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Col. William H. Eaton, Tuskegee Pilot Trainee, Loved to Serve -- and Loved the Uniform

Col. William H. Eaton in his Tuskegee cadet uniform, above, eventually fulfilled a desire to visit Pearl Harbor after his Army service.
Col. William H. Eaton in his Tuskegee cadet uniform, above, eventually fulfilled a desire to visit Pearl Harbor after his Army service. (Family Photo)
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By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 22, 2009

The military career of Col. William H. Eaton was steeped in military history.

As a young man, he left college to join the Tuskegee Airmen, the pioneering black fighter pilots of World War II. He ended his career in 1979 as the commander of Fort Leslie J. McNair in Washington, which serves as headquarters of the U.S. Military District of Washington and the National Defense University.

"My father's retirement day was the saddest day of his life, because he was giving up what he loved more than anything else -- wearing a uniform," said Eileen Price of Bradenton, Fla., the oldest of Col. Eaton's children.

William Henry Eaton, a native of Suffolk, Va., was a student at what is now South Carolina State University in Orangeburg when he answered the government's call for black pilots. The Tuskegee program started when the U.S. government bowed to pressure from civil rights groups and decided to give black pilots an opportunity to be trained to fight for their country.

He was a member of the class of 45H, one of the last groups of young men to sign on, said Bill Broadwater, a former president of the East Coast chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, where Col. Eaton maintained a membership until he died of complications of cancer Jan. 11 at his home in Fort Washington. He was 86.

"He would have been in the class right after mine," Broadwater said. "The program ended in 1946, after the war ended. A lot of the guys got out of the military and did other things. It says something that he was later commissioned."

Records show that Col. Eaton completed training but never became a pilot at Tuskegee. Instead, he returned to college and in 1946 received a degree in biology, with a minor in chemistry. On campus, he had met a pretty co-ed named Juanita Vaughn, another biology-chemistry student.

"A classmate of his introduced us," his wife said. She was not initially impressed.

"He told my sister he liked me and I said, 'You don't know me. We have not been properly introduced,' " she recalled. A formal introduction and a semester later, they were an item. The couple celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary June 5.

Col. Eaton's plans to attend medical school changed, and he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserve and assigned to the Chemical Corps in 1950, relatives said. He was later commissioned into the Army.

"I'm not sure why my father never went to medical school," Price said. "He and my mother were both science nerds. My younger sister was in the military, both she and her husband, and they are both doctors. My father was very proud of that."

In 1976, Col. Eaton was appointed post commander at Fort McNair. He moved his family onto the historic post and began what would be three of the most enjoyable years of his time in the service, Price said.

As base commander, he often served as the official host for events that drew people from all over the world. He also got to view the celebration of his nation's 200th birthday in 1976 from a spectacular vantage point.

"When the tall ships came for the bicentennial, our back yard was full of people with different accents," Price said.

After the military, he and his wife settled in Fort Washington. He sold real estate for a time, then settled down to a life of traveling, playing golf and bridge and growing vegetables. In 1986, he fulfilled a lifelong dream to see Pearl Harbor, whose attack by the Japanese on Dec. 7, 1941, launched the United States into World War II.

"The trip to Pearl Harbor was an emotional one," Juanita Eaton said. "You could see oil floating on the top of the water still. When our guide told us how many men were still down there in the sunken ship, it was really emotional."

Col. Eaton will be buried Wednesday with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

"The military was the only life he knew, that of a transient soldier who delighted in serving his country," Price said.

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