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Remembered: Darwin’s man of action

By GPCAPT Mark Kelton
Volume 48, No. 4, March 23, 2006

OC 396CSW GPCAPT Mark Kelton, Dr Charles Eaton (Junior) and CEO NT Airports Ian Kew at the unveiling of GPCAPT Eaton’s portrait at Darwin International Airport.

OC 396CSW GPCAPT Mark Kelton, Dr Charles Eaton (Junior) and CEO NT Airports Ian Kew at the unveiling of GPCAPT Eaton’s portrait at Darwin International Airport.

Photo by LAC Allan Cooper

RAAF Base Darwin’s origin was celebrated late last year with the official unveiling of a portrait of its first Commanding Officer, the late GPCAPT Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton - a man of action and innovation with a long military career.

Visitors passing through Darwin International Airport only have to look at Eaton’s portrait, donated by his son, Dr Charles Eaton, high on the wall of the arrivals area to be reminded of the RAAF’s contribution to the pioneering aviation spirit of Australia.

GPCAPT Eaton, OBE (Mil.), AFC, MiD (1895–1979) Knight Commander - Cross of the Orange Nassau with Swords, had a rich life.

He was a hero in peace time and at war, a man who spoke his mind (sometimes ending up in courts-martial), and a commander admired and respected by his subordinates.

At 17, he served with a British Army contingent in France as a bicycle company member – a highly-agile and fast-moving force capable of mobile strike, enemy communications interdiction and trench bombing, all atop an 1890s vintage bicycle.

The need for speed continued and Eaton joined the Royal Flying Corps in 1917, seeing action during homeland defence, an aircraft crash behind enemy lines, time in a German prison camp, and a stirring and valiant escape back to England.

After the war, Eaton remained with the RAF and flew extensively throughout Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and India.

For a time he was a forestry civil servant in India and far north Queensland, but after a little persuasion, joined the RAAF as a Flying Instructor with No. 1 Air Training School at Point Cook in 1925.

Eaton’s leadership of three missions into northern Australia thrust him into the public spotlight. First was the rescue mission for Charles Kingsford-Smith and the ‘Southern Cross’, which came down in the Kimberleys.

Later, Eaton led the rescue for the ‘Kookaburra’, lost in the Tanami Desert.

Tragically the crew of the ‘Kookaburra’ was lost and Eaton was lucky to escape himself, with his aircraft crashing near Tennant Creek - the aluminium cylinder head of his engine melting and the piston jamming the propeller to a sudden stop.

The last notable search was for the ‘Golden Quest’, an aircraft lost west of Alice Springs while conducting an aerial expedition for Lasseters’ lost gold reef.

In 1938 Eaton co-surveyed the site that RAAF Base Darwin stands on as a future strategic air defence station in the north of Australia. He returned to Darwin in 1939 in command of No. 12SQN and with an airfield construction team opened the airbase for operations on July 1, 1940. Darwin was more colloquially known as the new aerodrome at the ‘6 mile’ of which Eaton was the first Base Commander.

War followed soon after and Eaton saw operational service in New Guinea and conducted secret missions into the then Netherlands East Indies.

Eaton commanded No. 79WG during the war, which was based at Batchelor in NT. With the war over, Eaton became the Consul-General to the Netherlands East Indies - our first formal diplomatic involvement with Timor. Eaton was also Charge de Affairs to the then new Republic of Indonesia.

In 1979, Charles Eaton passed away and, as was his request, his ashes were scattered in the Tanami Desert near Tennant Creek.





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