On Tuesday, March 1, a member of the Qualicum Beach Royal Canadian Legion Branch 76 received the Congressional Medal of Honour.
The medal ceremony was held at the Legion for George Shaw, 94, a Second World War veteran of the U.S. Merchant Marine. While he served, Shaw sailed on vessels from both the United States and Norway – representatives of Norway were able to verify his service.
Norway’s ambassador to Canada, H.E. Jon Elvedal Fredriksen, attended the event and presented the medal to Shaw.
“I just was really amazed at how nice it went,” said Shaw about the ceremony. “And, of course, it made me feel really good… For me, it was almost embarrassing because I think back to all the people who never got the awards that they should’ve received. And here I am, almost 95,” he added with a chuckle.
Shaw gained dual citizenship and moved to Vancouver Island in 2003 after looking for a house in southern B.C. where he could retire.
In an email, Shaw’s wife, Helen, wrote that her husband enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard at age 16 in 1943. As a ‘farm kid’ who had never seen the ocean, or even been on a boat, he faced a high learning curve in dealing with seasickness, boot camp and more seasickness.
Shortly after finishing boot camp, several Merchant Marine vessels were in immediate need of crewmen so Shaw took the opportunity to sign up. On Oct. 4, 1944, he joined a convoy to Hawaii and Guam, sailing in the Pacific, Atlantic, Mediterranean, Baltic and Indian Oceans.
In her email, Helen recited one of the incredible challenges Shaw faced while serving.
In 1945, he was on a ship docked in Galveston, Texas, that was loading grain to take to Marseille, France. Shaw was part of the skeleton crew left on watch when the grain elevator caught fire with embers falling onto the ship.
Since the rest of the skeleton crew was fighting the fire, one of Shaw’s friends had woken him. As Shaw came onto the deck, the ship’s third mate (officer) instructed him to report to the wheelhouse. Shaw believes he had done this since the friend that had woken him was a quartermaster, and believed the third mate assumed he was one as well.
Not wanting to further protest, Shaw followed orders and reported to the wheelhouse to relay information from the engine room to the deck. The engine room said it would take approximately a half-hour before the boilers were heated and they could move the ship.
“It was just a matter of time until the grain elevator would come down on the ship.”
As soon as the engine room was ready, Shaw called the deck phone, where the third mate instructed him to “take her out” before hanging up.
“What in the hell am I going to do now?”
Luckily, he remembered a high school science lesson on vectors, where a boat was used to show how, if the boat was backing up, turning the rudder one way would move the boat in the opposite direction.
Behind their ship, another was still docked since it was far enough away from the fire that it didn’t have to move.
George telegraphed the engine room “dead slow astern” and turned the wheel so that it would move the stern of the ship towards the center of the channel.
Thankfully, everything turned out well and they anchored in the harbour.
The next day, while the crew was onshore at a restaurant, Shaw and his friend overheard several Coast Guardsmen chatting about the previous night’s fire. One had said, “Did you see that ship backing away from the dock?” To which another replied, “Yeah, we were watching from the next pier. And our captain told us, ‘Now, there goes a captain with 20 years experience!”
Shaw continued to serve until Sept. 10, 1946, when he returned to high school. After graduating, he worked various jobs until he was awarded a scholarship to a community college, and went on to eventually earn a master’s degree. From there, he taught elementary and high school before working for 30 years at the Yuba College, a community college in Marysville, Calif. He later became Dean of the Language Arts Department and finally retired from the position of personnel director.