Corporal Calvin Curtis was one of 400 black men who went to the same segregated boot camp called Montford Point, breaking the color barrier in the U.S. Marine Corps in World War II.
On Tuesday, he received the highest civilian honor given by Congress, the Congressional Gold Medal.
Most of his comrades had already been awarded the medal in a ceremony in Washington D.C., but Curtis was not among the veterans honored because he was unwittingly not a member of the Montford Point Marine Association, which had spread word of the award.
Then recently, his son, Todd Curtis, was alerted to a television episode of NCIS, a Navy investigation drama that featured a storyline involving Montford Point Marines.
He and his family were stunned to learn his father had missed out on the ceremony last summer.
That’s when he went to work making sure there would be a ceremony for his 87-year-old father, a retired mail carrier.
The younger Curtis said, “We knew the story of him in the Marine Corps and serving in the war and being on the verge of being deployed to Japan. If not for the Atomic Bomb, their orders would have been to go to Japan to help with the invasion."
Upon receiving his replica of the medal, the elder Curtis said words could not describe his feelings of gratitude.
“This is a great moment in my life today. I have seen many things happen to me, but his is the greatest,” he said.
The significance of the award to the Montford Point Marines reaches throughout the military, which up until then had no black marines.
Marine Lt. Col. Bruce Sotire, of the 4th Reconnaissance Battalion, presented the medal to Curtis.
"Corporal Curtis was a pioneer, one of the first ones to break the cycle of segregation and for that we are going to be eternally grateful as a corps,” he said.
The Marine Corps was the last military branch to accept blacks after President Roosevelt banned race-based exclusion from the military.
Montford Point Camp was located at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
A nonprofit organization was formed to preserve the special group’s part in history. The website is www.montfordpointmarines.com.