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Royal Newfoundland Regiment Museum honours WW II vet

I knew that my great uncle Cam fought in the Second World War. But I still had a lot to learn.

One of Cam Eaton's dying wishes realized with medals donated to museum

Cam Eaton walks with then-Princess Elizabeth in downtown St. John's in 1951. (Eaton Family Archives)

I knew that my great-uncle Cam fought in the Second World War. My grandfather, Doug, talked about it a bit. My dad, Bill, mentioned it a few times, adding more and more details as I got older.

When I was 15, war wasn't something I could fully wrap my mind around. To me, Uncle Cam was a kind fellow who my grandfather looked up to a lot, so I knew he had to have done something incredible to get that admiration.

This week I learned a lot more about the man.

At the tender age of 20, Cam Eaton enlisted to fight for Britain in the Second World War. He was given the service number 970001, making him the second name on the list of the "First Four Hundred" men in the regiment.

First World War vet William John Eaton with daughter Helen Smith, date unknown. (Eaton Family Archives)

After signing up Eaton went home to tell his parents. The news didn't go over well with his father, William John Eaton. The elder Eaton held the regimental number 137 of the First Five Hundred who left Newfoundland for Europe during the First World War. The senior Eaton was in Beaumont-Hamel on July 1, 1916, and was one of the few lucky ones who made it home.

"Dad's oldest sister, Helen, told me one time about when Dad signed up and came home to tell everyone," Cam's daughter Janet O'Dea said.

"I'm sure my grandfather would have been proud of him, but all at the same time devastated. Helen remembers the bathroom door was a little ajar and she saw our grandfather crying on our grandmother's shoulder."

Janet O'Dea, Cam Eaton's older child, talks about her father's wartime experiences. (Gary Locke/CBC)

Soon after he joined, Eaton's group was renamed the 166 Field Artillery in 1941. He served as a forward observation officer, which meant he went ahead of the regiment to see what the Germans were up to.

His son Fraser said his father never talked much about the war, but he was able to get a few stories out of him.

"I heard more from Dad about the war when his voice was lubricated a little bit with scotch. The time that I heard a couple of stories from him was when I was down on the Gander River fishing with him. One story that I recall happened at Monte Cassino," said Fraser Eaton.

"He was up forward of the lines observing the artillery bombarding them. A shell landed in front of him, bounced and landed right on his backside. He told me he laid there for two hours before he had enough nerve to reach around and see if he still had a backside.".

Cam Eaton's son Fraser says his father never talked about the war much to him. (Gary Locke/CBC)

In 1943, while fending off the Germans in Furci, Italy, Eaton had another close encounter.

"He and Harold Lake were right up on the front lines spotting for the artillery and the Germans counterattacked," Fraser Eaton said.

"Dad stayed there, calling in fire closer and closer to himself. Eventually it was only 50 yards away from where he was. He sent Harold Lake back and stayed there and they managed to stop the counterattack. It's my understanding that's why they awarded him the Military Cross."

World War II vet donates medals to Royal Newfoundland Regiment Museum 4:21

According to Frank Gogos, chair of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment Museum, only two Newfoundlanders earned Military Crosses during the Second World War.

"In the two artillery units that served in the Second World War there were only two," Gogos said.

"Cam Eaton is one and the other is [Alan] Goodridge. They are extremely rare in that they weren't given out so much in the second war as they were in the first."

Frank Gogos, chair of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment Museum, says few soldiers received the Military Cross. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Eaton earned the rank of captain during the war and then remained active with the Royal Newfoundland Regiment after he returned. Eaton helped negotiate benefits for Newfoundland veterans in Canada post-Confederation. He became a successful businessman and a dedicated volunteer, and an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1978.

He also stayed in contact with his fellow members of the 166 and he didn't hold back his devotion to his men.

"When I got engaged we chose a date in late September for our wedding," Cam's daughter Janet O'Dea told me.

"When I called home to tell Mom and Dad it happened to be the same weekend as the 30th reunion of the 166. There was no doubt that my dad, Cam, was not available to walk me down the aisle on that particular weekend. So my date got changed."

Brothers Bill, left, and Cam Eaton pose for a post-war photo in St. John's. (Eaton Family Archives)

Last summer, to honour the dying wish of his grandfather Ron Blake — a fellow member of the 166 and friend of Eaton — Calum Blake flew from Australia to attend the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Beaumont-Hamel.

Blake said that after the war had ended his grandfather made the trek from Australia to Newfoundland a few times and he wanted someone from his family to take part in the event.

"On his deathbed he asked me if I could do the honour and represent him," Callum Blake told me July 1, 2016.

Wearing his late grandfather's medals, he laid a wreath honouring the men of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment.

Calum Blake travelled from Australia to take part in the commemorative ceremonies in St. John's on behalf of his grandfather, who fought with the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. (Darryl Murphy/CBC)

Gordon (Cam) Campbell Eaton died in 1994. A few weeks before he passed away he sat down with Fraser, and gave him some special instructions.

"He wanted all of his memorabilia to be available for a military museum if one ever existed," Fraser told me.

He reached out to the Royal Newfoundland Regiment Museum and offered them up. Back then the museum was located in the old Canadian Forces building and there was no security. Not willing to risk losing his father's hard-earned medals, Eaton had replicas made to sit in the place of the originals until last week.

The museum happily accepted the medals at the Royal Newfoundland Regiment Museum in the William Anthony Paddon building in St. John's.

"Lt.-Col. Campbell Eaton is one of the stalwarts of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment as well as the 166," said Frank Gogos, museum chair.

"He was the first commanding officer of the newly formed 166 field regiment in 1949, and in 1968 he was made the honorary lieutenant-colonel of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment and by 1976 he was made the honorary colonel."

In a special ceremony on Wednesday, surrounded by Eaton's children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, the medals were officially turned over to the museum, fulfilling one of his final wishes.

Cam Eaton's family gathered at the Royal Newfoundland Regiment Museum in St. John's for a special ceremony to hand over the medals. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

"He was so attached to that regiment and so proud of the work that they did during the war," O'Dea said.

"The contact after the war remained so strong so the fact that the medals will be there for many of the offspring to see as part of the history that regiment, I think it's really important."

The Royal Newfoundland Regiment Museum has promised the Eaton family that the medals will have a safe and permanent home with them. 

"He was immensely proud of what his father did in the First World War and I think very pleased with the way he performed," Fraser said.

"I would never say proud, because that wasn't him. It gives me a great deal of satisfaction that, finally, things will fall into place and that grandfather's medals and dad's medals will be there together. [It's] an Eaton family story which is really unique, and I hope we never see another generation there."

You can hear about Cam Eaton and Harold Lake's wartime experience below in an special edition of On The Go from Nov. 11, 1992.