They were no doubt excited that night in June 1942 when they heard the commandant of Camp LeJeune was coming to speak to them.
The men of the Montford Point camp in North Carolina had been training hard to become America's first black Marines.
They trained separately because in those days, half a year after Pearl Harbor, the military, like much of the country, was still segregated.
The United States Marine Corps, for all intents and purposes, had no blacks until Montford Point. (Blacks did serve as Marines during the American Revolution, but their presence had disappeared.)
By June 1942, Pearl Harbor had been attacked – so had Guam, Midway and Wake Island, Hong Kong and a host of others places with American interests.
Still the word from the Corps was that yes, Uncle Sam wanted a few good men – but not black men.
Only threats of civil rights protests and agitation from Eleanor Roosevelt had pushed Franklin Roosevelt to sign Executive Order 8802 outlawing such discrimination. But it takes more than paper and pen in hand, even a presidential hand, to truly change things on this scale.
That would take a few truly good men.
There would be black Marines, but they would stay in separate units, on their separate base.
The only way they could even get to Camp LeJeune was with a white Marine.
Those were the rules.
Still, Gen. Henry L. Larsen was coming to Montford Point that night and looked forward to it. He could relay to them first hand his harrowing accounts of the war in the Pacific. He had commanded troops there.
Gen. Larsen's reputation as a man of action preceded him: In France, he served with the first U.S. military convoy in World War I. He was a part of every Marine Corps battle on French soil – Belleau Wood, Meuse-Argonne – you name it, Henry Larsen had been there.
And during this war, after Pearl Harbor and a stint as head of wartime expansion for the Corps, Franklin Roosevelt sent him to American Samoa to reinforce the American brigade there and serve as military governor.
Gen. Larsen had seen fighting up close, and the Montford Point Marines hoped he would bring with him news of their coming contribution.
The young recruits probably began to perspire as they waited.
Summer had not arrived and June in North Carolina can be a warm month, with highs averaging in the mid-80s. This being a 1940s-era Marine Corps camp, and a black one at that, there's little likelihood the recruits sat in air-conditioned comfort.
And yet there must have been an electricity in the air that night as the assembled men awaited Gen. Larsen's arrival.
Gilbert Johnson was one of them. By the time he showed up for recruit training in Montford Point camp, he'd already served six years in the Army and spent time in the Naval Reserve as a mess attendant at military installations around Texas.
All that service gave him three diagonal stripes, or hash marks, on his uniform indicating he had successfully completed three previous enlistments.
The other men would come to call him "Hashmark" Johnson and he would become a legend among the Montford Point Marines.
Edgar R. Huff was also there that night. He became the first African-American promoted to the rank of sergeant major.
A Gadsden, Ala., native, Huff had experienced second-class treatment all his life, and like others in his recruit class (the 51st Composite Defense Battalion), he believed their graduation would open new doors to African-Americans.
In remembering the general's visit that night, Edgar Huff told the Philadelphia Inquirer magazine in 1995 that when Henry Larsen got there, he was confronted by a sea of eager black faces.
Huff said Gen. Larsen started by telling the recruits, "I just came back from Guadalcanal."
He went on to tell them, "I've been fighting through the jungles. Fighting day and night. But I didn't realize there was a war going on until I came back to the United States."
At first, the recruits were probably a bit confused. North Carolina was a long way away from the front and they wanted desperately to get to the fighting – any fighting. What "war" could the general be talking about?
Gen. Larsen pressed on, "And especially tonight, when I returned from overseas and found women Marines at Camp LeJeune and you people here at Montford Point wearing our globe and anchor, I realized that a grave state of war existed."
The insulted recruits, Huff says, shouted Larsen down.
Not all the whites they came across in the Marine Corps treated the Montford Point Marines that way.
They spoke highly of their camp commander, Col. Samuel Woods Jr., and many of the drill instructors.
But such comments, coming from their commander's commander, might have been enough to dissuade some people from continuing in recruit training. It did not.
The men in that room that night, and the thousands who would follow them through recruit training at Montford Point Camp, would prove more than worthy to wear the globe and anchor.
By the time he retired from the Marine Corps in 1972, Sgt. Maj. Huff's personal decorations included three Purple Hearts, two Bronze Stars (with Combat "V," for direct participation in combat operations), the Navy Commendation Medal, a Navy achievement medal and Combat Action Ribbon.
Gilbert Johnson would also become a sergeant major, spending another 17 years in the Marine Corps in a career so distinguished that the Montford Point camp now bears his name: Camp Gilbert Johnson.
The United States Marine Corps, like the country, is a very different place today – not perfect, but different.
Despite the risk of death in combat and insult and mistreatment at home, each of the Montford Point Marines persevered in a goal to open a closed branch of the military to African-Americans.
Most people today know nothing of these men and their story. Even fewer have heard about that one night at Montford Point camp when a "hero" came calling.
If Gen. Larsen's intention (he is now buried in Arlington National Cemetery) was to inspire the recruits and encourage others to follow, he was successful. Every day, new African-Americans enter the Marine Corps.
There are those who simply want to forget that night and nights like it – to forget those words, and words like them.
That would be a mistake.
While we cannot judge Gen. Larsen by our times, we can use him as a benchmark to determine progress.
And we can remember the Montford Point Marines who heard his words and proved by their success that even generals can make terrible mistakes.