WAKE FOREST, N.C. -- For Norman Preston's 100th birthday all he wanted was to be surrounded by family and friends both physically and virtually. The Wake Forest resident is a man of few words, which is why he never detailed his unsung role in history to his children.
"I think it was tough. I'm not so sure it's something he wants to remember," said Christeen Allen, who is Preston's daughter. "I've never been able to get him to talk much about those boot-camp experiences"
Preston is a Montford Point Marine. He was among the first African American men to integrate into the United States Marine Corps. Preston enlisted in 1944 as the deadliest war in history, World War II, raged on.
Segregation in the Jim Crow south sent African-American recruits to the North Carolina coast. Instead of training at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina, alongside White Marines, they were segregated in service.
Between 1942 and 1949 about 20,000 Black marines trained separately at Montford Point, a basic training facility on the grounds of Camp Lejeune.
"One of the things my father requested was to have these paintings that were given to him over the years donated to the Montford Point Marine Museum in Jacksonville," said Preston's youngest daughter Ann Mobley.
In 2011, President Barack Obama signed a law awarding all Montford Point Marines Congressional gold medals, but only a few received them including Preston. There are many more medals waiting to be distributed to Montford Point Marines or any surviving relatives.
"If those hard charges that took on the challenge to be a United States Marine changed the course of the world, we owe them a debt of gratitude and we stand on their shoulders," said Johnny Preston, regional director of the Montford Point Marine Association.
Although Preston is quiet about his military past, there are many photos and documents that paint a picture of the fulfilling life that earned him the Congressional Gold Medal he wears proudly around his neck.
If your father or grandfather was an African-American Marine in World War II, there may be a medal waiting for him or any surviving relatives.