MINT HILL, NC – Lewis Thomas Easterling of Mint Hill passed away on May 29, 2021, at the age of 97. He has been ordered to report to the Supreme Commander of the Universe and has now taken his place in the ranks of unnumbered dead. Those who knew him are thankful for the privilege and shall long remember their association with him.
Easterling was born on January 20, 1924, in Ellerbe, North Carolina, and grew up on a rural farm, the youngest of two daughters and four sons. His enlistment record described him as showing an aptitude for becoming a pilot, so on February 8, 1943, with his “Pilot Single Engine” qualification, 1st Lieutenant Easterling found himself in the European theater. He completed his training on a P-40 in Tifton, Georgia, but transitioned to the “Jug,” the P-47 Thunderbolt, which was a medium fighter escort that doubled as a ground attack aircraft.
As a P-47 pilot, Easterling participated in 68 missions, which brought him over Normandy, Northern France, and Rhineland. However, on December 17, 1944, Easterling and eleven other P-47 fighter planes took off from an airbase in France to attack a German railroad station near Mannheim in Germany. It was the day after the Battle of the Bulge began, and the station was full of trains and boxcars loaded with German troops, supplies, and equipment to wage war including tanks, artillery, and ammunition headed toward the front. This mission would prove to be his last in Western Europe.
While attacking an ammunition train, Easterling’s aircraft was seriously damaged by a huge explosion from the boxcar with debris flying into the air and slicing off about 4 feet of the plane’s left wing. Easterling lost his visibility inside the cockpit from the engine oil covering it, and he jettisoned his canopy in an attempt to make it back to allied lines. Suddenly, he ran into intensive flak and was losing altitude. Easterling was no longer able to control the aircraft and ejected about 300 feet above the ground from his burning plane. While ejecting, he was seriously injured when he was struck by the plane’s tail assembly and was further wounded by enemy ground fire; when he landed, Easterling had two broken legs, a head injury, and several missing teeth.
Upon landing in enemy territory, civilians started stripping him; however, SS troops followed him down in his parachute, pushing the civilians away to capture the downed pilot. Easterling was loaded into an ox cart and was taken to a nearby village. Then he was moved to several locations before finally being taken to a POW camp. During this entire ordeal he did not receive any real medical attention or nourishment from the German military.
Easterling was finally liberated by French Forces on April 22, 1945, after four and one-half months of captivity. The German guards fled, followed by the POWs. There were five wounded soldiers including Easterling who were left behind. They eventually located a vehicle in a nearby town, and weaved their way through enemy lines and found American soldiers who assisted them.
When Easterling returned to England, he was placed in a cast from the neck down. When he came back home to America, he was in traction for over a year and had five surgeries to heal his wounds. Easterling was discharged from the Air Force in November 1947 after spending 30 months in hospitals and rehabilitation.
For his military service, Easterling was awarded two Purple Hearts, The European Service Medal, the Presidential Unit Citation, and the POW Medal along with the gratitude of a grateful nation.
Easterling had written notes, a personal biography about his experiences for his children; it took him five years to complete. The writings turned into a book Ticket to Hell published under the pen name R. Frank Harwood; it was the first book to be published telling Easterling’s amazing story.
The second book, Furrow In the Clouds: The Story of a Young Thomas Easterling, Farmboy, Fighter Pilot, Prisoner of War, was published after Olivia Newton-John, who is married to John Easterling, the son of Thomas, told the story of her father-in-law to a publisher on an airline flight. This random meeting generated the second book about the young pilot.
This is a story of the greatest generation when America was a much different country. The sacrifices these men and women made were enormous, and they defeated tyranny while saving the world.
All the generations that followed should never forget what these brave and dedicated Americans were able to accomplish. This includes my deceased father-in-law John Kenneth Becker, who fought in five major campaigns during World War II, Uncle Albert, Uncle Joe, USMC, and Cousin Patty who fought in General Patton’s Third Army. He carried the mental wounds and stress of war for most of his adult life. Let’s not forget the 405,399 American souls who made the ultimate sacrifice, the casualties, and the millions who served honorably.
We must give remembrance and honor all who served, especially those who truly made a difference in the world, those who were part of something greater than themselves. They are our real heroes, our national treasure, our greatest generation, and Thomas Easterling was certainly a patriot, a man of courage, devoted to duty, honor, and country.
Freedom is not free. These men and women of the World War II generation fully understood freedom comes with a very high price. It’s our hope their sacrifice will always be remembered, and our future generations have the same determination to defend freedom against tyranny.