Keith Sidney Shaw passed away on September 28, 2020. He was my dad and he was 94 years old (born August 3, 1919).
In August of 1993 (when my dad was 74 years old), I interviewed and asked him questions about his life up to that point. I taped the conversation in its entirety and then later retyped and transferred the interview to paper.
Like so many girls, my dad was my hero. He was strong and brave and smart. Whenever he was around, I was never scared. He had a great smile. He told the best stories and I loved to hear him laugh. As I got older, I wanted to know and better understand this man who was my dad, and even more importantly, I wanted to have something down on permanent record about his life while he was here and could tell the story himself – something that I could keep and remember him by forever.
My parents were living in Ashville, New York at the time of the interview (1993) and though it was 20 years ago, I remember the day so clearly. I lived in North Tonawanda, NY at that time and was visiting my parents for the weekend. I’d brought my mini tape recorder along and was completely bent on getting this interview with my dad before I returned home. Like my mom (who I had previously interviewed), Dad was hesitant to do an interview. He was always a quiet, humble man who never talked about himself unless you directly asked him a question. He was never one to draw attention to himself – so I knew getting this interview wouldn’t be easy. Still, I insisted that he sit down with me which he eventually did – and much like my mom, I remember that my dad ended up thoroughly enjoying answering the questions, talking about his life, and recalling his memories as the interview went on. I can still see and feel and the many smiles and laughs that passed between us as we sat at my parents kitchen table and talked that day.
I’m sharing this interview with you because so much of it is historically interesting – giving you a glimpse of how life was for an average U.S. citizen with all its joys and struggles during an era long ago. Even if you didn’t know or ever meet my dad, I thought you might enjoy his stories, his sense of humor and candid talk. I’m including his words just as he spoke them – when a brief explanation might be called for, I’ve entered it in italics surrounded by [ and ]. Hope you enjoy and as always, I welcome your comments, memories, questions and suggestions.
This is Part Four of Keith Shaw’s six part interview. To view parts 1-3, please follow the links below this post.
Me: Tell me the tent story, Dad. [during WWII]
Dad: It happened when we [his troop] went from Sam, India to Burma. We went by plane. We were the last company to arrive and I think everybody got a cot and a mosquito net but me. I don’t know why. I must have been at the end of the line, I guess. I didn’t get one. They didn’t have one for me. Oh wait a minute …. they did dig up a mosquito net for me – just not a cot. So I thought, “Well, that’s alright. I’ll just put stakes in the ground and hang my net up and everything will be fine.” Would have been except I rolled in my sleep against the net and the mosquitos got me. Man, I looked like I had the measles or something the next morning when I got up! And everybody said, “Well, been nice havin’ ya’ with us, Shaw. You’ll probably go home with malaria now.” I never got it though. (shaking his head and laughing)
Me: This net – it wasn’t supposed to lay on you – it was supposed to be like draped over?
Dad: Yeah. See, if you had a cot, your net would be tucked under the blanket, but the ground was hard see, I couldn’t stay comfortable so in my sleep I evidently rolled against the net and it probably came up from the bottom, too. All the mosquitos got in there with me.
Me: There’s lots of mosquitos over there?
Dad: Lots and lots. Yeah. A lot of people got malaria.
Me: Why is that? Why are there so many mosquitos over there?
Dad: Swampy. Where we were at – it was a swamp.
Me: I think you told me a story one time about a secret password you had to use. You were going from one place to another or something?
Dad: My neighbor (he smiles remembering the story) … One time we were loading bombs on the planes for a bombing raid and I happened to look around – there was several people watching us – visiting from some place they were. I didn’t recognize them as any of our men, so I took a closer look at ’em and there was my next door neighbor among them. So I goes over and says hello to him and then I had to get back to work. So he said, “Hey, I’ll be down to see you some night. I only live four or five miles up the road [that’s where his army camp was located].” I said, “Fine.” So he did. He came down and he had several letters from my mother – she wrote to him, too – so we read the letters from my mother to each other. And then he would go home. He says, “Now next time, it’s your turn to come up and see me.” I said, “Okay.” And he said, “I want to warn you about one thing,” he said. “It’ll have to be after dark and you got to be careful when you go through the Chinese lines because anything that moves they shoot and you got to remember the password – the Chinese password.” I forget what it was.
