Eagleson, James WWII Vet

World War II veteran Jim Eagleson, 94, in front of Attleboro’s World War II memorial. He served on the cruiser U.S.S. Vincennes in the Pacific.

DIGHTON -- Jim Eagleson is one of the few.

At 94, he’s a member of the rapidly diminishing roll of living War II veterans—all part of “The Greatest Generation.”

In 2018, according to the National World War II Museum, there were 496,777 World War II veterans remaining out of the 16 million Americans who served.

That’s about 3.1 percent of the total.

But the museum estimates 348 die every day.

That means another 89,784 have died since the beginning of this year alone.

They’re fading fast, along with their stories of life and war.

They did not die on a blood-soaked beach or in a steamy jungle, or in the air or water or on some other battlefield of brutal violence, but they will always be entitled to have flag fly on their grave, put there by a grateful nation and those who enjoy freedom today because of their service.

They are the generation which defeated the murderous totalitarian dictatorships of Japan, Germany and Italy which thirsted for world domination, a goal which plunged much the world into war in 1939 and finally forced the U.S. into the maelstrom in 1941.

Today Eagleson, who grew up in South Attleboro, the adopted son of Alice and William Eagleson, is healthy, happy and living with his wife of 72 years Marilyn, in a quiet North Dighton neighborhood, a long way from the perils of war he faced 75 years ago on the light cruiser U.S.S. Vincennes (CL 64), which helped in the fight against the Imperial Navy of Japan for more than a year in the Pacific Theater.

He retired in 1989 from his job as a professional farrier servicing four major horse racing tracks in New England. His neat farrier shop, with the forge he built, remains in his back yard.

Eagleson was 17 and a junior at Attleboro High School when he gave up his education to join the Navy early in 1943.

He said he preferred joining the Navy over being drafted by the Army.

After training, his service in the Pacific began in May of 1944 on the Vincennes, which had been commissioned in January of 1944.

According to historyofwar.org the Vincennes cruised the Pacific as part of the American fleet for more than a year.

The website details the ship’s many engagements with the enemy.

Its war service ended in June of 1945 when it was sent back to the U.S. for a “re-fit,” two months before Gen. Douglas MacArthur took the surrender of the Japanese in Tokyo Bay.

It never went to battle again.

While the ship was battle scarred, it was never in danger of sinking and the only crew members it lost were to accidents on the ship, Eagleson said.

Three died that way.

Japanese kamikazes, suicide planes which purposely crashed into ships, constantly threatened the Vincennes, whose mission was to protect aircraft carriers.

Torpedoes from Japanese submarines were dangers as well. Once, one skimmed along the side of the ship carrying 1,285 officers and crew, but did not hit it.

It was a ship that seemed blessed, unlike its namesake, U.S.S. Vincennes (CL 44), which was sunk in the Battle of Savo Island on Aug. 9, 1942, with the loss of 332 lives.

“We were very lucky,” Eagleson said.

And like a lot of veterans who came back alive, he diverted attention from his own service to the service of others.

For him the pilots flying off the carriers his ship protected had the toughest job.

“They are the guys that won the war,” Eagleson said.

His job didn’t involve firing guns.

Eagleson worked in the Vincennes’ machine shop, crafting steel parts to fix whatever needed fixing.

But no matter what a sailor’s job, danger was ever-present and the sound that none of the sailors liked to hear was the alarm for “general quarters,” meaning the ship was about to be attacked.

When that happened, death could be moments away.

“It was frightening when they blew general quarters,” Eagleson said.

According to historyofwar.org, the Vincennes was involved in a number of major battles including the battles of the Philippine Sea, Leyte Gulf and Okinawa.

It was part of the group which made an attack on Tokyo in February of 1945.

In March, the ship was “heavily damaged in a running battle with Japanese aircraft” and in April a kamikaze crashed just 50 feet from its stern.

But he survived along with most of the crew and was discharged after serving three years and 22 days and “11 hours,” he said.

At a dance

He met his wife after the war at a dance in what is now the Pinecroft School in Rehoboth.

Eagleson said once he laid eyes the pretty 17-year-old, “that was all she wrote.”

And as the Beatles song said years later, he couldn’t dance with another when he saw her standing there.

Later, he proposed in the driveway of that school as the couple headed to Roseland Ballroom in Taunton to dance.

“We loved to dance,” he said.

And that carried well into their marriage and they were good at it, one time winning a dance contest.

His only complaint these days is a nagging back injury he suffered when a horse he was riding fell while jumping a fence.

But he’s more than healthy enough to visit the war memorials on Attleboro Common where his name, along with 7,539 other Attleboro residents are honored for their service in one of four wars, World WarI, World War II, Korea or Vietnam.

Out of that number, 3,096 served in World War II, according to the city’s veterans’ office.

And 80 of those died, about 2.6 percent.

Out of the 16 million Americans who served, 291,557 were killed in action or about 1.8 percent.

Another 113,842 died from other causes, bring the percentage to 2.5 percent.

A total 1,076,245 Americans were killed or wounded, 6.7 percent.

And now, about 97 percent of that 16 million are gone, but not forgotten.

Most have left legacies that will live long beyond the battlefield.

They came home and rebuilt American as farmers or farriers or one of innumerable other jobs.

And now their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren carry on, the new lifeblood of America.

Eagleson and Marilyn had four children, all themselves now nearing or at retirement age, Donna, 71, Dale, 68, Bill, 66 and Scott, 58.

And there are grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Many attended the couple’s 72nd wedding anniversary party over the weekend.

It’s hoped none of them will ever see war.

Asked how he felt about seeing his name on the Attleboro memorial the answer was true and to the point.

“That’s where it belongs,” he said. “We all did our part, I guess.”

George W. Rhodes can be reached at 508-236-0432.

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