The Magazine of South Carolina

An Early Pioneer in Aerial Reconnaissance

Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter is named for a WWI hero from South Carolina.

by Blanche Floyd

Ervin David Shaw stood close beside the small plane, studying intently his brief instructions. His young English observer already was seated in the cockpit. Lt. Shaw knew that the plane, a British Bristol B-113, was ready for take-off, but this was a moment he savored. He felt confident of his ability to carry out his mission, and he knew his plane and equipment were the very best available.

Something in the young officer's spirit responded to the challenge and adventure of the occasion, the excitement of the planned flight and the hazards of the undertaking. He was about to make a reconnaissance flight over German trenches.

The date was July 9, 1918, a mere 15 years after the Wright Brothers' first historic flight at Kitty Hawk, NC. With a grin for his passenger and a smart salute for the men on the ground, Shaw swung into his seat. He was ready to go.

A British reconnaissance plane carrying a pilot and observer had a range of about 200 miles. Shaw's flight plan called for observation over the German trenches and beyond for a distance of 15 miles. The purpose of the mission was to accurately locate German troops, guns and equipment. The small Bristols often were attacked by enemy scout planes. This flight, fraught with danger, was considered a low-range mission.


SHAW WAS BORN in Alcolu, SC, September 30, 1894, the eldest son of Mr. and Mrs. David Charles Shaw. Growing up in the small community, Shaw made many close friends. The superintendent of Sumter city schools, S.H. Edmunds, spoke of his popularity and his qualities of "loyalty, gentleness and honor" as a student.

In high school, Shaw picked up the nickname "Molly" because he often used the exclamation "Hot tamale!" The nickname stuck with him through his years at Davidson College and the University of Georgia. His fellow officers in France knew about the name, also.

As a youth, Shaw was fascinated by the new-fangled automobile. His knowledge of machinery and love of mechanics led him to an early interest in flying. He enlisted in the Army in June 1917 and received training in aviation at Ohio State University. The U.S. Army had only 55 planes in 1917, and the most daring and skillful men were chosen for training.

On April 4, 1918, Shaw received an honorable discharge from the Army in order to accept a commission as first lieutenant, Signal Corps, Royal Canadian Air service. In England, Shaw was attached to the Royal Air Force and received advanced training at Oxford and in Scotland. In France, Shaw was one of three "Yanks" in the 48th Squadron, RAF, British Expeditionary Force. He and his fellow American officers, John Good and Bryan Battey, became hutmates.

The loss of planes and lives for the squadron was heavy, underscoring the danger of these first reconnaissance and combat flights. Good was shot down on his first mission.

Shaw flew several missions behind enemy lines and shot down two German aircraft. Twice his plane was damaged, but he was able to land it. Fellow pilots considered Shaw one of the squadron's best. They called him "a stout chap."

But he did not return from his July 9 flight. His family in Sumter received a telegram from the Army August 27: Deeply regret to inform you Lieut. E.D. Shaw Air Service previously reported missing in action July Ninth now reported killed in action same date.

At about the same time, Shaw's mother heard from Maj. K.R. Park and Lt. Battey, the one remaining American in the outfit. They told of the young flier's skill and popularity. Battey wrote:

"The circumstances of his passing are not known to us here in any detail. It is known that, as he was coming back to the lines after a long reconnaissance, he was attacked by three Hun machines. Their fire must have cut some vital member of the machine's framing, for it broke up in the air, according to a report from the air advanced battery positions. I, at that time, must have been quite close. I was flying below a great white cloud. Just a bit of a plane dropped through it and fluttered idly down, down. I did not know then, did not even guess, that one of our men was fighting alone above this cloud.

"Molly was my best friend out here and though I had known him but a little while I was proud of the knowing. Always at night before he went to bed he knelt beside his cot and prayed. I loved him for that. . . ."

(The telegram and letter are from the private papers of Mrs. Lulamae Shaw Graef, Shaw's younger sister.)

Shaw and his observer were buried in the British Military Cemetary at Grandcourt, France. Shaw is the only American buried in the large national cemetery. The caretaker proudly refers to him as his "American boy."

Members of the Shaw family have visited the grave in recent years. Sumter Mayor W.A. "Bubba" McElveen visited the cemetery in 1984 to attend a memorial service; as part of the ceremony, he laid a wreath on Shaw's grave.


WORLD EVENTS in the 1930s pointed inevitably to another great conflict. Aircraft clearly would be an important factor in the event of war. Small flying schools appeared in many parts of the United States, reflecting the nation's interest.

In spring 1940, the city and county of Sumter worked to secure a flying field and school for the area. Construction of the base, developed by the Army Air Corps, began in June 1941.

Shaw's high school class, at a class reunion that summer, initiated a movement to name the Sumter field for Shaw. Their campaign was based on the fact that Shaw was the first Sumter man killed during the "Great War" and the only Sumter County aviator to die in combat.

The War Department recognized the petition, and on August 7, 1941, the name was made official. It was a fitting tribute to a brave young man who fearlessly died for the cause of freedom.

During World War II, Shaw Field was an important training site for pilots. The first class of cadets arrived for basic flight training in December 1941, and the field's services continued to expand.

Since 1947, its official name has been Shaw Air Force Base. (In 1947, the U.S. Air Force was set up as a separate branch of military service.)

Shaw AFB was assigned as a permanent base to the Ninth Air Force in 1950, and the 363rd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing moved in. In 1954, the Ninth Air Force moved its Command Headquarters to Shaw.

The 363rd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing received the Outstanding Unit Award from President Kennedy in 1962. The award was presented in recognition of excellent photography during surveillance flights over Cuba at the time of the Cuban missile crisis.

After nearly 50 years, Shaw Air Force Base continues its excellent reconnaissance service. It stands as a fitting tribute to one of the country's first reconnaissance pilots.

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