Sunday, July 8, 2007

I Miss You, Old Friend--Remembering Basil Lyle Shafer

Lyle and Me, June 6, 2002, Wilson, Wyoming.

Today, I spent a lot of time straightening out my basement Air Corps room where I store my research and writing materials. For several hours I carefully went though items I hadn't looked at for three or four years.

As I straightened the room, I kept running into things sent to me by Basil Lyle Shafer. Lyle was the first vet I interviewed back in 2000. I knew very little about Army Air Corps history, apart from what I'd read casually or seen in movies. Lyle patiently walked me through every question with a clear, concise and dipomatic answer. He sent me large manilla envelopes filled with historical data, photos, scans of old newspapers. He lent me his own books to use for research. He answered countless letters and emails almost faster than I could generate them. And because he and his wife Helen only lived across the Teton Pass, I could drive over and visit.

A photo capturing Lyle's thoughtful, intelligent personality that appeared in the Jackson Hole, Wyoming News, May 24, 2000 (Jackson Hole News)

Lyle was born in Ohio. His father had been a motorcyle policeman. He'd been killed in a crash before Lyle was born, and Lyle had worked hard every day of his life. He was a brilliant man, and one of deep moral values, despite the fact that he found it hard to believe in God after the things he'd witnessed in World War Two. He was one of the few people I've ever known who would literally give you the shirt off his back if he thought you needed it.

At eighteen, Lyle entered the Army Air Corps and became a B-17 bomber pilot. By this time in the war, the crews were being rushed through training, and the advanced training was now done 'on the job', meaning while you were actually flying your combat missions. Lyle ended up in Framlingham, England with the 390th Bomb Group, still just a kid, but entrusted with a huge piece of equipment and the lives of nine other men.His first pilot had flown a few missions and decided he simply could not bear the responsiblity of holding the lives of the crew in his hands. He'd turned in his wings. Lyle stayed close to this man, visiting him after the war and taking care of his wife and child after the pilot died an early death from illness. That's just the kind of guy Lyle Shafer was.

Lyle's crew. Lyle is in front row, center.

On September 10, 1944, Lyle was flying as a co-pilot on a B-17 named 'Gung-Ho'. They ran into some heavy and accurate flak over the target at Nuremberg, where they were bombing ball bearing factories from 26,000 feet. Lyle decided he'd better put on his flak helmet. He leaned over to pick it up off the floor of the cockpit. At the same instant, a round entered where his head had been, decapitating the pilot, Fred McIntosh. It was McIntosh's 25th and last mission. He'd been looking forward to going home to his wife and child.

One of the only known photos of 'Gung-Ho', shot down September 10, 1944. Six of the nine men on the plane were killed instantly when it exploded.

The next round cut the plane in two, and it exploded. Lyle was falling in the nose section. Somehow, he clipped on his parachute and simply stepped out the opening behind the pilots' seats into space. As he told it, in seconds he went from a pilot of a powerful machine to being a helpless guy in a parachute. He ended up as a Prisoner of War at Stalag Luft I in Barth. He remained a prisoner until the end of the war.

After the war, Lyle traveled across the entire United States and visited the families of every man who was killed on the Gung-Ho that fateful day, as well as visiting his old pilot who had refused to fly. Why did Lyle do it? He told me it was because they would have done the same for him. Maybe, but I think it's because Lyle was a special person who knew the importance of duty, loyalty, and honor. Years later, he said, "I figured I was living on borrowed time, and I pledged myself to make the most of it". And that he did.

Because he was so good with people, Lyle ended up as the director of personnel for the giant NCR Corporation, one of the largest companies in the nation. I believe he also held a law degree. When I met him, he and Helen had a summer home in Wilson just across the golf course from Vice President Dick Cheney and a winter home in Arizona. He'd started life with nothing, and ended up at the top of his profession. Sometimes, good guys do finish first.

Fifty years after the war, Lyle tracked down all his barracks mates from the prison camp and got them together for a reunion. He was a man of incredible persistence and fortitude and never gave up till he found all the living members of his barracks.

