Rear Admiral Phillip B. Eaton was born in Elkins, New Jersey, on 24 January 1887. He attended Cooper Union, New York and the Webb Institute of Naval Architecture where he graduated in 1907. He then received an appointment as a cadet engineer at the Revenue Cutter School of Instruction at Curtis Bay, Maryland, and was commissioned a Third Lieutenant (Engineer) in 1908.
Noted Coast Guard historian Dr. William Thiesen, in his blog-article cited below, provided the following information on Rear Admiral Eaton's remarkable career. As was typical of graduates he then went to sea and served on cutters based out of Baltimore, New York, Milwaukee, New London, San Juan and Port Townsend. He then transferred to the venerable cutter Bear where he served for two years before being accepted for flight training at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida, in 1917.
He took flight training at Pensacola and earned his wings in October, 1917, after the Coast Guard transferred to the Navy at the U.S. declaration of war against Germany that April. He was assigned as the executive officer of Naval Air Station Montauk, New York and eight months later took command of Naval Air Station Chatham. While there, after two weeks, he received a field promotion to Coast Guard Captain of Engineers (equivalent to the Navy's rank of lieutenant commander).
Late in the morning on Sunday, July 21, U-156 emerged from the hazy waters of Cape Cod to prey on American coastal shipping. The U-boat crew located the towboat Perth Amboy and four wooden barges lined up in a towline. Rather than waste precious torpedoes on the slow-moving Perth Amboy and its consorts, U-156’s commander ordered his crew to shell the vessel and its barges with deck guns. Some of the long shots landed on Nauset Beach, the first foreign cannon fire to hit U.S. shores since the War of 1812 and the only enemy shells to hit American soil during World War I.
Though he served as commanding officer of Chatham, Eaton still flew regular patrol flights. Two days before the U-156 attack, one of the air station’s dirigibles had broken its anchor mechanism and drifted away from the station. By the morning of the 21st, the lighter-than-air craft had still not been found, so Eaton took off early in one of the station’s R-9 floatplanes to search for it. Other aircraft from the base also flew search patterns for the missing dirigible.
When he returned from his patrol later that morning, Eaton was informed of the U-boat attack in progress. The acting commanding officer had actually heard the sound of the U-boat firing on the barges and dispatched one of the base’s HS-1 seaplanes with a payload of two Mark IV bombs. The HS-1 dropped its payload close enough to sink the U-156, but the bombs’ fuses failed to detonate on impact. They were duds and many later believed the fuse mechanisms may have been tampered with by German saboteurs.
After he landed, Eaton took on a payload of one Mark IV bomb underneath his R-9. Within 10 minutes of landing, he returned to the air flying a beeline to the surfaced U-boat. The skies were hazy and smoke rose from the burning vessels obscuring Eaton’s biplane from the sub’s lookouts. In addition, the distraction from the HS-1 circling overhead and Eaton’s low-level approach took the U-boat’s gunners by surprise.
The sub’s gun crews finally saw Eaton closing and began firing on him. Eaton dodged the enemy fire and bore down on the target while the Germans scrambled for the hatches to prepare to dive. Witnessing the attack from his cockpit, the pilot of the HS-1 later reported, “Right through the smoke of the wreck, over the lifeboats and all, here came Capt. Eaton’s plane, flying straight for the submarine, and flying low. He saw [the U-boat’s] high-angle gun flashing, too, but he came ahead.”
Eaton made his approach unscathed and dropped his bomb at an altitude of 500 feet. The bomb struck the water near the U-boat, but it proved a dud just like the ones dropped by the HS-1. Eaton later stated, “Had the bomb functioned, the submarine would have literally been smashed.”
Eaton made a second pass over the sub still running on the surface, but with nothing left to drop, he reached for a wrench located in the cockpit and threw it at the enemy vessel. Witnessing this desperate effort, the U-boat commander realized he had little to fear from the air. With the Perth Amboy in flames and the barges destroyed, the U-boat submerged and departed the scene of North America’s first air-sea battle.
This first fight between U.S. naval aviation and the German menace in U.S. waters proved significant in several ways. Even thought the bombs were duds, Eaton’s aim proved accurate and the presence of Eaton’s aircraft likely hastened U-156’s departure from the scene. While the four barges were lost, the tug was recovered and no American lives were lost on any of the vessels.
Eaton’s wartime aviation assignments would be his last. After the war, he returned to sea duty and marine engineering assignments at a time when maritime technology completed the transition from wood and sails to steam and steel. Another of Eaton’s career highlights occurred in 1942 when he rescued survivors from the fiery wreck of a B & O Railroad passenger train earning him the service’s Navy & Marine Corps Medal.
He went on to serve as the Chief Engineer of CGC Itasca, sea duty on CGC Bear for five Arctic cruises and served as the Assistant Engineer-in-Chief of the Coast Guard from 1941 to 1946.
He retired in 1946 and lived the rest of his life in Misquamicut, Rhode Island where he joined Franklin Lodge No. 20, F. & A.M. in Westerly, Rhode Island.
RADM Eaton crossed the bar on 18 May 1958 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
His service decorations included the Navy Cross, Navy & Marine Corps Medal, World War Victory Medal (with Aviation Clasp), World War II Victory Medal, and the Expert Rifleman's Medal.
"Adm. P.B. Eaton Dies at Age 71." Providence Journal (20 May 1958).
William Thiesen. "The Long Blue Line: Phil Eaton -- The Coast Guard's Winged Warrior of WWI." Coast Guard Compass blog (1 September 2017).