WASHINGTON -- The road to becoming a Marine is grueling and tough, but once you've made it, you're a part of the Marine Corps for life. Now imagine what it must have been like for the first African Americans to join.
On June 1, 1942 at 12:01 a.m., the Marine Corps recruited blacks for the first time.
The men came from all walks of life. They were doctors, lawyers, teachers, college students, and athletes. Some were even officers who took discharges to join the Marine Corps and pave a new path.
"We were called the 'chosen few' and a group of 'colored Marines who fought for a right to fight,'" Reuben McNair, a Montford Point Marine, said.
Segregated and Equal
Instead of being sent to South Carolina or California to train, their journey began with boot camp at Montford Point, a segregated training facility at Camp Lejeune, N.C., where things were separate and equal.
"By the time I arrived, they switched from white instructors to black instructors," McNair said. "They felt the rougher they were on you and the harder things were, the more you'd learn how, the better skillful you'll be able to take care of your life."
McNair was a young kid from Mississippi when he enlisted in 1944.
"The Marines were fighting land, air, sea, water and I wanted to be one of those people. Plus, I loved the uniform - those dress blues, I just couldn't wait to put the dress blues on," he recalled.
He knew becoming a Marine would be a challenge.
"We had a gentleman, they called him 'Judo Jones,' and he would go out and teach you judo…You learned to flip people from one side to another," he said.
But McNair had another goal in mind.
"By the time I was 10 years old, I could take a .22 riffle and strike a match 25 yards away. I was very skillful at shooting," McNair said.
He so desperately wanted to show off his skills and made the mistake of bragging to his drill instructor and using the wrong terminology for his weapon.
"I kept asking the drill instructor 'When are we going to fire the gun?' And he looked at me and said, 'Lad, this isn't a gun. It's a riffle,'" McNair recalled.
After running a few laps around the platoon holding the riffle over his head, he got it right. Six weeks later, McNair finally got to show what he could do on the riffle range.
"My drill instructor walks over and pats me on the shoulder, 'Young mac, since you've been talking about how good you can fire this gun, [today] you can call it gun; you can call it sweetheart. Show me what you can do,'" he said.
"We goes out, starts out at the 200 yard line," McNair recounted. "I tore the bull's-eye up… All the drill instructors were looking, peeping around, and I'm just knocking this eye out. [I] go back to the 300-yard line. I'm just knocking this thing out…. When I finished boot camp, I was an expert marksman shooter."
With the rigors of training behind him, McNair set off for the South Pacific ready for action, but he was disappointed.
"They made it very clear that my job, all African American Marines, our job was to get the ammunition up and get the wounded back," he said.
Discouragement set in.
"It was very clear that we weren't wanted in the Marine Corps," he said.
But African Americans were an integral part of the Marine Corps, and as time would tell, they would take part in some of the most important battles in the Pacific, Korea, and Vietnam.
McNair ended up leading white and black troops, but the excitement didn't last long.
After his unit survived a blistering attack, only the white staff sargent in the group received a Silver Star. McNair got nothing.
"There was nothing officially put in the records, so they couldn't do anything about it," McNair said. "Just knowing if you were part of 43 people and you were left living, it's worth something."
McNair said his faith helped keep away the bitterness.
"I grew up in the church, and I've always been a close person to God," McNair said. "I always felt that He made me, and He made me strong."
And as the Bible says, "All things work together for good to them that love God."
Honored at Last
On June 27, 2012, the Montford Point Marines were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. They were thankful for the honor but admitted it was a long time coming.
"This is about the greatest day that I'll experience in my life. To get something that's so overdue, but is so welcome." Montford Point Marine Alpha Gainous said. "My mother told me always, 'Son, better late than never.'"
Montford Point Marine William R. Washington agreed.
"I didn't think it would ever come. As you get older you just think about these things that would never happen," Washington said.
Many of the men thanked God for their journey.
"Being black, you can't let that be a drawback. You have to look forward," Montford Point Marine Norman Preston said.
"There's better things in life to dwell on than your color," he added. "[God] will supply all your needs. Just trust in Him and be thankful for it."
Keeping the Memory Alive
In 1965, the Montford Point Marines Association was started in Philadelphia to keep the memory of these trailblazers alive.
"There were seven of us who started it, and at that time we never thought we'd see a black general, much less the ones that we see today," Montford Point Marine Leroy Mack said.
Most of the Montford Point Marines have died. Those who are still alive are in their late 80s and early 90s. But they remain active and are happy to talk about their experiences paving the way for generations to come following in their footsteps.
"It was so nice to get out and come back home," McNair said. "I had three little sons and a lovely wife and just come home and enjoy. It's been a great life."