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.”