2 Black Marines Who Broke Racial Barriers During WWII Die Within Days of Each Other

A group of Montford Point Marines in their dress uniforms, May 1943.
A group of Montford Point Marines in their dress uniforms, May 1943. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Roger Smith)

Two barrier-smashing Marine Corps veterans who were among the first Black men to enlist in the service died this month -- within a week of each other, according to officials and local news reports.

Cosmas Eaglin Sr. and Nathaniel "Nate" Boone joined the segregated Montford Point Marines during World War II and were honored decades later for helping break racial lines in the military. They were 108 and 95 years old, respectively.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said Eaglin and other Montford Point Marines set an example “that helped lead the progress toward racial equality that our country has made over the last 80 years,” according to the North Carolina Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

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The Bennington Banner in Vermont heralded Boone, a resident of Bennington County, as a "revered" veteran. He has a state-sanctioned day in his honor -- Feb. 17 is known as Nathaniel Boone Day in Vermont.

Montford Point was an all-Black training camp on the New River just outside of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. The camp trained almost 20,000 recruits in the 1940s after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 -- a 1941 provision banning discrimination in the armed services.

A year after Roosevelt's executive order, the first Black recruits arrived at Montford Point and endured dismal conditions and racism. The military was not fully desegregated until 1948 by an order from President Harry Truman.

Marines like Eaglin and Boone were prohibited from entering neighboring Camp Lejeune without a white escort. Boone recalled that the barracks were made "more or less of a glorified cardboard" in an interview he gave with his alma mater, Bates College in Maine, in 2013.

“The white officers didn't want us there,” Boone said. “So, we were sort of fighting the war before we encountered any enemy.”

    In fact, just months before their arrival to Montford, Maj. Gen. Thomas Holcomb said that "if it were a question of having a Marine Corps of 5,000 whites or 250,000 Negroes, I would rather have the whites."

    Montford Point was decommissioned in 1949, and by then, the Marine Corps had its first Black drill sergeants, officers and female service member. In 2011, President Barack Obama signed a provision into law that awarded the Montford Point Marines the Congressional Gold Medal.

    "Despite being denied many basic rights, the Montford Point Marines committed to serve our country with selfless patriotism," Obama said.

    In 2012, over 400 surviving Montford Point Marines received replicas of the medal a day after Congress bestowed a collective, specially made award to the group, according to the Marine Corps. Boone told Bates College that "the ceremony brought me to tears."

    The Marine Corps "treated us like royalty," he told the college. "And to see the rank that the ladies, Black and white, had achieved, and to see Black generals, which I didn't think would ever happen in the Marine Corps."

    After leaving the Marines in 1948 as a corporal, Boone attended Bates College and Boston University Law School. He practiced law for 41 years until retiring in 1989 to live with his wife, Harriet Howell Boone, in Vermont, according to his obituary. They have two children. He died on Sunday.

    Eaglin served in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, according to the North Carolina Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

    "His life changed the world for the better and we are forever grateful for all the sacrifices he and his family have made for freedom and equality," said retired Lt. Gen. Walter Gaskin, secretary of the North Carolina DMVA, who also honored Eaglin in January with a department coin and certificate.

    "He endured unimaginable obstacles in the segregated Marine Corps," Gaskin added.

    Eaglin, who joined the service when he was 27, died on Aug. 15, just five days before Boone.

    -- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at drew.lawrence@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @df_lawrence.

    Related: The Montford Point Marines

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