SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) — The walls of John White’s living room give any visitor a glimpse of the 98-year-old’s accomplishments.

“I’m just so thankful that I’ve seen the changes and the light of the world,” John said.

John, a World War II veteran, is one of the last living members of the Montford Point Marines. The military estimates fewer than 300 are still alive.

The 20,000 African-American recruits desegregated the U.S. Marine Corps, the last of the military branches to do so. It all started with an executive order from President Roosevelt in June 1941, banning racial discrimination in federal agencies. 

The first Black Marines were then sent to Montford Point in North Carolina, where John recalls an unwelcoming feeling.

“They were really against Black Marines,” he said. “A lot of us weren’t respected, per se, back then. And we were still boys. Men who were wounded, or what have you.”

John said that same feeling followed him once he returned from the war, too. But the lengths he and his fellow recruits went through to complete training inspired generations of African-Americans, among them Tyrone Jackson.

“A lot of folks don’t know,” he said. “There’s a lot of African-American history that folks don’t know. As a matter of fact, I had 24 years in the Marine Corps before I first heard their story.”

Jackson is the president of the Montford Point Marine Association Chapter 9, serving the Beaufort area. Despite the Montford Point Marines opening the door, Jackson said racial tension continued decades later when he was a Marine.

“They had stuff called human relations to help the races get along,” he said. “That’s how bad it was continuing over from the Montford Point Marines. Up in the dining facility, the white marines sitting on one side, the Black marines sitting on the other side.”

While Jackson said the military still has a way to go, he credits the progress that has been made to the Montford Point Marines.

“You didn’t see a lot of African-Americans past the rank of E7, gunnery sergeant — I didn’t at least,” Jackson said. “But now you’ve got master gunnery sergeants, sergeants, majors, you’ve got Black generals. As a matter of fact, this year the Marine Corps just made its first African-American four-star general in the whole history of the Marine Corps.”

As John looks back to his years as a Montford Point Marine, he sees an experience that changed not only his life but many others.

“I’m just so proud that I was able to get into the Marine Corps and I’m so proud to see its success and how it’s opening it up,” he said.

In 2012, the Montford Point Marines were awarded a Congressional Gold Medal for their service. The Montford Point Marine Association’s 47 chapters nationwide continue to look for families of those 20,000 recruits.