The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Wash.
More than 18 years passed between the moment in Belgium when Linda Chauvin, digging in a trench, knew she was close to her father’s buried remains and the moment last month when she knew he’d been found.
“That was one of the highlights of my life,” Chauvin, who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, said in a phone interview last week. “To be able to actually look, physically, for my father.”
Beneath that Flemish earth lay what was left of U.S. Army Air Forces 2nd Lt. Eugene P. Shauvin, of Hillyard. Shauvin’s C-47 Skytrain aircraft was one of the first six planes to enter Belgium during Operation Market Garden, the Allied offensive that sought to open a river route into the north of Nazi Germany in September 1944, said his daughter (who spells her name the original French way before it was apparently altered by a nun at the St. Patrick School where her father graduated in 1933).
From Sept. 17, 1944, to March 2 of this year, Shauvin was listed as missing in action. The other 13 members of his crew had either escaped via parachute, or their remains had been identified in the years since the operation, which liberated several towns in Holland but did not establish the crossing over the Rhine.
Chauvin, who was 2 when her father died, said she never stopped wondering what was in her father’s eyes after taking flak from a German antiaircraft gun.
“All I was driven by as a child was I wanted to know about my father,” she said.
The telegram arrived in Portland more than a month later.
“The secretary of war desires me to express his deep regret that your husband Second Lieutenant Eugene P. Shauvin has been reported as missing in action since seventeen September over Holland,” the Western Union cable, still smeared with Phyllis Shauvin’s tears, reads.
It arrived two years after Eugene Shauvin, one of nine children who grew up in a home on Rich Avenue in Hillyard, had signed up as a private in the Army Air Corps. Phyllis Shauvin followed her husband across the country to training sites in California and Georgia, Chauvin said, while she remained with grandparents in Eugene.
The family spent one last night in Chicago before he went overseas to England.
“He had told (my mother), their last night together, that he had a premonition that he would not come back from the war,” Chauvin said.
The best Chauvin’s been able to piece together, her father had begun pathfinder training after conducting supply runs during the Normandy invasion in the summer of 1944. That’s the mission he was flying on Sept. 17, 1944, out of a field in Chalgrove in England, taking a southern path to a drop site near Eindhoven in the Netherlands, where he was to let down paratroopers who would help clear the way for three airborne divisions that followed.
One of the men aboard was 1st Lt. Charles Faith, whom Chauvin met years later.
“As we crossed the front line in the vicinity of Retie, Belgium, our ship was shot out of the air,” Faith wrote in a statement, part of a now-declassified missing air crew report retained by the National Archives. An eyewitness said the flak struck the plane’s left engine, which caught fire.
Faith told Chauvin years later he hadn’t seen the plane go down. He landed in a canal behind enemy lines and crawled to remain out of sight of the Germans. Eventually, he came to a home where the family took him in and hid him until British soldiers came by on a horse-drawn wagon, liberating the area from Nazi control.
Nine of the 15 men aboard were killed. The other five who survived, besides Faith, were captured. Eugene Shauvin’s whereabouts were unknown, but in March 1946, his wife and Chauvin were presented with an Air Medal that The Spokesman-Review reported was given posthumously.
Chauvin has pieced together stories about her father as she grew up. She once dated a boy whose father had been a classmate of Shauvin’s at Rogers High School.
“This boy took me over to meet his parents,” she said, “and his father broke down in tears.”
Phyllis Shauvin went on to become the first female assistant to Spokane’s fire chief, and bought a home for herself and Linda. She remarried — a rodeo cowboy and singer named Bud Burrows — and the family later moved to Arizona before returning to Washington state.
It would take the advent of the digital age for Chauvin to pick up her father’s trail.
Searching for her father
Near the start of the new millennium, Chauvin started using AOL Instant Messenger and posting to discussion boards in an attempt to find out anything about her father.
“I’m living in Seattle, and I went on a website for the C-47 aircraft he flew,” she said. “I posted this little message.”
She wrote that her father died as a pathfinder and that his remains hadn’t been found. The message caught the attention of Dave Berry, an amateur historian who’d taken on the task of tracking down the fates of those men who’d flown pathfinder missions during the war. Berry told her to find as much documentation as she could, and that’s how she found Faith.
After talking on the phone with his stepdaughter for several minutes, Chauvin was able to speak to one of the last men to see her father alive.
“He let out a wail,” Chauvin said.
