A veteran's view - Part I

Decorated World War II veteran stands fast against current conflict

Don Shawe stood at the intersection of Second and State streets last Thursday with a group of war protesters carrying a sign that read: How many children will die today? He would make a new sign for Friday’s planned vigil. Yet another for Saturday.

None of the signs would so much as allude to the fact that Shawe is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force.

“There’s no special place for me in the ranks of the protesters,” he says. “It doesn’t have anything to do with me being a veteran.”

To say that being a veteran makes him any more “authentic” than others protesting the war in Iraq would imply that he knows more about war than other people. And Don Shawe, age 85, dispels that notion with a wave of his hand.

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Arguably, Shawe does know more about war than many others. He was a bomber pilot in World War II, flying the maximum 35 combat missions over Europe during his tour of duty before returning home to train other pilots on their way to war.

Shawe, who was born in Prineville in 1917, says he didn’t join the military out of a sense of patriotic duty. If anything, he had more of an “intellectual interest” in the struggle against fascism in Europe.

“I was never a flag-waving patriot,” Shawe says. “I read enough history even then to question the motives of our leaders.”

Shawe was working on a cattle ranch near the Idaho-Nevada border in the late 1930s and early ’40s. He recalls listening to President Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats and thinking: war is coming. He considered registering as a conscientious objector, but didn’t think he could “persuade those ranchers on the draft board in Elko (Nev.)” to grant him CO status on the basis of his beliefs.

“Having been brought up on the trench warfare of the First World War,” Shawe says, “I thought, ‘I don’t want to have any part of that.’” He joined the Air Force in 1942 and trained to become a B-17 bomber pilot.

From his base in England, Shawe flew 35 combat missions over Europe in six months.

“I brought my crew back alive each time — and myself, of course,” he says. Most of his missions were against what were clearly, to Shawe, military targets — ball bearing factories, railroad marshaling yards and railroad bridges.

The final missions of his tour were different.

“I flew two missions to Berlin and one to Munich that were mass bombings of cities,” Shawe recalls. “Indiscriminate. Just dumping bombs on cities.” If those missions had come earlier in his tour — 35 missions was the maximum a bomber pilot could fly during one tour of duty, and these were among his last four — Shawe says he wouldn’t have continued to do it.

“It wasn’t necessary to win the war,” he says. “The bombing of cities in Europe was just a curtain-raiser for the bombing of civilian targets everywhere — for the B-29 bombings of Hiroshima.

“It may sound like a fine distinction,” he adds. “But I was disturbed by that.”

Shawe returned to the U.S. as an Air Force flight instructor. But he was tired of B-17s. He “used influence” for the first time in his life, called a friend in Washington, D.C., asked for a transfer. Shawe became an instructor in the Information and Education department, “teaching soldiers how and why we were at war.”

After the war, Shawe moved to the Hood River Valley and bought a 17-acre fruit farm in Oak Grove. But the use of pesticides — lead arsenic, then DDT — was “too much” for him. In the 1950s, he bought 160 acres of forest land off Kingsley Road, which evolved from a hippie commune to what is now called Rahane Eco-Forest Farm. Shawe lives “off the grid,” producing his own electricity with both solar and hydro-power, and growing much of the food he and his wife, Karey, and daughter, Silvan, eat. Shawe has been harvesting timber on his land with sustainable forestry methods for decades.

These days, Shawe spends much of his time — in between writing poetry, producing video documentaries, harvesting his garden, painting, and felling his trees — protesting what he calls the “war against the forests.” He acts as a sustainable forestry consultant and works to educate people about ecological responsibility.

But during the past few months, Shawe has slipped back into a familiar role, one he learned not long after World War II when he began protesting the testing of nuclear weapons in the deserts of Northern California and Nevada in the 1950s. He actively protested the Vietnam War for years — long before it “became the correct thing to do,” he says. Now, the war in Iraq has brought him to the streets again.

“The arguments, the justifications for this war just don’t hold water,” Shawe says, his brow furrowing over his clear blue eyes. Despite his misgivings about World War II — and his own role in it — Shawe sees the obvious justification for it.

“You could make a strong argument for the rising tide of fascism,” he says. “Hitler was over-running Europe.” Shawe says he can understand “people being passionate about Saddam Hussein’s cruelty to his own people.” What he can’t tolerate is what he sees as the hypocrisy of the U.S. government and its policies.

“What I can’t understand is, we’ve supported and installed repressive regimes all over the world,” he says. “That’s not democracy at all, yet we’re talking about bringing democracy to Iraq. It all sounds good, but we have no history of doing that at all.”

Shawe is so strongly against the war in Iraq that he joined the Patriots for Peace, a civil disobedience affinity group of the Columbia River Fellowship for Peace. He is one of several group members who planned to take part in an act of civil disobedience on Monday, and was prepared to be arrested and put in jail for it. (The action was scheduled to take place after the Kaleidoscope press deadline.)

Shawe says people often ask him how he reconciles his pacifist stance with being an Air Force pilot, a World War II combat veteran. He tells them he doesn’t know how to answer that question.

“I’m a ‘decorated hero’ of that war,” he says, making quotation marks in the air with his gnarled fingers. “I don’t think I’m a hero of anything.”

Shawe will continue to protest the war. He’ll go to jail if necessary. He’ll get out, and make another sign for the next peace rally.

“Peace for me is not the absence of war,” Shawe says. “Peace is what we do every day. Every step we take.”

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