They disembarked from the buses ever so carefully. Scores of them required assistance. Their walkers and wheelchairs had to be opened and positioned as they negotiated the last step of the 60-passenger bus next to the entrance to the Washington Marine Barracks.
On Thursday, June 28, at 7 a.m., on a hot and muggy morning, 430 former Montfort Point Marines were arriving to participate in a medal presentation ceremony.
The medal they would be receiving later that morning, was the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest award the U.S. Congress can bestow upon a civilian. The former Marines were to receive it for having endured the injustices of serving at the Marine Corps segregated "boot camp," Montford Point, N.C., between 1942 and 1949. The 430 were the last of the 21,000 who had gone through Montford Point. Among them was Manchester’s Cpl. Nathaniel Boone, USMC, who was stationed at Montford Point between 1946 and 1948.
Nate, along with his bride of 55 years , walked sprightly between the cordon of Marine officers and enlisted personnel and onto the parade grounds of the oldest post of the Marine Corps (established in 1801), known among Marines as 8th & I.
The buses kept arriving for the next two hours discharging the African American Marines, along with their families and care-givers, who had spent the previous evening at several Washington area hotels. For many of the Marines it was the end of a long ceremonial day; nevertheless, a special day for them.
Seventy years after the opening of the segregated camp, on June 27, Congress held a ceremony at Emancipation Hall. It was there that Speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, Nancy Pelosi, Democratic Leader of the House, Mitch McConnell, Republican Leader of the Senate, and Harry Reid, Majority Leader of the Senate, led the Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony.
Marine William McDowell accepted the official Congressional Gold Medal on behalf of all Montford Point Marines. It will be on permanent display at the Marine Corps Museum in Quantico, Va.
How far these Montford Point Marines had traveled since 1942 was ever present at the Marine Barracks. Witnessing a white Marine colonel hold the arm of a semi-ambulatory 85-year-old African American Marine and aiding him up the short incline into the barracks was a heart-warming scene. At Montford Point, the African American Marines were commanded by white officers who were from the South and against "Negroes" being in the Marine Corps.
Three hours after the first of the dozen buses had arrived, the moment the Montford Point Marines had been waiting for came to fruition -- the individual medal presentation.
The Marines did it smartly and with respect. Each of eight Marine generals was followed by five young enlisted Marines, whose assignment was to carry 10 medals. A general went up to a seated Marine and placed the ribbon around his neck -- the inscribed medal hung just above the Marine’s heart. The barracks public affairs announcer read the names -- shortly, there was a name I had recognized, Nathaniel L. Boone, and how proud a moment it was for me. Someone I had known for 23 years was about to receive his nation’s highest honor on the parade field that I had trained and marched on, 55 years earlier.
Nate and his fellow Montford Point Marines joined the Navajo Code Talkers, the Tuskegee Airman, the Red Tails, Dr. Martin Luther King, and Charles Lindbergh, among others, as the recipients of the Congressional Gold Medal.
Nate and Harriet came back to Vermont 14 hours after he had received his medal. Their commitment as docents at Hildene in Manchester the next morning was to be kept. I was not surprised!
Nate, you have waited seven decades for this recognition, and have done so with dignity, perseverance and patience. You have brought a moment of pride to all of us here in Vermont. Semper Fidelis.
Don Keelan writes a bi-monthy column and lives in Arlington.