Harold Eatman turned 99 in December, has trouble seeing and hearing, and hasn’t made an out-of-town trip since 2011, when he flew to Washington, D.C., to tour the World War II Memorial.
Mostly he spends his days in a recliner at his daughter’s Matthews house, humming and lost in his own thoughts – often about the years seven decades ago when he was a strapping Army 82nd Airborne paratrooper and notched World War II’s four major jumps. One was into Normandy, France, in the predawn hours before the D-Day invasion.
So when Eatman’s grandson Micheal Kelley told him that the French government wanted to honor him in Raleigh with its 213-year-old Legion of Honor medal, Kelley didn’t think his grandfather would want to make the trip.
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“There was no hesitation,” Kelley said. “He immediately said, ‘Heck yes, if it’s not too much trouble, I want to go.’ ”
They left Monday for Raleigh and planned to spend the night two blocks from the N.C. Capitol. There on Tuesday, Atlanta-based French Consul Gen. Denis Barbet is scheduled to present the medal to Eatman and six other North Carolinians.
Over the years, the French government has presented the medal created by Napoleon to hundreds of Carolinians who fought in France to liberate the country from Nazi Germany.
Eatman remains a heroic figure to his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Two grandsons, Michael and his brother John, joined the 82nd Airborne as a tribute to Eatman. So did John’s son, Joseph. Michael’s daughter, Mary Kelley, apologized to her grandfather after joining the 101st Airborne.
It was the years as a paratrooper that defined his life.
Eatman was raised in west Charlotte, then on a Mecklenburg County farm. He’d finished a two-year stint in the “peacetime” Army when Japanese planes attacked and drew America into the war.
By the time he made his first jump into Sicily, Italy, he was 28 and a father. He was “Pop” to his H company of paratroopers in the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
The Normandy jump was his third. “We knew all along that we were going into Normandy,” Eatman told the Observer shortly before the 70th anniversary of that jump last June. “At midnight on June 6 (1944), they loaded us up on C-47 transport planes ... We were not afraid but aware of what could happen. It got real quiet.”
Eatman landed in a field of frantic horses, near the critical town of Sainte-Mère-Église. By the time he arrived in the town, the paratroopers had rid it of Germans.
Later that afternoon, German artillery fire arrived. Eatman and his men found cover in an L-shaped foxhole. The hole was full when Eatman looked up to see a young trooper, separated from his unit, standing over him. Eatman moved forward and told him to get in. He laid on Eatman’s legs.
Suddenly a piece of shrapnel tore through the young trooper’s arm and popped Eatman on his inner heel. “If he hadn’t been there, I would have taken the full brunt,” Eatman said.
Three months later, he jumped into Holland.
Today his grandson will wheel him into the Capitol’s old House chamber to receive the honor from a grateful French government.
“He knows it will be his final road trip,” Kelley said. “He wanted to spend it with men like him – men who fought in World War II.”