For many years I had a fantasy that one foggy and dreary night in London during the late stages of World War II, two North American officers might have shared warm beers in a pub. One would have been my friend John Shafer, a pilot with the 702nd squadron, 445 bomber group, Eighth Air Force. The other would have been my father, an artillery officer with the Canadian army.
They might have shared their histories. One was a Cornell student from Chicago; the other was a lawyer from western Canada. Alas, they never met. John eventually disabused me of my notion: “Mark, I never got up to London during the war.”
There will be many tributes paid to John Shafer and his accomplishments and contributions over more than four decades in Napa Valley. But attention should also be paid to his life 30 years before he moved his family here.
We have lost almost all the members of the “greatest generation” who saved western civilization in World War II. This June will mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Tom Brokaw, in his book chronicling the greatest generation, observed that many of them shared one trait in common: they were reluctant to talk about their war experiences.
We can place John in that group. Over 30 years, I rarely heard him talk about his war. One of the exceptions was one night, more than a decade ago, when a couple of mutual friends from Washington, D.C. came out to give him a book about the air war in World War II that they had gotten at a Smithsonian Institution presentation on that war.
That evening, over a wonderful bottle of the 1978 Shafer cab – the one vintage that John himself crafted – he opened up a little and talked of his experiences. He noted that the numbers of European air crew casualties far exceeded those of marines in the Pacific. John counted himself lucky.
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Being a 20-year-old B-24 pilot in 1945 may seem to us as exotic as a medieval knight of the round table. But it was real life for John Shafer and his contemporaries. He surely must have had above-average intellect, eyesight, and athletic skills (the father of one of the visiting Washingtonians had taught tennis to John in Chicago before the war).
He survived his bombing missions with skill and luck. His wry sense of humor may also have helped. Decades later, in his privately printed book “From the Ground Up” – which celebrated Shafer Vineyards’ first quarter century – John proclaimed that he had “distinguished myself as a member of the only crew to bomb Switzerland.” That was his first combat mission.
When I read that my heart skipped a beat, because I clearly remembered from my youth in Geneva a monument to the local Swiss citizens killed in World War II. Fortunately, John discovered years later that his “bombs had caused bewilderment and little else.” He learned this from the general manager of the Four Seasons hotel in Chicago who, as it turned out, was Swiss.
You’re 20 years old and you live through the war. You’re going to let the inevitable squabbles, hiccups, and disputes of later life upset you? Probably not. I know that John, faced with foolishness and even idiocy here in Napa, responded with a chuckle and a shake of the head.
After hearing that John had died, I came upon a book about the air war in Europe that John had inscribed to me. He described himself as a “broken down” pilot. But also as “a survivor.”
We who knew John as a friend, an environmentally concerned neighbor, a creator of Stags Leap AVA, a benefactor of Ole Health, are blessed that he survived. And we know that over the course of a long life, he prevailed.