First African-American Marines recognized with congressional honor

(CBS News) HAMPTON, Va. - Today Congress took a step to right an injustice.

They awarded the Congressional Gold Medal -- the highest civilian honor -- to the Montford Point Marines, the first African-Americans to serve in the corps. Their sacrifices were long overlooked.

Hundreds of surviving members attended the ceremony. Ninety-year-old James "Rudy" Carter, born in North Carolina, was just 19 years old when he enlisted.

An undated image provided by James "Rudy" Carter of the Montford Point Marines
An undated image provided by James "Rudy" Carter of the Montford Point Marines
CBS News

"I always hated segregation and Jim Crow from birth because it was morally wrong and I just hated it," Carter said.

He said he joined the Marine Corps. "because this would give me the chance to become an American - a full-fledged citizen."

In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the Marines to accept African Americans. For the next eight years they served in black-only units -- commanded by white officers -- and they trained on a segregated base in a Jacksonville, North Carolina called Montford Point.

"I realized from the beginning what we were doing, what was happening was historic, and it was going to be a part of history, part of the changing up of America," Carter said.

But black Marines were prohibited from serving in combat roles.

"They had taken us colored boys and wanted us to become stewards ... to wait on the officers and do all the dirty work," Carter recalled.

But Carter didn't join the Marine Corps to wait tables.

"Hell no," he said. "Whatever I would do I wanted to do it with some dignity."

Carter rose to the rank of First Sergeant -- the highest rank a black marine could obtain -- but he never made it to the front line.

Montford Point Marines salute.
Montford Point Marines salute.
CBS News

Nearly 13,000 Montford Point Marines eventually did go into combat as the war intensified in the Pacific. These so-called "support" troops landed at Iwo Jima and Okinawa along side white combat units. In the face of enemy fire, they kept the troops stocked with ammunition and rescued the wounded. They are credited with helping win those battles, but their bravery was never officially recorded.

Fewer than 300 of the Montford Point Marines remain. Carter is believed to be the last living member of his unit.

When asked what the Marines taught him, Carter replied it "taught me to be a man. Taught me to insist on my rights."

"We will never give up," Carter said. "We are just like Marines, faithful to the end."

Always faithful, and finally recognized.