She went and interviewed him in Texas, and then together they flew to Belgium in 2001, where Faith revisited the ditch he hid in from the Germans. Chauvin, along with Berry, hunted for anyone who might have known what happened in the field where the plane crashed.
She spoke with a witness, a man who lived at the nearby home, who remembered seeing the plane go down in Kortinjen, a town near Retie, lighting the house on fire. She also found a man who said he’d been ordered to dig common graves in the field for the remains of the men who died in the crash. Another woman living nearby, the daughter of a man who had collected evidence on each of the paratroopers who landed, provided photographs of the crash site, allowing the makeshift research team to piece together where the plane crashed.
Chauvin stood in that field in 2001, knowing she was likely looking at the same scene that served as the view before her father’s crash.
“I always pictured a nasty, ugly place,” she said. “This was the most serene, beautiful place.
“This was a lovely place to die.”
During this trip, they found a man who was 19 at the time of the crash and told them he’d helped dig two common graves at the site. Those remains were later exhumed and reburied at the village cemetery in Retie, but reports indicated the remains of only eight men were contained within.
Chauvin, convinced her father was in that grave, pushed for an exploration when she returned with a team of researchers from the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory, based in Hawaii, two years later.
The pandemic’s delay
In the years between that first visit and the 2003 excavation, the witness who remembered digging the graves suffered a stroke.
Chauvin thinks that’s why the gravesite was not prioritized in that trip, which ultimately yielded no further evidence of her father’s whereabouts.
“We were heartsick,” she said.
Twelve years passed. In 2015, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency — a group tasked with identifying and recovering the remains of more than 81,000 soldiers still missing from conflicts beginning in World War II — came through Spokane. It collected DNA samples from Chauvin’s uncles. Of the eight brothers who grew up with Shauvin, six served in the military during World War II.
Chauvin reconvened with a researcher who went on the 2003 trip, Johnie Webb, from the lab in Hawaii.Having kept what she described as “68 pounds of files” on the case, Chauvin convinced the POW/MIA agency to reopen the excavation.
Air Force Tech. Sgt. Apryl Hall was finishing up a four-year assignment with the agency, having worked on nine cases involving lost soldiers.
“We kind of just get the luck of the draw for our missions there,” Hall said last week in a phone interview. “I was fortunate enough to get the Belgium mission, and Linda’s case.”
Chauvin had made friends with the family living on an adjoining property to the crash site. They informed her work was commencing in April 2021, and though the country was still shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she was able to convince diplomats to let her fly back.
They kept her in a travel trailer on the site to quarantine while there. Chauvin said she came to her door every day when the crew was arriving, and when they left, to thank them for their work.
“It just makes me weep when I think of the work they did,” Chauvin said, her voice catching. “You couldn’t stop them.”
Hall said Chauvin’s presence, which was initially resisted because of the nature of the work and the intense local media interest in the case, became a rallying force for the workers.
“Having her out there, I think, made the team kick into high gear,” she said. “We had been just working our butts off.”
The crew finished in May, leaving Belgium with remains that were taken back to the United States for testing.
Chauvin was able to hold the case of the remains before they were taken out of the country and call her mother, who died in December at age 99, just before the remains were identified.
“I called her and I told her, ‘Mom, they found remains.’ That’s all I said,” Chauvin said. “I wasn’t specific, because I couldn’t be. That satisfied her.”
A final rest
Hall, who had been texting with Chauvin since the spring before, got a text that she wanted to talk immediately earlier this month.
“I thought, ‘Oh no, something must be wrong,’ ” the technical sergeant said. “I just knew from the moment she picked up the phone, she was happy.”
The DNA she and her uncles gave the agency turned up a perfect match for the remains, which were found on the site of where that man said he’d helped dig the graves in September 1944.
“I just blubbered,” Chauvin said of when she got the call.
Plans are in the works for a funeral ceremony to inter the remains at Holy Cross cemetery, where Eugene Shauvin will finally rest near the gravesite of his brothers and parents.
Chauvin has been working with cemetery officials and Rudy Lopez, director of the Washington State Veterans Cemetery in Medical Lake, as well as the local honor guard. Her father will receive a full military burial in July; Chauvin hopes to have a flyover by a C-47, the aircraft her father flew on his final mission above Europe.
“This is a really big deal,” she said. “I’ve lived with it so many years. It’s not a big deal to me. It was just a part of my life.”
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