Lt. Shaw: 100 years later
By Airman 1st Class Kathryn R.C. Reaves, 20th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
/ Published July 02, 2018
SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. -- Long before the plot of land that is now Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, became a pre-World War II auxillary air field, its namesake departed for a mission into the hostile German sky, never to return to his family.
During his youth in Sumter, well before that fateful night during World War I, 1st Lt. Ervin David Shaw earned a reputation as a daredevil.
He had the need for speed, said Jim Olsen, 20th Civil Engineer Squadron community planner and history enthusiast. This longing drove Shaw to bold ventures such as racing cars and becoming a pilot.
After graduating from Sumter High School in 1911, Shaw pursued higher education until the events of WWI took a drastic turn.
German forces began attacking American ships, prompting President Woodrow Wilson to forget efforts of neutrality and declare war against them in April 1917.
Shaw joined the Army Signal Corps two months later and began flight training.
“While he’s there, he’s itching to get into the fight,” said Olsen. “He decides that the U.S. is not getting into the fight fast enough, so he asks for a discharge so he can join the Royal Canadian Air Force.”
After additional training, Shaw departed for England in 1918 and eventually joined the RAF’s 48th Squadron in France.
“He was there for about three months and he was immediately recognized as one of their best pilots,” said Olsen. “Unfortunately, the best pilots are used for the hardest missions.”
Shaw was tasked with navigating his Bristol F2B Brisfit nearly 20 miles behind enemy lines, gathering reconnaissance photos.
On July 9, 1918, Shaw and Sgt. Tom Smith, a British observer, were returning from a mission when three German planes caught sight of them.
“(Observers on the ground) said he put up a heck of a fight, but ultimately he was shot down,” said Olsen.
The aircraft fell to pieces in the air.
The men were buried alongside each other at Regina Trench Cemetery, Courcelette, Somme, France.
Maj. Keith Rodney Park, 48th S commander, wrote to Shaw’s family about his misfortune and said, “We all feel Shaw’s loss badly as he was one of our very bravest and coolest lads, always cheery and stout-hearted no matter what work was wanted.”
Shaw’s death hit the Sumter community hard.
“It’s devastating to the community because he’s the first person from the area (to die in the war),” said Olsen. “All of a sudden, here’s somebody widely popular in town, beloved by young and old, and it’s somebody the people know and now he’s dead.”
Businesses across the town closed, placing black ribbons on their doors to signify their mourning.
Decades later, in 1941, the War Department approved a plot of land near Sumter for the construction of a new air base.
Knowing the field would need a name, Shaw’s old high school classmates gathered to petition the War Department.
The local hero’s name went down in history on Aug. 7, 1941, when the Army installation was designated Shaw Field, later renamed Shaw Air Force Base.
A century after Shaw’s death, his family’s roots in the local community remain strong.
Shaw’s nephew, also named Ervin David Shaw, still lives in Sumter and remembers when the base was named for his uncle. Decades later, he still feels pride and appreciation when he thinks of the base.
As members of Shaw AFB continue to protect and defend the U.S., they honor the legacy of Lt. Shaw, who demonstrated the community’s “uncommon patriotism.”