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 CAPT William Hamilton Shaw

Should I Stay Or Should I Go?

For Bill Shaw, a 28-year-old husband, father of two, and first-year doctoral student at Harvard, the answer was clear. He told his wife, two young sons, parents, and professors he’d be back soon. His studies could wait, he explained.

Three months later, on September 22, 1950, US Navy Lt. William Hamilton Shaw, on patrol with 3rd Battalion, 5th  Marines, outside of Seoul, Korea, was killed in a Communist ambush. He was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry.

In the minutes before his death he had been warning South Korean civilians of an impending artillery strike in the area. A North Korean sniper, watching the American shout directions to men and women in the street, wasted no time in zeroing in on the lieutenant. Hours later Shaw was dead.

William Hamilton Shaw as a newly-commissioned Naval officer, 1944. 

WWII And The Navy

The son of Methodist missionaries, Shaw was born and raised in Pyongyang, Korea. He graduated from Pyongyang Foreign High School and spoke fluent Korean. After graduating from Ohio Wesleyan University in the States, he joined the US Navy and served in World War II on a PT (Patrol Torpedo) boat in the European Theater.

For six months, from June – November 1944, Ensign Shaw, the XO, or executive officer, of PT-518, participated in the Allied invasion of Normandy, codenamed Operation Overlord. Two weeks after the initial landing on D-Day, June 6, 1944, Shaw and his men ferried General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe, across the English Channel. It would be the first of Shaw’s many meetings with high-ranking officers during his short military career.

Ensign Shaw (far right) aboard PT-518, with General Dwight D. Eisenhower (directly behind Shaw), Supreme Allied Commander Europe, and Admiral Alan Kirk (to Eisenhower’s right), the senior US Navy Commander during the Normandy Invasion, on June 24, 1944, in the English Channel.

At the end of World War II, Shaw returned to Korea to teach at the ROK Naval Academy in Jinhae, South Korea. During his nearly three years there, he became one of the school’s most respected instructors and was a dedicated mentor to the Academy’s young naval officers. Over 50 years later, his students would erect a statue honoring him as their “teacher and friend.”

In 1949, Shaw – now with a wife and two children – returned to the US and enrolled at Harvard. An intelligent and ambitious young man, Shaw’s future looked bright. After finishing his degree, he had plans to go back to his adopted homeland as a missionary, raise his family there, and make a contribution to the newly-founded Republic of Korea.

I Must “Help The Koreans . . . In Time Of War”

Within months of starting his classes, however, everything changed: The Korean War broke out. “I cannot in good conscience return to Korea as a Christian missionary in peacetime if I am not first willing to be there to help the Koreans defend their freedom in time of war,” he wrote one of his friends. I can only imagine what his wife must have thought about his decision to put his family, PhD program, and future on hold to fight in Korea.

Upon returning to Korea, Shaw, as a native Korean speaker, worked on General Douglas MacArthur’s staff prior to and during the Inchon Landing and provided valuable intelligence for the operation. Once ashore, he volunteered with the US Marines as they fought through the streets, barricades, and hills of Seoul. His ability to communicate with the locals and interrogate North Korean soldiers was invaluable to the Marines on the ground.

Only days before Seoul’s liberation on September 22, 1950, Juanita Robinson Shaw became a widow and her children fatherless.

Marines fight street to street in Seoul, September 1950. 

Shaw’s life of incredible service, loyalty, and courage raises many questions. Why did he feel the need to return to Korea after he and his family had already given so much to the country? Why did he leave his loved ones and postpone his degree to return to a country torn apart by war? And what motivated him to volunteer with the Marines on combat patrols in enemy territory?

We may never fully understand what he was thinking when he made the critical decisions that led to his tragic death, but the quote on his memorial at Eunpyeong Peace Park in Seoul may give us the best clue:

“Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friend.” John 15:13

Lt. William Hamilton Shaw, USN, was a true patriot and hero.

The Memorial to Shaw at Eunpyeong Peace Park in Seoul.. 

Postscript

In 1956, six years after her husband’s death, Juanita Shaw returned to South Korea with her two sons. She stayed in Korea for twelve years as a missionary, learned the Korean language, and became a teacher at Seoul Foreign School and Ewha Womans University. Twenty-one years later, William R. Shaw, her eldest son, earned the same Harvard doctoral degree that his father never finished.

William Shaw with his father circa 1940.

Easter 1957 dedication service of William Hamilton Shaw Commemoration Chapel in Daejon, South Korea. (Photo credit: Mokwon University Methodist Church)

Memorial to Shaw in Seoul from his former students who called him “not only a teacher but a friend.” (Photo credit: Ned Forney)

Eunpyeong Peace Park, Seoul. (Photo credit: Ned Forney)

The author at the burial plot of the Shaw family at Yanghwajin Foreign Missionary Cemetery in Seoul. William H. Shaw is buried near his parents. (Photo credit: Ned Forney)

William Hamilton Shaw’s name in the memorial hall at the War Memorial of Korea. (Photo credit: Ned Forney)