One hundred years ago today, Jesse Lawrence Easterwood — a Navy pilot and former Texas A&M student — was killed during a sea plane flight training exercise in Panama, and while many may not know the story of Easterwood Airport’s namesake, Aggie historians have worked to chronicle the young officer’s contributions to the World War I effort.
“Jesse Easterwood has got to be one of the earliest Aggie aviators serving in the Navy,” said John Adams Jr., a Texas A&M historian and author. “Though we can’t prove that for sure ... he was one of the first American pilots to enter World War I. ... He was the leading edge for Americans flying in new planes.”
After growing up in the small Texas town of Wills Point, Easterwood studied agriculture at Texas A&M before dropping out in 1909. He eventually became a successful merchant, though he would find his calling up in the skies. After enlisting in the Navy at the start of the war, he rose in the ranks and was praised by his superior officers for his attitude and skill. He qualified as a naval aviator with seaplanes, according to an article by George Bush Presidential Library & Museum archivist John Blair, and in 1918 was appointed as a Navy ensign to serve in the European theater.
Easterwood first reported to the Naval Air Station at Dunkerque as a pilot with the Northern Bombing Group. He flew risky missions that not all of his fellow pilots survived, and sometimes operated his plane’s guns when not in the cockpit himself.
Adams said Easterwood was one of the first American pilots to fly Britain’s Handley Page bomber. He flew 16 missions behind German enemy lines and served as a spotter for German submarines while soaring above the ocean. He was ultimately promoted to the rank of lieutenant and was awarded the Navy Cross for his acts of service. He died in 1919 when his sea plane experienced engine problems and a left clipper turn failed, sending the craft into a spin. He was 28 years old.
In February, staff at Easterwood Airport in College Station celebrated the major upgrades recently made to the facility by unveiling a bronze bust of Lt. Easterwood in the terminal. According to a brief history of Lt. Easterwood written by Blair, the College Station general aviation airport was christened in honor of the pilot in April 1940.
Easterwood Airport communications manager Jeffrey Shaw said that not many people know much about the facility’s namesake.
“We had a ribbon cutting collaboration with Astin Aviation, Easterwood and the Texas A&M system to unveil Jesse Easterwood’s bust,” Shaw noted. “We had a historian [attend] who is well-versed in the history of Jesse Easterwood’s life and could speak to his character.”
The airport has undergone major changes since its dedication in 1940. Various projects have updated runway and terminal space over the years, and different airlines have come and gone from the hub. Now, according to Shaw, the airport supports 180,000 customers flying in and out yearly. Easterwood Airport also operates under military contracts and is used by the four major military branches. Historic aircraft often fly in for public events, and public officials such as U.S. Vice President Mike Pence have made use of the terminal.
Adams will be publishing another book on Aggie history in December, titled Over There in the Air, which will discuss the histories of Aggie aviators of World War I, including Easterwood. Adams said Easterwood is a rare breed of Aggie pilot, and not enough people know about what he contributed to the war.
“We need to make sure we remember these early pioneers, and not just have their names on things,” Adams said.