Eric’s Heroes: Remembering Spokane’s Gene Shauvin

By Eric Johnson

The old pictures of Gene Shauvin tell a story that he’s no longer able to tell. Clear-eyed, movie star handsome, young, strong. And, as we will find out, utterly fearless.

He grew up in Spokane. Graduated from Rogers High School in 1938. When World War II happened, he joined the Army Air Corps.

There is one picture that is irresistible. Gene is smiling bright, wearing a helmet and goggles, with a brown bomber jacket and a silk scarf tucked inside. He looks self-assured, but not cocky. He looks kind, but fierce. He looks like the guy we wanted up there when the world was on the brink so long ago.  

How could we lose with guys like Gene Shauvin on our side?

Another picture shows a young family. Gene is in his dress uniform. His wife Phyllis is on his left in a dress with embroidered roses. And between them is a smiling little girl with ribbons in her hair and bright, clear eyes.

Her name is Linda, and her eyes are still bright after 83 years on this earth.

She has but one memory of her father. It’s from around the time that the family photo was taken.

“I’m so grateful I have one little memory,” she says. “I have one memory of him holding me and his buttons and wings kind of hurting my chest. I remember that really well.”

The last time Gene was home, in 1943, he said something that frightened his young wife. He told her that he had a feeling that he wouldn’t be coming home again.

Phyllis cried when he said it, and he tried to take it back, playing it off as some kind of joke.

The next day he got on a train, and his little family never saw him again.

In 1944, three months after the invasion of Normandy, allied troops were taking back Europe.

“Operation Market Garden” was designed to liberate The Netherlands from Nazi control.

Special paratroopers, called Pathfinders, would be flown in first. They would go in low and slow over Nazi territory. They would be dropped half an hour before the full-on airborne invasion.

When they landed, they would use radar and lights to set up drop zones for the hundreds of planes and thousands of troops that would follow.

Pathfinders needed the very best pilots. It was a duty considered to be so dangerous, that of the finest pilots, they asked for volunteers.

Gene volunteered.

On September 17th, 1944, 2nd Lieutenant Gene Shauvin was the point of the spear. His C-47 Dakota, with 15 men aboard, took heavy flak from German anti-aircraft guns over Belgium.

His plane went down. Six paratroopers were able to jump out. Five crew members and four paratroopers went down with the plane in the field of a farm near the small town of Retie.

Eight bodies were found on the farm.

Only one was missing. Gene Shauvin.

Western Union delivered a telegram to Phyllis not long after. It was short and simple. It said, “Your husband 2nd Lieutenant Eugene P. Shauvin has been reported missing in action since 17 September over Holland.”

There are some letters and numbers down at the bottom of the telegram, written in ink.

They are smudged. All these years later, Linda says it’s from her mother’s tears.

And so, Linda, the little girl in the picture, grew up without a father. “There was always a sense of loss,” she says now.

She asked questions about him constantly growing up. She felt that by understanding who he was, she might better understand herself.

“I just wanted to know his temperament,” she said. “And I have found out that he had a really hot temper, that somebody’s inherited!” She laughs, then adds, “But he was quick to apologize. Everybody said that, and he had a great sense of humor, and he just always loved to fly.”

I asked her if she is proud of who he was and what he did.

She lit up. “Oh! Am I ever! I certainly am.”

In 2001, Linda was compelled to visit Belgium. She went to the crash site and imagined what his last moments must have looked like. She met the people who owned the farm. And she spoke to living eyewitnesses to the crash.

She did research, and started working with an organization called “Central ID Lab Hawaii.” And in 2003 the organization went to the crash site with tools and started digging.

They found pieces of the plane, including the steering wheel, which Linda cherishes to this day. But they didn’t find Gene Shauvin’s remains. And after only two weeks of digging, the excavation was unexpectedly shut down.

Linda was devastated. “I put everything away, we cried, we couldn’t believe it was suddenly stopped.

Linda kept fighting. She waded through layers of bureaucracy, made calls, wrote letters, and told her story over and over again.

In 2015, she got the case re-opened. Six long years later, in April of 2021, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency resumed digging.

The excavation involved dozens of volunteers and Linda herself was allowed to help with the digging.

It was painstaking work in horrible rainy conditions, and they worked for 70 days.

I asked Linda why it was so important for her to find her Dad’s remains. “Why not just let it be?” I asked.

She paused, and then said, “I think I always thought they could be found. And nobody had really looked hard enough, and I just, I don’t know, I was just driven to do it.”

In March of 2022, some human remains were positively identified.

They belonged to 2nd Lieutenant Eugene Shauvin.

On a summer day two weeks ago, at Spokane International Airport, Linda was on the tarmac, waiting for her Dad to come home.

Seventy-eight years after a C-47 Dakota went down in Belgium, a flag draped coffin was carried by an honor guard from a plane to a hearse.

Linda stood alone for a time watching, shielding her eyes from the sun.

And one week later, on a warm day at Holy Cross Cemetery in Spokane, a glistening plane flew overhead, shining silver and gorgeous in the sun. It was a C-47 Dakota, and it passed over an extraordinary scene: the funeral for a man who’d been missing for a lifetime.

There were current military members there, Army and Air Force.

Extended family was there, too. Cousins of Linda’s who knew of her father as only a kind of legend.

Chris Nuyts was there, all the way from Belgium. Her family owned the farm where the crash happened, and she runs it today.

She explained why she made the trip, “Because they gave their life and they fight for our freedom, so they are heroes.” 

Howie Mariteragi was there, too. He was the lead analyst for the first excavation, and the second one, too.

He could barely talk about his friend Linda. “Wow, I can’t even imagine how she feels.”

And Gene Shauvin was there too, in the coffin, but also smiling out from a picture frame. The one with the helmet and goggles. Forever handsome. Forever young. Forever heroic.   

Linda stood up and read a poem that her Mom had written after the war. The last line was this: “The boys are happily coming home, on their lips a thankful prayer, remembering you and all of those who stayed behind to pay the fare.”

Shots were fired into the air, and the flag on the coffin was carefully folded and handed to Linda on bended knee.

And slowly, some remains, what was left of a true American hero, were slowly lowered into the earth, and a Spokane boy was home at last.

When it was over and the tears were cried and the final hugs were given, Linda walked away.

She kept searching. Pushing. Fighting for 20 years.

She was down in the mud digging with her hands for her father, and she never stopped.

And that warm day at Holy Cross Cemetery in Spokane, when he was finally laid to rest? She said it was the best day of her life.

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