GULFPORT -- When they joined the Marines in the early 1940s, George T. Watson and Samuel W. Sylvester Jr. never thought the day would come when a ceremony would be held in their honor.
Flanked by camera- and iPad-wielding family members and friends, the two Montford Point Marines were awarded the congressional medal by U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo on Wednesday afternoon at the Gulfport World War II Memorial.
Both said they appreciated the gesture.
"It's an honor and I'm blessed to be here," said Sylvester, a Mobile native who now lives in Pascagoula. "I never had a dream I would see this."
Watson, a retired assistant superintendent of the Pass Christian School District, had mixed emotions about the ceremony.
"I feel good, but I think I feel better for my country and (later generations' attempts) to rectify a wrong that they did not do," he said.
Watson later said he tries not to dwell in the past and appreciates efforts that have been made to make amends.
"In all the faith I had in my country and in all the faith I had in people, I never thought I'd see the day when I would receive a medal. I feel good," he said. "I really feel good today that my country says again 'We appreciate you and we're sorry.' If someone says they're sorry, you're a hard-hearted person not to forgive them."
Watson retold two incidents in which he was singled out for the color of his skin. Through it all, however, Watson said he doesn't regret his experiences as a Montford Point Marine.
"It made me a man," he said. "I didn't have any sons, I had two beautiful daughters, and I wish they could have gotten that kind of training that they gave to us because it taught you to always be prepared."
Palazzo said Wednesday's token of appreciation was long overdue.
"It was (good) to be able to celebrate the service of two Montford Point Marines, Cpl. Watson and Cpl. Sylvester, for their service to their nation back during World War II," he said. "It was at a time when the services were not integrated and it took decades for us, the U.S. Congress, to recognize them with a congressional gold medal. Today was an opportunity to present two South Mississippians with the congressional gold medal for their service to the Marine Corps."
In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the military to accept its first black recruits into the military. Almost a year later, Watson and Sylvester were among thousands training at Camp Montford Point in Jacksonville, N.C.
Although they were Marines, black Marines weren't treated like their white counterparts until much later.
"These men were held to the same high physical standards in combat and faced the same harsh conditions overseas," Palazzo said. "They fought the same enemy, spilled the same blood and defended the same flag. Yet so often they received very different treatment, both inside their own ranks and out in civilian life."
In 2012, Palazzo honored four other Montford Point Marines in a similar ceremony.