To understand why the Congressional Gold Medal was awarded last week to the first African-Americans to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps, one need only drive down Sergeants Drive in Port Royal.
There sit the homes of three black Marine sergeants, each with seven children, who all retired near Parris Island, where they helped prove the mettle of their race.
They are examples of the almost 20,000 Montford Point Marines, named for the swampy, segregated site outside Camp Lejeune, N.C., where African-American Marines received basic training between 1942 and 1949.
America doesn't know enough about the Montford Marines, unlike the Tuskegee Airmen pilots who flew during World War II or the Buffalo Soldiers who fought during the Indian wars.
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos wanted to change that, and with the help of Congress, it happened last week. Many of the 420 surviving Montford Marines hobbled with skipping hearts to the Marine barracks near the Capitol Building. Each received a replica of the medal, the nation's highest civilian honor dating to 1776 when George Washington received the first one from the Continental Congress.
"For outstanding perseverance and courage that inspired social change in the Marine Corps," the medal reads.
Amos said in an interview with Fox News, "There was a reluctance to put them right in the heat of the battle so for the first little bit they were on the fringes of the battle, and they would run ammunition out to the front lines to places like Pelelieu and eventually Iwo Jima. They would bring back white Marines, who were wounded."
Retired gunnery sergeant LaSalle R. Vaughn, one of the sergeants on Sergeants Drive, is in the Montford Point Marine Association Hall of Fame. In an oral history recorded in 2005, he describes a chaotic experience at Montford Point and a steady flow of discrimination afterward.
Of Montford Point, Vaughn said, "They didn't have no rifle range. We had to learn how to swim in the Atlantic Ocean ... Montford Point was a hell place, was a hell place."
He said his wife told him he needed to forgive others for the discrimination. He said he can forgive, but not forget.
Vaughn said, "I had a guy ask me one day, say, Vaughn, do you know about heaven and hell? I said, let me tell you one thing. The thing about it, I've been to hell already, so I must be going to heaven."
Two years ago, Vaughn was in full uniform on the front row at the funeral of his best friend and next-door neighbor "Sarge" Frederick James Drake Sr.
Drake was also a Montford Marine who helped integrate the Parris Island Recruit Depot. Like Vaughn, he was a chef and steward providing invaluable service to Marine Corps generals.
Drake's attitude is one today's young Marines could learn a lot from, just as his own children did, along with the children of Vaughn and fellow sergeant and neighbor Vernon Lights.
Drake's children said their father's sermon to them during segregation and the family's pioneering integration went like this:
You are Americans, and you have an equal right to everything in America. You can be whatever you want to be, but you have to work for it. There is no entitlement. You have to step up with no fear. You must always be prepared. You must show respect. You must be an example for children. You must have manners, education, religion, civic-giving, oratory skills and the ability to debate with facts.
With that, he showed them how to be a leader in the community. He helped the Beaufort-Jasper-Hampton Comprehensive Health Services get running water and sewer service into the poor, rural Lowcountry. He was a father figure to young men around town, including Fred Washington Jr., today's chairman of the Beaufort County Board of Education. He was entrepreneurial, starting several businesses. He was the spiritual leader at the Grace Chapel AME Church in Beaufort. And he was a Marine.
The men of Sergeants Drive have shown why the Montford Marines earned a special place in American history, long before the Congressional Gold Medal was awarded.