In late June 1944, the 240th Field Artillery Battalion landed in Normandy with its 155mm “Long Tom” guns and Field Lineman 641 — 19-year-old William Shaw of Illmo, a small community adjacent to the Cotton Belt Railroad in northern Scott County.
In the ensuing 10 months, Shaw would fight in northern France, the Ardennes forest, Germany’s Rhineland and Central Europe. He earned four Bronze Stars and numerous other decorations before returning to the United States to marry his high school sweetheart, Marta Jo Sitton.
Sunday is the couple’s 68th wedding anniversary and Tuesday is Marta Jo’s birthday. Saturday, however, was Shaw’s day as he was awarded the French Legion of Honor, the highest award that country can bestow, for his service liberating France from Nazi tyranny.
“I don’t feel I did anything outstanding,” Shaw said after receiving the award from Jim Mauzé, honorary consul of France, in a brief ceremony at the Reynolds Alumni Center on the University of Missouri campus. “I did everything I was ordered to do and most of what I was asked to do.”
To mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation, France is seeking out living veterans of combat in France to present the award. Veterans who are eligible must have been recognized by their own governments for outstanding service to receive the award, Mauzé said.
“You saved France, and the people of France will never forget,” Mauzé said.
Marta Jo Shaw said she met her husband in the sixth grade, and they graduated in a class of 16 at tiny Illmo High School in 1942. He was drafted in 1943. “He wrote all the time he was gone,” she said. It took a bit of prodding after he returned from the war, and they married Oct. 26, 1946. “Love grows better with age,” she said.
As he sat down after Mauzé presented the award, she took the medal in her hand, looked it over and said, “Very nice, sweetheart.”
The military situation when Shaw disembarked at Utah Beach was precarious. Allies had landed almost 1 million men and 150,000 vehicles on the Normandy coast since Operation Overlord began June 6, 1944, but tenacious German resistance kept the armies bottled up.
Another month of hard fighting would pass before a breakout, but once it did the rest of France would quickly follow, with Paris liberated by the end of August. The 240th was attached to the 1st Army, fighting across northern France and Belgium. Shaw’s unit was just across the border of Germany, near Stolberg, when the Nazis launched a desperate winter offensive in the Ardennes known as the Battle of the Bulge.
After hard fighting, with the 240th Field Artillery providing heavy mobile firepower, the drive east resumed. The 240th was at the Rhine River when the Ludendorff Bridge was captured at Remagen before the Germans could destroy it, Shaw said. The battalion commander was looking for gun sites on the eastern side when the bridge collapsed, Shaw said.
“Our commanding officer was on one side of the river and we were on the other,” he recalled with a smile.
Within two months after the crossing, Germany surrendered. After marrying, Shaw attended the University of Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy in Rolla, today’s Missouri University of Science and Technology.
He retired in 1989 as assistant to the chief engineer of the Missouri Highways and Transportation Department, concluding a 39-year career. He and his wife moved to Columbia eight years ago. Their three children — Paula, Doug and Mark — were on hand, and the Shaws were surrounded by other family for the event that was a combined anniversary, birthday and recognition ceremony.
His father entertained the children with stories of his war experience, Mark Shaw said. “We are very proud of his service in World War II.”.. (see more at: http://m.columbiatribune.com/)