Nathaniel Boone, 18, wanted a better life than he could find in Englewood, N.J., in 1946.
"My mother was suffering from tuberculosis and my father had died in 1942," he said.
With no money for college, he headed south to train as a Marine. But life below the Mason-Dixon Line was anything but better.
"I took one bus to Washington and then in Washington we were all herded off and put on another bus in the back of the bus," he said.
Segregated at the nation's capital, Boone wasn't joining the few, the proud, as the Marines like to say, but was becoming something else-- a Montford Point Marine.
"It was more or less a deserted, rattlesnake-infested, swampy area," he said.
They called it Montford Point. A fenced-off facility at Camp Lejeune, N.C., built specifically for blacks. Instead of barracks they slept in huts, could never be promoted to officer no matter how deserving and faced discrimination at every turn.
"The whites were suspicious of you, who were in the town," Boone said. "The officers were afraid that something would happen and they would be reprimanded and so forth. And there was a point where if you wanted to go on liberty, you had to be escorted by a white officer."
But the young man was on a mission.
"I had made up my mind that no matter what the circumstances were, no matter how badly I was treated, no matter how badly I might have felt, I had a mission and the mission was to go to college," he said.
After two years of service, Boone was awarded his GI Bill and went on to Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, and then studied law at Boston University.
Now, nearly 70 years after his bus ride to the south, he and 400 other surviving Montford Point Marines are being given the Congressional Gold Medal by the president; the highest civilian honor issued by Congress for overcoming so many challenges.
"I never thought it would happen in my lifetime," Boone said. "And I never thought I'd be shaking the hands of any president. It's a thrill. It really is. And this would hit the high spot of my life."
He also says it's a long time coming for him and his friends.
"These are some of the fellows I hope are still alive," he said.
Most of whom are now faded memories in an old scrap book, but like him, all blazed the trail toward racial equality.
In total, about 20,000 African-Americans were trained at Montford Point before President Truman issued an executive order for equal treatment of military personnel in 1949. Full integration of units didn't occur until 1960.
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