Bothell veteran given France’s highest honor

BOTHELL — A Bothell veteran is being honored for fighting to liberate Europe from Nazi occupation during World War II.

After more than 70 years, the Consulate General of France plans to recognize Jack Van Eaton as a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, the country’s highest accolade. Van Eaton is to receive the award Tuesday, his 91st birthday.

“I’m honored but remorseful that others who deserve it aren’t going to get this honor,” he said.

Van Eaton said he endured “hell on earth” but it was nothing compared to what his fellow soldiers and the people in Europe went through.

Van Eaton was a machine gunner in the U.S. Army for almost three years. He was on the front lines, fending off attackers and chasing Germans out of occupied territory. It was freezing cold and their packs were heavy.

In January 1945, near the end of the Battle of the Bulge, he was wounded in the arm during an artillery barrage.

“Our orders were to hold the line at all costs,” he said. “Now, that’s not a happy line because ‘at all costs’ means don’t move — no matter how dead you are.”

A month later he was shot in the leg as his regiment advanced into Germany. A rifle shot had gone through a tree and hit the buckle on his combat boot. The bullet lodged in his leg between the bone and a tendon. A piece of metal was stuck into his leg.

“I consider that my lifesaver,” he said, pulling the piece of metal and the .30-caliber bullet from his pocket.

After he was shot, he was taken from the battlefield to a field hospital for an operation. He then went to Paris to recover with other wounded soldiers while he waited to be transferred to England.

Van Eaton remembers the joy of the people in the streets near London’s Piccadilly Circus when the Allies declared victory. Months later, he boarded a ship bound for New York.

“I called my sweetheart and said ‘I’m on American soil,’ ” he said. “It was one of my happiest days.”

Carol was a California girl who had written him letters during the war. They met at Graceland University in Iowa before he enlisted.

“I requested an introduction to this dark-haired girl with a beautiful smile,” he recalled.

He and Carol had both failed algebra. Rather than dating, they came to know each other through math tutoring sessions.

But after a semester of college, Van Eaton, a native of Saskatchewan, Canada, signed up to fight for U.S. forces.

“I decided I’d better ask that girl to marry me if I came home in one piece,” he said. “Now, I wouldn’t recommend that approach to very many people. But it worked.”

Van Eaton received two Purple Hearts for his service. Many of the men he fought with did not make it home.

After his discharge in January 1946, Van Eaton went to back to Yakima, where he attended high school. There was a letter waiting for him.

“It was an invitation to a wedding — and I was the groom,” he said.

He borrowed a suit from his brother and started hitchhiking. He had just two weeks to get to Los Angeles, where his bride-to-be was waiting.

When he arrived, Carol’s father wanted to know how the young soldier was planning to feed his daughter. He suggested firefighting because that’s how he fed his own family through the Depression.

“This guy was so hung up on feeding his daughter, I thought, ‘I better get a job,’ ” Van Eaton said.

He found work with the Los Angeles Fire Department and retired 29 years later as a captain. He and Carol raised a daughter who became a nurse and a son who also became a firefighter. Van Eaton has nine grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren. He still serves as a commissioner for Snohomish County Fire District 10.

Carol died in March 2013. Van Eaton’s boyish blue eyes still light up when he talks about her. He carries the same photo of her that he had in his pocket during the war. This past Wednesday would have marked their 69th wedding anniversary.

For many years after the war, Van Eaton avoided reunions for veterans. He didn’t want to talk about it. It wasn’t until he started going that he decided to share his experiences.

“We never heard anything before that,” said Van Eaton’s daughter, Anita Sumpter, also of Bothell. “Dad has a way of telling stories so they’re humourous but you also know it’s serious.”

He tells of once winning a bet with other GIs in occupied Germany. As the story goes, he jumped a barbed-wire fence, grabbed a horse’s mane, swung his leg over and mounted the old nag.

“Dang, it came to life,” he said. “I got my 40 bucks without a buck at all.”

In earnestness, Van Eaton is thankful for the French men and women who helped hide the troops during the war. Now, the French Consulate plans to express the country’s gratitude to Van Eaton, with the nation’s highest honor.

“This is a way for France to recognize these men and thank them for what they did 70 years ago,” said Jack Cowan, the honorary consul of France for Washington state.

Van Eaton will join the ranks as a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor on Tuesday in Kenmore.

“Chevalier, you know, that’s like a knight,” Van Eaton said, smiling. “I’ve decided the only time people need to call me sir is when I’m riding a white stallion.”

Amy Nile: 425-339-3192; Twitter: @AmyNileReports.

Talk to us

More in Local News

Jeremy Fuerst (Northwest Washington Synod)
Everett pastor dies while mountain climbing in Colorado

Pastor Jeremy Fuerst, 44, came to Central Lutheran Church in 2015.

Mark Choi, right, and an employee leave his office in the Plum Tree Plaza, after firefighters check for hot spots from Saturday's fire, on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021 in Edmonds, Washington.  (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
Police: Arsonist lit fire that ravaged an Edmonds strip mall

Investigators were seeking tips to identify the culprit, who damaged 14 businesses on Highway 99.

Exterior of the Van Valey House on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021 in Everett, Wa. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Everett giving nonprofit museum historic Van Valey House

The Everett City Council agreed to transfer ownership of the Colby Avenue home on Wednesday night.

Sultan police looking for tips after rash of car prowls

On Sunday, the department responded to 20 reports at Sportsman Park and trailheads near Gold Bar.

Rebecca Haskins (Everett Police Department) 20210913
Missing Everett teenager located

Rebecca Haskins had last been seen the morning of Sept. 4. Police reported her found Wednesday.

Lloyd Richmond (left) and attorney Samantha Sommerman appear at an Everett District Court bail hearing Sept. 6. (Herald staff, file)
Accused killer of tenant now charged with 2 earlier assaults

Lloyd Richmond, 84, allegedly beat a woman and choked a man — both of whom rented rooms from him.

State Supreme Court to hear case of Edmonds gun-storage law

In February, an appeals panel said state law pre-empts the city from enacting its own firearm rules.

Pedestrian dies after being hit by a car in Everett

Adrian Van Wyck, 47, died at a hospital Saturday. The crash occurred on Evergreen Way on Sept. 3.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, with four private citizens onboard, lifts off from Kennedy Space Center's Launch Pad 39-A Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Cape Canaveral , Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Everett man launched into space for 3 days of orbiting Earth

Chris Sembroski and three others will soar 100 miles higher than the International Space Station.

Most Read