Using a 'captured' German camera after liberation, the barracks-mates had a group photo taken in front of their barracks at Stalag Luft I. Years later, Lyle tracked all the mates still living and arranged an annual reunion.

On the back of a pack of Camel cigarettes, Lyle and his POW roommates recorded their guesses on when the war would end. The kitty was $5.00. Lyle's guess of June 6, 1945 was the closest, and at the reunion in 1989, his mates paid him $75.00.

About 2002, I ran up Teton Pass to raise money for the World War Two Memorial then being built in Washington, DC. I did it on D-Day, June 6. Lyle met us at the bottom, and pulled off to encourage me all the way up. The pass is five and a half miles long and has a vertical climb of 2,200 feet. The day was hot. I'd trained on the pass, but only when it was cool. In addition, it was windy. But every time I saw Lyle, it gave me the strength to move on up the mountain.

We did the last hundred yards together, and celebrated at the top.

Lyle and I finish the run together, with the WWII Memorial Banner. June 6, 2002.

Lyle and Helen moved to Bainbridge Island, Washington a year or so later, and we kept in constant touch. He mentioned to me in one e-mail that he was having some health issues and was getting treated, but assured me he was 'in good shape for someone in my condition'. He checked on the progress of Untold Valor regularly. As soon as it was published, I mailed him one of the first copies out of the box, but never heard back from him, which was very unusual because he was good about getting back with me right away. A month went by, with no word. Finally, a letter from his daughter. Lyle had passed away. To my knowledge, he never saw the book.

And just like that, he was gone. I am from that last generation of American men who are taught not to cry. But when I heard, I cried anyway. Suddenly, the world was a poorer place, because this exemplary human being was no longer in it.

Today, he was everywhere in that room with me. I looked at the posters he'd meticulously put together for the reunion. The scanned newspapers. The photos. A stack of letters and emails. A set of books by Winston Churchill. I had a strange feeling, a feeling of sadness that he was gone but also of great thankfulness that I'd known him.

One of the last things Lyle ever told me, the last time we saw each other, was how happy he was to have met me. "You know, I'd trust you with my life if we were ever in battle together," he said. It was one of the greatest compliments anyone ever paid me.

Hopefully, everyone who reads this will be reminded of someone who was--or is-- a positive influence on his or her life.
Someday, will someone be able to say of each of us that we made a positive difference? I sure hope so.
My guess is, Lyle Shafer was that kind of person to many more people than me. One good man can make such a huge difference. Thank you, Lyle.


Les said...

Rob, I was on the verge of tears when I read this but tried to hold back because my 1 and 4 year olds were sitting in front of me. That run must have been one of the highlights of your life and you must be extremely proud of that compliment paid to you by Lyle. You are doing these men such a great service for keeping their stories and memories alive. This is a magnificent blog. --Les

Richard Havers said...

Rob, fabulous post. Just makes one realise that war is such a random business. It's also a message of making every day count as you say.

I echo what Les says in the great work you are doing with this blog. One day it's going to really take off with people keen to read more.

Marilyn said...


This is incredibly touching. The loss is heartbreaking. Lyle is back with his buddies swapping war stories. He knows of your book and fine tribute to him. You are both finer people for knowing each other.

luc said...

le 10 septembre 1944 au camp de Schweinau à Nuremberg, mon beau père aujourd'hui décédé qui était alors un travailleur français déporté en Allemagne (travail obligatoire) a vu trois aviateurs morts tomber sur le camp et un aviateur rescapé c'était sans doute Lyle Shafer......
cordialement Luc a frenchie who speak english as a spanish cow

Jessica Shaffer said...

My name is Jessica Shaffer (Shafer) I think Basil (Lyle) is my Great Uncle. I just found out today. If he is the brother of Okey Owen Shafer that was also a POW overlapping same time as Lyle then Lyle is my great Uncle because Okey is my Grandpa. Can you please let me know?

Jessica Shaffer
10 year Army Veteran 82nd Airborne Division & 5th Special Forces Support