MINT HILL – There was a time Tom Easterling didn’t think he’d live to see his 21st birthday.
But the Mint Hill resident says a combination of instinct and God’s providence saved him from a series of near-death experiences during World War II and allowed him to live to share his story of survival with others.
Easterling, who’ll turn 90 on Monday, Jan. 20, now lives comfortably with his wife, Shirley. But there was a time nearly seven decades ago when he was fighting for his life behind enemy lines – enduring a harsh winter with little warmth, a scarce supply of food and serious injuries.
The Richmond County native joined the United States Air Force in 1942, shortly after Pearl Harbor was attacked.
“Everybody was going (into the military),” he said. “I think every male in my senior class went into the service.”
The Air Force was emerging in the U.S. at the time Easterling enlisted, and the branch attracted the recent high school graduate.
“The Air Force was basically brand new at that time,” he said. “… It was something new and exciting.”
Easterling was deployed to England in 1944 after completing his training, and then to France about a month later. The main mission for Easterling and his fellow airman was to “kill Germans,” and conflict occurred virtually 24 hours a day, he said.
“It’s what you did all during the day time, and you slept most of the night getting ready for the next day … (it was) intense war,” he said.
Easterling still remembers the date – Dec. 17, 1944 – when his plane flew through an explosion during a mission in Germany, crash-landing and leaving him stranded with two broken legs and a broken back. Easterling was captured by German soldiers shortly after.
“They tried to kill me. They beat me up pretty bad after I landed,” he said. “They took my shoes – anything (of mine) they wanted, they took.”
Easterling was taken before a firing squad and even had a gun held to his head, but as he continued to pray for the strength to survive, his life was miraculously spared. He was eventually taken to a room with about 15 to 20 other prisoners of war, where he spent about three months.
A fellow Russian prisoner of war scavenged some pieces of bread for the other prisoners and also picked up some paper Easterling rolled up and used to clean the gangrene out of his leg – which had wounds from both a gunshot and a protruding broken bone. The cold was nearly unbearable, he said, and many soldiers died and were replaced by new prisoners.
The German soliders eventually transferred Easterling to a prisoner of war camp, where he remained for another few months until rescued by the French. Easterling and his rescuers made a dangerous trek through war-torn territory before he returned to England, and then to the U.S. in August 1945. He was awarded two Purple Hearts – one upon his return and another some years later.
Easterling spent two and a half years in a North Carolina orthopedic hospital recovering from his injuries. The doctors originally planned to amputate his left leg, but were able to insert several screws and teach him how to walk again. After being released from the hospital, Easterling had a difficult time finding work. Most companies were hiring recent college graduates, and others wouldn’t hire him based on his handicap.
“They would tell you flat out that they didn’t hire cripples,” Easterling said. He decided to go back to school at King’s College to study accounting. He worked for several companies as a controller, secretary and treasurer before landing a job at Union Memorial Hospital, now known as Carolinas Medical Center-Union, where he worked his way up to hospital administrator. “That was the last job I had.”
Easterling turned to writing as a form of therapy to express the experiences he previously was never able to talk about.
“When I finally decided to try it, it was really hard to do at first,” Easterling said of writing about his experiences in the war. “But it helped me – I’ve been able to talk about it ever since.”
He presented his writings to his children one Christmas and eventually gave them to a friend and professor, Frank Harwood, who published a book about Easterling’s experiences, “Ticket to Hell,” in 1994. Easterling’s story also was the basis of another book, “Furrows in the Clouds,” written by Richard Drebert and published in 2011.
Easterling has three children – Don, who lives in Waxhaw; John, who is married to singer/actress Olivia Newton-John and lives in California; and Nancy, who also lives in Mint Hill – in addition to five grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. He is an active member of Hickory Grove Baptist Church and works regularly with local veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome.
When reflecting on his life and contemplating the legacy he wants to leave behind, Easterling said he wants to be remembered as someone who served his country and his God the best way he knew how.
“I’ve had a good life,” he said. “I think that I served my country well during a time that they needed it. I served my country the best I could.”