Catonsville native William Foreman

William Foreman poses for a photo at Winters Lane American Legion Post in Catonsville on Wednesday, June 20. He was one of the founding members of the Winters Lane American Legion Post and served as its commander in 1955. (Staff photo by Jen Rynda / June 25, 2012)

William Foreman wasn't looking to make history when he elected to join the United States Marine Corps after the Selective Service System called his number for World War II.

The lifelong Catonsville resident could have joined the Army or Navy, like most people he knew at the time, but something about the several Marines he had previously met struck him.

"The fellows I saw come back from the Army and the Navy compared to the fellows who came back from the Marine Corps, they had a different attitude," Foreman said. "We always had pride in the Corps."

The decision Foreman made nearly 70 years ago pointed him toward the Montford Point Marines, the first black Marines in United States history.

"Like" explorebaltimorecounty's Facebook page

The Marines were the last branch of the military services to integrate — and did so under orders from PresidentFranklin D. Rooseveltin 1941.

After nearly seven decades of waiting, Foreman, 87, and the rest of the Montford Point Marines will receive the Congressional Gold Medal in Washington D.C. on June 27.

The award is the highest civilian award given by Congress and past recipients include George Washington, the Tuskegee Airmen, Jackie Robinson and Nelson Mandela.

"I'm looking forward mostly to meeting my old comrades. I haven't seen a lot of them in a long time," Foreman said a week before the trip and a month after receiving his invitation from House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

The award is beyond Foreman's wildest dreams.

"We're in sort of fantasy land, I guess," Foreman said. "Until we actually get the medal, we won't come back down to earth again. It's something we'll cherish forever. I'm sure of that."

From his perspective, Foreman said that his basic training in 1943 at Montford Point in North Carolina — where 20,000 black Marines trained between 1942 and 1949 — stands out most to him.

The Montford Point Marines were subject to much harsher conditions than what their white counterparts faced at nearby Camp Lejeune, sleeping in flimsy particle-board huts compared to permanent barracks.

Foreman said he and other Southerners had an easier time with the segregation than their northern counterparts.

"It wasn't that difficult for us because it was the same there as it was everywhere else," Foreman said.

Black drill instructors pushed the Montford Point Marines to be the best.

"They were harder on us than the white fellows, because they wanted us to be the cream of the crop," Foreman said. "It was a little harsh, I'll tell you."

For all the work the Montford Point Marines put in, most never had the opportunity to fight. Many, like Foreman, served as suppliers to combatants on the front lines.

"The defining factor was that we were fighting two wars," Foreman said. "We were fighting the war on the home front against segregation and the war against the foreign enemy."

Though stationed thousands of miles away from combat in Hilo, Hawaii, Foreman maintains he held no resentment for the role he was assigned.

He said he knows, though, that a desegregated military would have been a stronger one.