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Passing of Rear Admiral Donald R. Eaton, USN (Ret.)

By: Samuel J. Cox Rear Adm., USN (retired) Director of Naval History, Curator for the Navy Director, Naval History and Heritage Command

It is with deep regret I inform you of the passing of Rear Admiral Donald Richard “Don” Eaton, U.S. Navy (Retired) on July 25, 2020 at age 83.  Don enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1957 and served as a Naval Flight Officer and then as an Aerospace Maintenance Duty Officer (AMDO) until his retirement in 1994 as Assistant Commander, Fleet Support and Field Activity Management in Naval Air Systems Command. He was the first AMDO to achieve flag rank. In July 1965 his A-6A went down over Laos and he evaded capture for over 18 hours until he was rescued under fire by a CIA “Air America” helicopter; he was awarded a Purple Heart and Combat Action Ribbon, as well as five Air Medals and three Navy Commendation Medals with Combat “V” during 66 combat missions during the Vietnam War.  

Rear Admiral Donald R. Eaton

On September 4, 1957 Don Eaton enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve and reported for duty as a Naval Aviation Cadet (NAVCAD). On October 13, he was honorably discharged and on October 14 was commissioned an ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve to rank from October 16, 1957. He graduated from flight training at NAS Corpus Christi and was designated a Naval Aviator (HTA) and was the first NAVCAD Naval Flight Officer.  

In October 1959, Ensign Eaton reported to Heavy Attack Squadron THREE (VAH-3) at NAS Sanford, Fla. for instruction as a bombardier-navigator in the A3D Skywarrior. In November 1960 he was assigned to Heavy Attack Squadron SEVEN (VAH-7) which conducted a partial Mediterranean deployment on carrier Independence (CVA 62) supplementing VAH-1. In January 1961, Ensign Eaton reported to the newly established Heavy Attack Squadron THIRTEEN (VAH-13) flying in the A3D-2 Skywarrior (redesignated A-3B) on newly commissioned carrier Kitty Hawk (CVA 63) during her shakedown and inter-fleet transfer to San Diego and workups for a Western Pacific deployment, as the squadron transferred from NAS Sanford to NAS Whidbey Island, Wash. On October 16, 1962, Lieutenant (junior grade) Eaton was honorably released from active duty.

On June 8, 1963, Lt. j.g. Eaton reported for active duty to Attack Squadron FOUR TWO (VA-42) at NAS Oceana for training as a bombardier-navigator (B/N) in the new A-6A Intruder. In August 1963, he reported to Attack Squadron SEVEN FIVE (VA-75) the first squadron to operationally deploy with the A-6A. Embarked on carrier Independence (CVA 62) and commanded by Commander Jeremiah Denton, VA-75 commenced a Vietnam deployment in May 1965.

On July 14, 1965, on his tenth combat mission, Lieutenant Eaton and his pilot (and roommate) Lt. Donald V. Boecker (future Rear Admiral) were tasked to bomb a bridge on the Ho Chi Minh trail near Sam Nua in northeastern Laos. One of the five Mk.82 500-pound bombs detonated prematurely immediately after release on the bomb run, crippling the aircraft and forcing Boecker and Eaton to eject over 150 miles from the coast (this was the first A-6 lost in combat). They came down separately and for over 18 hours independently evaded hostile villagers in thick jungle and steep terrain as several rescue attempts failed due to mechanical problems and intense hostile machine gun fire. Finally, a CIA “Air America” H-34 helicopter piloted by Sam Jordan (former Marine) succeeded in picking up both in a harrowing rescue under fire. Eaton returned to his squadron and flew 56 more combat missions against increasingly effective North Vietnamese anti-aircraft defenses (Cmdr. Denton and his B/N Bill Tshudy were downed over North Vietnam and captured on July 18, 1965 and Denton’s replacement as VA-75 Commanding Officer, Cmdr. Leonard Vogt, and his B/N LT R. F. Barber, were killed on September 18th during a night attack on enemy patrol boats).

On November 26, 1965 Lt. Eaton augmented in the U.S. Navy and in February 1966 reported to VA-42 at NAS Oceana as an A-6 B/N Instructor. In May 1967 he then reported to the Naval Post-Graduate School, Monterey, where he was promoted to lieutenant commander in June 1968 and graduated in July 1969 with a Bachelor of Science in Engineering Science. In July 1969, Lt. Cmdr. Eaton was assigned to the Naval Air Rework Facility, Norfolk as Assistant Weapons Flight Test Officer. In February 1970 he returned once again to VA-42 as a flight instructor and Avionics Armament Division Officer at NAS Oceana.