Me: (laughing) Hope you didn’t forget it the night you went to see him.
Dad: (laughing too) That’s one thing I remembered, boy! So I’m coming back in the dark you know, and sure enough I was challenged. I’m glad he didn’t shoot first – some of ’em shot first I guess.
Dad: Yeah. So I yelled the password at him you know – and I don’t know what he said – I couldn’t understand him. I just kept going and I broke into a run after I got a little ways past the guy. I didn’t stop running till I hit the camp. (laughing)
Me: I bet you didn’t go see your friend again after that. Did you?
Dad: Yeah I did.
Me: You did?
Dad: Yeah. I had a day off and I thought, “I’m gonna go see him again.” It was in the daylight though this time. I went up there – walked all that distance and the camp was gone. There was nothing there.
Me: Gone? They had moved them?
Me: So your job in India was to load bombs on planes. Did you have any close calls while loading them?
Dad: Oh yeah. Yeah! I could have lost my life. A lot of times when the fogs were heavy, the planes couldn’t drop their bombs cause they couldn’t find their target. So they would come back and if the fog was too dense, they couldn’t judge the runway very good. And they would land – bounce when they hit the ground and it would jar the bombs loose – and the bombs would drop and then they had to be defused. So it was our job to go down there and a lot of times the fuses would be all mashed up. The thing that kept them from exploding was the fact that they had a wire in them. See, when they’d pull a lever in the plane to drop the bombs, it would pull the wires out. But when they were just bounced out and the lever wasn’t pulled, the wire would still be there and they wouldn’t go off unless the wire broke. So they would only let two guys go to do this because it was so dangerous you know. They only wanted to lose two if something went wrong. So I volunteered one time – and one time is all you ever had to volunteer – that was too much (laughter) – so these bombs were in a terrible mess and there was one this other guy was trying to defuse it – he couldn’t get it – and the planes were circling and you had to get them out of there …
Me: How big were these bombs?
Dad: These were 500 pounders I think. But we had different sizes – these though I think were 500 pounders. So I said to the guy, “Well, let me try.” What he was afraid of was that the wire would break and away we’d go.
Me: Did you have any time at all to escape if that wire would have broken – before the bomb would go off?
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Me: It would have gone off right then?
Dad: The minute the wire broke, it would have gone off. So I said a little prayer. I wasn’t a Christian yet, but I said a little prayer and gave it one last shot and I got it defused. Boy, that’s too close though! Then another time was when we had – we’ll never know who’s mistake it was, but we were putting time fuses in the planes. The planes would drop ’em and then at such and such a time the bomb would go off. So we had the fuses – we had a table and we had the fuses laying there for such and such a plane at such and such a time, and I think it was about two or three minutes before we were going to take the fuses and put ’em in the plane – and one went off! Three more minutes and we’d have had it in the plane and probably all got killed. That was the closest call I had. Then there was another close call – we were in this small room – fifteen of us – cleaning officers guns – revolvers – .45 revolvers – and it was a cement room where we kept the ammunition. After we got the guns clean we would put the clips in and this one guy cleaned his gun – the gun he was working on – and he said, “There’s no shells in this clip, so I’m gonna shoot you Paparelli.” And he pulled the part of the pistol back and it throws a shell into the magazine. So he did that – then he pointed the pistol at Paparelli and he said, “I’m gonna shoot you Paparelli.” And Paparelli says, “You get that gun out of my face. Don’t you know you never point a gun at somebody?” So the guy pointed it down at the floor … Bang! And we’re in a cement room! This bullet – you could hear it going bing, bing, bing! I know it went under my feet! It bounced around that room at least five times and never hit anybody! Well, what they did with this guy – they made him give a half hour talk on safety of firearms.
Me: (Laughter) Did they? Wow! It just ricocheted off the walls?
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Dad: Yeah. The bullet never hit anybody.
Me: And how many people were in the room?
Dad: Fifteen of us – a small room. I’ll bet it wasn’t any bigger than this kitchen.
Me: Man! That’s unbelievable!
Dad: It is unbelievable.
Me: But I believe it!
Dad: It’s the truth!
Any more stories from over there, Dad? I’m hearing all kinds of great stories that I’ve never heard before.
And indeed my dad did have more great stories to tell.
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