An autobiography is usually uninteresting and dull. But at the same time, the story of a life of the generation which has seen two major wars, with the interval between of time and space occupied by travel and adventure, can be of interest to both young and old. In this story the dull periods are omitted and, in accordance with the old slogan that truth may be stranger than fiction, my intention is to give an outline, particularly to the younger generation, of what can happen to all who have inherited a spirit of travel and adventure. (Eaton, 1953)
The Cross in the Sky is a series of episodes about the adventures and personal survival of a man who exemplified his generation in times of war and peace. Charles Eaton, playing both minor and major roles, participated in a number of the most significant historical events of the 20th Century.
In 1994 I was privileged to be invited to the opening of the new Parliament House in Darwin. The historic annex within the building exhibited a memorial display in honour of my late father. On that occasion I was fortunate to view the display together with the Hon Gough Whitlam. I did not know until that day that the former Prime Minister had served in one of his front-line squadrons in the Pacific during World War Two (WWII). After speaking to Mr Whitlam, I realized the depth of respect he and his contemporaries had for Charles Eaton. When at school I was a keen, but frustrated, history student and it was on that afternoon, and at a mature age, I realized that our own family’s history was staring me in the face.
Although a number of articles had been written about my father’s various activities and a book about his connections to the Northern Territory I considered it would be difficult to write a comprehensive biography.* He wrote only 58 pages of frustratingly brief biographical notes, each page raising more questions than answers. For example, he summed up 25 months as a First World War (WWI) front-line soldier participating in the battles of Festubert, Loos and Vimy Ridge in addition to trench reconnaissance on the Somme front in one single sentence. In his personal notes he never wrote a word about his evidence when exonerating an Australia’s hero Charles Kingsford Smith from impropriety, on the post WWII rehabilitation of East Timor or about his initiatives in the deployment of the first United Nation’s military observers. Yet, when commenting about playing “hide and seek” in and out of German prison camps he writes briefly and with subtle humour. However on India, its forest people and wild life, the timber country of north Queensland and the people of Australian’s north the he opened up by writing at length and with empathy.
I remember only a few occasions when he mentioned his army service in WWI. Once he mentioned the dirt, the filth and the mud and that one could never keep clean. Another time when the battle of Loos was mentioned on television he suddenly went blank, leaned back in his arm-chair, stared into the ceiling and said softy but firmly “Loooooooos” like the name had no ending. Fortunately, I received a few tit-bits of his army life from my mother, especially about the trench bombing at Givenchy and Loos. My brother Peter told me that our father had such an abhorrence of barbed wire that when faced with it while fencing on his farm, he simply dropped his fencing tools and walked home. Perhaps the memories of his fellow soldiers hanging dead on the wire, so many years before were still too strong. Father also wrote three short, unpublished articles; the first two The Bear Hunt and Fear, described incidents of my parents’ life in the Indian jungle which have been amalgamated as Episode VI. The third, The Cross in the Sky provides the title for this book. I have adopted this name as it marked an extraordinary occurrence that represented a defining moment of his life, and perhaps more significantly, it is his own words.
I assumed that it would be very complex to track down records of the various incidents over many years and numerous localities. In France during WWI, three prisoner-of-war camps in Germany, India during the high noon of the Raj, Australia during the formative days of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and a secret reconnaissance mission to the Netherlands East Indies during WWII. Also on the emergence of Republic of Indonesia, where he played a pivotal role in the establishment of that nation. In the majority of those events, his role was of an exploratory or reconnaissance nature.
While the whereabouts of his log books unfortunately is a mystery, there is a wide range of official reports, published literature and private correspondence, such as the Douglas diaries, that relate to the various incidents in which he participated. This information has been vital in providing an authentic background for all episodes. One blessing was that he bequeathed a comprehensive photograph collection which illustrates the many aircraft he flew and the units and personalities with whom he served. His interest in photography developed during training and service as a reconnaissance pilot in 206 Squadron, Royal Air Force (RAF), in 1918. Although long deceased, my father contributed not only the title but also his unpublished articles on India, personal notes, official correspondence and the majority of the photographs. All formed the nuclei around which all episodes were written; Charles “Moth” Eaton therefore must be designated as the co-author.
In his memoirs, my father praised some but criticized none; if he disapproved of anybody, their names were damned by silence. In recording my father’s life, it would be his wish that it would focus on the activities of the units and images of the personalities he interacted with. My initial hesitancy to write on his life was influenced by his wish to “keep one’s name out of the papers”. My mother told me that the wide media publicity he received in 1929 and 1931 discomfited him. Another reason I was apprehensive was the danger of making judgements of his character and his actions that I had no first hand knowledge. I therefore have focused on known historical facts and avoided any appraisal of his service life except when quoted by a third party. My only exception was to comment on his curious attitude to death together with his somewhat tenacious and impatient nature.
The chance to investigate his life has given me an opportunity to discover both his personality and the conditions he and his compatriots experienced. From the age of seven, I saw my parents only on brief intermittent occasions. This was due to his war service and diplomatic postings between 1941 and 1950, and my own departure overseas in the mid-1950s. As the youngest child I gave my parents no end of worries as verified by one RAAF sergeant “That snowy-headed kid, mischievous little devil, gave us no end of trouble”. Their forbearance and understanding continued when my life-style was at times, non-conventional. Compiling these episodes has given me the opportunity to acknowledge the immense debt I owe both my parents. They migrated to Australia from India with £ 20, knowing virtually no one and having no direct family connections. Yet my father, with my mother’s enduring support, was able to make a contribution to the development of Australian aviation and to his adopted country’s diplomatic ingenuity in south-east Asia.
* Aircraft, 1931; The West Australian, 1979; Tennant Creek Times, 1981; Owers, C. 2000; Thomas, A. 1996; Williamson, M. 2000 and 2002; Lax, M. 2001; Aviation Heritage Vol. 35/4, 2004. Farram, S. 2007.