In August 1971, Lt. Cmdr. Eaton reported as Maintenance Officer to Attack Squadron EIGHT FIVE (VA-85) as the squadron received the first A-6E Intruder aircraft. He also had additional duty as carrier Forrestal (CVA 59) charter flight coordinator and VIP escort officer. In July 1972, Forrestal suffered another severe fire, this one deliberately set by a crewman, alongside Pier 12 in Norfolk, during which Forrestal took on a dangerous list and all the computer equipment was destroyed. With CIC and computer equipment diverted from the nuclear carrier Nimitz (CVN 68) under-construction, Forrestal with VA-85 embarked deployed three months late to the Mediterranean to relieve carrier John F. Kennedy (CVA 67) which had been held on station.  

In 1972, Lt. Cmdr. Eaton re-designated to Aerospace Maintenance Duty Officer (AMDO/1520) and in July 1973 reported to carrier America (CVA 66) as Aircraft Intermediate Maintenance Department (AIMD) Officer for a Mediterranean deployment. On February 1, 1975 he was promoted to commander.

In September 1975, Cmdr. Eaton reported to NAS Norfolk as Aircraft Intermediate Maintenance Department (AIMD) Officer. In June 1978, he assumed duty at Naval Military Personnel Command in Washington, D.C. as Aerospace Maintenance Duty Assignment Officer. In August 1979, Cmdr. Eaton attended the Industrial College of the Armed Forces (ICAF) in Washington, D.C. and concurrently earned a Master of Science Degree in Administration from the George Washington University. In August 1980, Cmdr. Eaton reported to Naval Air Systems Command Headquarters as Executive Director for Logistics. Following promotion to captain on July 1, 1981 he assumed duty at Naval Air Systems Command as Director, Maintenance Policy and Planning Division.

In June 1983, Capt. Eaton assumed duty as Commanding Officer, Naval Plant Representative Office, Lynn Mass., where he was instrumental in the introduction of the T-700 (in SH-60 Seahawk) and F-404 (in FA-18 Hornet) engines. In May 1985, Capt. Eaton assumed command of the Naval Air Engineering Center, Lakehurst, NJ where he brought the low-pressure steam catapult to maturity. In March 1987, he was assigned as Executive Assistant and Naval Aide to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research Engineering and Systems (ASN RE&S). In June 1989, Capt. Eaton reported to Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command as Director, Space and Sensor Systems.

In March 1990, Capt. Eaton returned to Naval Air Systems Command as Deputy Assistant Commander for Aviation Depots (AIR-43) responsible for 12 commands, including six Naval Aviation Depots with 22,500 personnel and a $2.2 billion budget. He was promoted to rear admiral (lower half) on January 1, 1991.

In August 1992, Rear Adm. Eaton assumed duty as Assistant Commander, Fleet Support and Field Activity Management (AIR-04), Naval Air Systems Command. Rear Adm. Eaton retired from active duty on January 1, 1994.

Rear Admiral Eaton’s awards include the Distinguished Service Medal, Legion of Merit (4), Air Medal with numeral “5,” Navy Commendation Medal (4, three with Combat “V”), Purple Heart, Combat Action Ribbon, Navy Unit Commendation (2), National Defense Service Medal (2), Vietnam Service Medal with two bronze stars, Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross Unit Citation, and Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal. 

Following retirement from active duty, Don joined the faculty at Naval Post-Graduate School, in Monterey as a Senior Lecturer, initially in the former Systems Management Department. He was instrumental in establishing the Admiral Stanley R. Arthur Chair of Logistics in 2003 and was the first Arthur Chair. He taught several courses in logistics strategy, was a prolific capstone advisor, and mentored over 200 research projects, until his retirement in 2009. He was instrumental in solving a long-standing parking problem at NPS, which apparently was no easy feat. The Rear Admiral Donald R. Eaton Logistics Award for Outstanding Achievement is awarded in his honor.

“It was the first day of the rest of my life,” was how Don Eaton described the trauma of parachuting into the jungle of Laos in July 1965. However, he wasted no time getting back into the cockpit after his dramatic rescue (thank the CIA!) and continuing to answer his country’s call in flying increasingly dangerous missions into the anti-aircraft and SAM filled skies over North Vietnam. He began his career in the beast of an aircraft in the Navy’s contribution to strategic nuclear deterrence (before the Polaris ballistic missile) the A3D, known to its crews as “all three dead” which would be the likely result for any Skywarrior that ditched at sea (or actually had to conduct a nuclear strike mission for that matter). He became an early leader in the Aerospace Maintenance Duty Officer Restricted Line Community (established December 1968). He provided critical leadership during the post-Vietnam readiness doldrums and led the community during the renaissance in the 1980’s developing engines, catapults and maintenance practices that served the Navy well despite the 1990 drawdowns. He chose to continue to serve the Navy long after his active duty retirement, educating future generations of Navy officers in logistics and maintenance at the Naval Post-Graduate School. Don Eaton served our Navy and nation with valor and exceptional dedication during very challenging times. He truly made a difference and his legacy will live on. 

Rest in Peace Admiral Eaton.