WASHINGTON — Sitting in his wheelchair, James Dixon got choked up when he reflected on the importance of the Congressional Gold Medal for his fellow Marines.
Dixon, one of an expected 400 Montford Point Marines being recognized for breaking the military's final color barrier in the 1940s, had made the trip from his home in nearby Baltimore for the Wednesday ceremony in the Capitol. Half a dozen men from Fayetteville were also scheduled to attend the function in the Emancipation Hall.
These veterans had gathered to receive the country's highest civilian honor: the Congressional Gold Medal.
"Finally," said Dixon, 77, "somebody has seen what we done. And they finally recognized what we did in the past was worth being spoken about."
Some of the most powerful people on Capitol Hill understand their lasting significance, taking turns at the podium to honor the assemblage of aging African Americans — the surviving members of the unheralded Montford Point Marines.
From 1942 to 1949, nearly 20,000 recruits went through boot camp at the blacks-only camp near Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville. They endured and prevailed over harsh racist treatment, both in the Marines and the outside civilian world.
"You came young, brave and committed to serving your country that did not yet appreciate your contributions," said U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina. "You and all Montford Point Marines forged a new path in our military."
U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, also of North Carolina, called the Montford Point Marines' story a uniquely American and inspiring one.
"Today, the Corps is stronger because of your service," he said. "Today, America is greater because of your sacrifices."
Many of these grizzled old Leathernecks proudly wore their Montford Point Association garrison caps along with dark blue jackets and dress pants. Many, like Dixon and Fayetteville's James Simpson, listened to the accolades from wheelchairs. They are dying out, these trailblazers who are finally earning their due beside such military groundbreakers as the Tuskegee Airmen, the Buffalo Soldiers and the Triple Nickels.
"I don't have words to express it," said the 88-year-old Simpson, who was assigned to Platoon 472 at Montford Point in 1943. "It's way beyond my imagination."
On Wednesday, "Point man" William "Jack" McDowell of Long Beach, Calif., accepted the Congressional Gold Medal on behalf of the Montford veterans.
"I don't think we ever imagined anything like this would happen in our lifetime," he said during an emotional speech that drew a standing ovation from many in the crowd.
Today, the Marine Corps will host a parade during another ceremony honoring the men. Each Montford Point Marine will be presented with a bronze replica of the medal.
"The men who served at Montford Point were Marines, period," said Speaker of the House John Boehner. "Thank God for the Marines of Montford Point."