roughly 19,000 black Marines who trained at Montford Point Camp, a facility set up specifically for blacks after President Roosevelt desegregated the Marine Corps. Based in Camp Lejune, N.C., the camp was established the same year Norflette joined the Marines, at the height of segregation.

“There was always a racial slur being thrown at us, because we had a white instructor,” Mersier, 87, recalls. And black Marines often “felt that people were taking advantage of us.”

The Montford Point Camp has received little attention. But today, 62 years after the camp closed, black Marines like Mersier were honored by Congress. The U.S. House of Representatives granted the nation’s highest civilian honor, the congressional gold medal, to Montford Point Marines, with a unanimous vote.

“I had to somewhat hold back tears. It’s a long time coming. … Something you look forward to, wonder if you are going to make to live long enough to see it,” says retired Sgt. Ruben McNair, 86, who came to Washington, D.C., today to attend  the historic event.

House members gave a standing ovation to the Montford Point Marines, saluting them for their service to the country.

“Negro marines are no longer on trial, they are Marines,” said Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo.

At the height of World War II, about 75 percent of Montford Point trainees served overseas,  but the racism went beyond U.S. borders, Mersier says.

When they were deployed to Okinawa, the 2,000 black Marines who served there were rarely called for physical fighting. Instead they were used mainly to bring supplies in, he recalls.

At home, the mental abuse of segregation was exacerbated by physical abuse.

“Our DI’s [drill instructors] were at liberty to do anything they chose to do to us except break our legs,” he recalls. “They had no restrictions at all. They were very hard on us. We got kicked. We got slapped. We couldn’t do anything except say ‘Yes, sir’ and accept it.”

The black Marines were also not allowed to visit neighboring Camp Lejeune unless they were with a white officer, or eat meals with their white counterparts.

The racism and physical hardship was so unchecked that retired Sgt. Earl Evans, Jr. says he felt safer on the battlefield in Korea than he did at home.

Montford Point was deactivated in 1949 after President Truman issued an executive order barring segregation. In 1974, it was renamed Camp Johnson after one of its trainees, Sgt. Major Gilbert “Hashmark” Johnson.

The push for today’s congressional honor was spearheaded by Commandant Gen. James Amos, who took over his position in 2010. Amos has openly acknowledged that the recognition should have come years ago.

“It is long overdue, and we need to quit admiring this oversight and make this happen,” Amos said in a speech recently. “My promise to you this evening is that your story will not be forgotten. It will take its rightful place, and it will be forever anchored in the rich history of the United States Marine Corp.”

As part of this pledge, the history of Montford Point will be taught at all Marine Corps schools and training facilities.

ABC News’ Richard Coolidge, John Parkinson and Luis Martinez contributed to this report.