101-year-old World War II veteran receives drive-by tribute while recovering from injury
By ROBERTO ACOSTA | MLive.com | Published: May 6, 2020
BURTON, Mich. (Tribune News Service) — As Jack Eaton stood behind the American flag draped over his fourth-floor balcony, the sounds of horns and applause rang out into the air.
Members of the Patriot Guard Riders paid tribute May 3 to the 101-year-old World War II veteran and oldest living sentinel for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier who recently suffered a back injury and is awaiting surgery.
“Appreciate your service, Jack," one of the riders shouted up.
“My pleasure,” shouted Eaton, who now resides at Lockwood of Burton senior apartments. “It was an honor.”
In October 2019, Eaton finally got his due for standing guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery from January 1938 to December 1939.
“It’s something I remember and always will,” Eaton told The Flint Journal.
He enlisted in 1937 at 18 and was stationed in Fort Belvoir in Virginia as part of the 5th Engineers when he was selected by a commanding officer for the duty.
Eaton likened his stance while guarding the tomb to that of a statue or a programmed machine. He recalled one visitor not thinking he was real.
“At the end of the walkway, there was a canopy. There still is one in inclement weather. In them days we were able to get into it to get a little relief from the heat or whatever it might be rain, snow,” said Eaton.
While standing there, he heard a young woman say aloud: “That’s not a man, that’s a robot.”
His mind whirling, Eaton changed from one stance to another.
The visitor was still not convinced, so Eaton stepped out, placed his rifle on his shoulder and “did my walking thing.”
“That was one of the funny experiences that I had…that was the one that really sticks in my mind,” he said.
Working on a rotation, Eaton also remembers taking advantage of quiet nights at the cemetery.
“I can say, I slept in the cemetery a lot of nights,” he said.
Eaton served there until his first tour of duty wrapped up in 1940.
He went back to civilian life until World War II broke out and then reenlisted, serving in an engineering company that assisted with maintaining airfields in England until being discharged in 1945.
Some memories persist from his time overseas, like they took place yesterday.
“The Normandy planes that were flying at one time in the bombing raids was something you don’t see here and at that time a 1,000 plane raid — 100 planes was a lot — 1,000 planes was unbelievable,” recalled Eaton. “I was one of the ones who made it possible to happen because building the airfields was very important for that part of the war. It was something that had to be done I happened to be there to do.”
After his time in the service, Eaton once again returned to civilian life in Detroit.
It wasn’t until years later that he had the opportunity for a return visit to the tomb.
On a 2017 trip with stepdaughter Brenda Warburton, Eaton noticed something was missing.
“They forgot to put his name on the plaque,” she said, a recognition bestowed upon those who’ve guarded the tomb since 1937.
The family was told records had been destroyed in a fire.
Eaton provided specific details of the tomb, guard quarters and other items that led to an investigation, Warburton said.
"They said he wouldn’t have known all that information if he wasn’t (a sentinel),” added Lisa Koszegi, Eaton’s stepdaughter, who described him as “very structured and just like a military person” with a plan for everything -- from ironing shirts on a certain day to stocking up on groceries.
After learning his claim was true, Eaton’s name went up in October 2019.
With help from Mid-Michigan Honor Flint, Eaton returned for a special ceremony, complete with fanfare upon leaving Detroit and landing in Washington, D.C., followed by a tour of the Pentagon.
“It was an amazing feeling,” said Warburton. “He was just thrilled.”
Eaton takes pride in the recognition.
“It’s in the record book for me for now,” he said.
But Eaton sees his duty to country as nothing out of the ordinary.
“I haven’t done anything more than what most people would have done in my case,” said Eaton. “It’s just something that I happened to be the one that … did it. I’d do it over again, too.”
Members of the Patriot Guard Riders pay tribute to 101-year-old World War II veteran Jack Eaton, the oldest living sentinel for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, on Sunday, May 3, 2020 at senior apartment complex Lockwood of Burton. Eaton recently suffered a back injury and is awaiting surgery, which prompted the visit.
JAKE MAY, THE FLINT JOURNAL/TNS