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.
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.
"It didn't seem to be a problem because we had adjusted to the atmosphere," Foreman said. "Whatever duties they assigned us, we decided we would make the best of them and keep things going."
When Foreman ended his career with the Marines in 1946, he assumed that shared experiences between white and black military personnel would lead to changes at home.
He was mistaken.
Foreman found himself on an ill-equipped campus with other black students when he used funds from the G.I. Bill to attend air conditioning and refrigeration school in Baltimore.
The white students, Foreman recalled, had a more hands-on learning environment.
He still feels that some attitudes were changed by the wartime service.
"We came together a little more," Foreman said. "We realized that if either one of us had to shed blood, all of it was red."
From 1948 to 1985, Foreman worked for the United States Postal Service and during that time became a founding member of the Jackson and Johnson Memorial American Legion Post 263 in Catonsville, serving as its commander in 1955.
The current commander of Post 263, Ronald Alston, called Foreman a gentleman and a "cornerstone" of the American Legion.
"It's a very prestigious award that's been long coming," Alston said, noting younger members look up to Foreman. "For the post, I guess we're just thankful to have someone of his quality getting it."
Though the Montford Point Marines will finally be recognized for their service, Foreman said he has benefited from his experience serving his country.
"It was really a pleasure to serve our country in a time of need," Foreman said. "I think all of us feel like that."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun