They called him Pop. At 28, Harold Eatman was considered the old man among his H company of paratroopers, members of the Army 82nd Airborne’s 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
Eatman was a father and had already notched World War II’s first two combat jumps – into the Mediterranean island of Sicily, then mainland Italy.
He was raised first in west Charlotte and then on a Mecklenburg County farm. He had already finished a two-year stint in the “peacetime” Army, serving in Hawaii, then returned to Charlotte after his discharge in 1938. A year later, he married Billie DeBerry, and in May 1941, he began working as a security guard at the former Charlotte Quartermaster Depot, a converted Ford Motor Co. plant on Statesville Avenue.
The depot sent emergency supplies overseas to England.
In December that year, he had just arrived to work when his wife called about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, drawing America into the war.
He knew he’d have to return to the Army. His and Billie’s daughter Leilani (a name he’d picked up in Hawaii) was 2.
At the time, he said, the Army’s airborne divisions were “experimental.”
They trained and learned to jump from airplanes at Fort Benning, Ga., and the 82nd was based at Fort Bragg. In April 1943, they were shipped to North Africa and continued to train for the Army’s first jump in Sicily.
There, a young trooper nicknamed him Pop. Later, that trooper would die in Eatman’s arms.
Eatman was discharged in 1945, one of the few troopers to make all four major World War II jumps: Sicily, Italy, Normandy and Holland.
He returned to his security job at the quartermaster depot, and then – ever faithful to the country – he volunteered for a year’s active duty in the Army’s escort service as coffins with the war’s dead began to fill the depot.
His active duty over, he began to work in the baggage department of Eastern Airlines at the Charlotte airport. He remained in the Army reserves until the 1970s.
Eatman retired after 28 years at Eastern and then went home to fill his grandchildren and great-grandchildren with his war stories. Two grandsons, Michael and John Kelley, joined the 82nd as a tribute to him. So did John’s son, Joseph.
“I’ve had so many relatives in the 82nd, I think they ought to give me the division,” he said.
His great-granddaughter Mary Kelley, Michael’s daughter, had to personally apologize to him: She joined the 101st Airborne.
His wife died in 2008. He lives with his daughter Leilani in Matthews.
“My family and my country have been good to me,” Eatman said. “I’ve been pride-filled to serve them both.”
In his own words / As told to staff writer David Perlmutt
I was born in 1915, my folks tell me in Atlanta. But I think as soon as I could crawl, I got out and made my way to Mecklenburg County.
My daddy was a house painter and a musician who played for square dances. He wasn’t home much.
My mother raised me. She married a farmer later, and I lived on a farm from the time I was 11 until I went into the old peacetime Army in 1936.
It was the middle of the Depression, and I stayed hungry most of the time. If I’d been fed right, I probably would have been a basketball player instead of being called “Shorty.”
After I was discharged from the peacetime Army in 1938, and I was working at the quartermaster depot, I came to work one morning, and before I could get to the guardhouse, someone told me I had a telephone call. It was my wife. She said, “President Roosevelt is on the radio now, and he says Japan has attacked Pearl Harbor and that we are now at war with Japan.”
When I got home and talked to my wife, I said, “You know I’m going to have to go.” She said, “I knew you would feel that way.”
It didn’t require any more discussion. It was settled.
At that time, the Army was just forming the paratrooper outfit. When I heard about it, I said, “Well, that’s what I want.” So I signed up for the paratroopers, because I knew that after the war – when we were all sitting around telling war stories – I didn’t want anybody to say they were in a tougher outfit than I was.
It was the 82nd Airborne Division, based at Fort Bragg. I was assigned to 505th (Parachute Infantry Division) and sent to Fort Benning in Georgia to train. After a toughening-up process, they had scouted out the worst place they could find in Alabama and pitched a few little huts on it and said, “OK, that’s your home.”
They had these towers 100 feet tall, and they’d buckle you into a harness, pull you up to the top of that tower and release you. You’d fall just like you were in a parachute, sort of like the circus. They’d teach you how to fall in different conditions, whether you were coming in backwards, sideways or frontwards.
I don’t think at the time they had any plans to use the airborne but knew they would use them if the opportunity offered itself. At that time, the (Army Air Corps) had no equipment for paratroopers. Not only did they have to train paratroopers, they had to train the pilots.
That came in Sicily. We departed for North Africa in 1943 (April 29), and landed in Casablanca. We saw no action. But it wasn’t too pleasant there.
In July 1943, we made a landing in Sicily much like the one in Normandy, only on a smaller scale. The planes scattered us all over that island. That turned out to be the best thing that could have happened. It confused the enemy. We did everything we could to make things harder for the (German) Panzer division there. We cut communications lines. We were so scattered that wherever we were, we made ourselves known so the Germans thought we were everywhere.
We saw 41 days of combat in Sicily. Then we jumped into Italy in (September) 1943. It was mostly occupation duty there. I was in Naples. That lasted 65 days, then they sent us to England to prepare for Normandy. We set up at Camp Quorn near Leicestershire, England.
We knew all along that we were going into Normandy, but it was always the Army’s pet scheme not to tell you too much. They were afraid the information would get out.
At midnight on June 6, they loaded us up on C-47 transport planes. On the outside, there was a lot of talk and laughing as we helped each other strap on chutes and buckle our harnesses.
But when those engines first crank up, they sound like they’re coming apart, like they’re a bucket of bolts.
When they caught, they smoothed out, and we took off. We were well-trained. We were not afraid, but aware of what could happen. It got real quiet, each man alone with his own thoughts.