LaSalle Vaughn of Port Royal, a retired gunnery sergeant who recently was among a group of Montford Point Marines honored with a Congressional Gold Medal, died Sunday at Walter Reed National Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
He was 88.
Information about the cause of death was not immediately available.
Nicknamed "Sarge," Vaughn was one of about 20,000 black Marines who underwent basic training in the swampy, segregated Montford Point site outside Camp Lejeune, N.C., between 1942 and 1949.
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He enlisted after he received a draft card for World War II, signing up at a recruiting station in Chicago soon after President Franklin Roosevelt decreed blacks could join the armed force's smallest and most elite branch.
"We were not wanted in the Marine Corps," Vaughn said in a 2007 interview with The Beaufort Gazette. "But I refused to go in the Army and Navy."
So, Vaughn set off in 1942 to the newly opened, all-black training base in Jacksonville, N.C., where the drill instructors were white because no black men had been Marines. The recruits lacked many of the basic-training facilities at the Corps' bases for white men, such as a pool and rifle range.
After training, Vaughn stayed on the base as a cook until black Marines began to be stationed at other bases, as the Corps began integrating them.
In January 1944, he arrived on Parris Island to work at the Officers Club and became one of the first black Marines on base. He said they weren't allowed to live in the barracks but slept in tents outside and could travel only to certain areas of the depot.
He said his wife, Catherine, told him he needed to forgive others for the discrimination. He said he can forgive, but not forget.
As he recounted: "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.' "
On his way, he picked up a replica of the Congressional Gold Medal. Vaughn was one of 420 surviving Montford Marines who attended a ceremony in June at Marine barracks near the Capitol Building. The medal, presented to the group collectively, is the nation's highest civilian honor and dates 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," it reads.
Vaughn lived on Sergeants Drive in Port Royal, where he was one of three black Marine sergeants, each with seven children, who retired there.
Vaughn is enshrined in the Montford Point Marine Association Hall of Fame.
He also was the model who sat for the bust of Civil War hero Robert Smalls that is on the grounds of Tabernacle Baptist Church in downtown Beaufort, according to Marshel's Wright-Donaldson Home for Funerals, which is handling his arrangements.
Funeral services had not been scheduled as of press time.