The wind blew strong and warm over the Sheboygan County Veterans Museum, tussling the grey hair of the men gathered in flight suits and tossing their voices across the suburban streets.
Their conversations were a blend of jokes, memories and mechanical jargon. Their task was to check over and prepare the green Vietnam-era helicopter that rested on the memorial’s lawn. They were preparing for a flight, for a reunion and for two sets of honored guests.
One set of guests was the family of Tom Shaw, a Fond du Lac native who flew Huey helicopters in Vietnam, the same kind of helicopter that now rested on the grass in Sheboygan.
“Tom was our hero,” said his brother, Kevin Shaw. “Basketball star, sports star, kind of a fearless guy.”
After high school, Tom Shaw’s talents took him to St. Norbert College in De Pere. He married, had a son, and in 1970, he joined the Army.
“He wanted to fly when he got into the Army, and wanted to fly helicopters in the worst way,” Dave Shaw said.
In the Army, Tom Shaw was assigned to the129th Assault Helicopter Company in Vietnam. There, he shared a room and built a friendship with a fellow pilot named Jim Crigler.
“Tom was a fun-loving guy. He was an All-American kid,” Crigler said. “You could sit in a bar and have a drink with him.”
Flying helicopters in Vietnam was important, dangerous work. Bruno Sanchez and Bernie Hernandez, who served on a flight crew with Tom Shaw, described their work.
“(We’d) bring in some new guys, reinforce them, take out the wounded ones,” Sanchez said. “(The Huey) was an icon in Vietnam.”
Crigler said pilots knew the dangers they faced.
“I asked (Tom) out of the blue if he would do me the honor, if I was killed in action, of escorting my body back,” Crigler remembered. “It took him back a minute and he looked at me and said, after a few seconds of silence, ‘On one condition, that you agree to escort my body back’ … And that conversation was overheard by a first lieutenant … and he said ‘You guys cut that out, we’re all going to make it back fine.’”
The next day, while flying a mission with Sanchez, Hernandez and another pilot, Tom Shaw’s helicopter crashed. Only Sanchez and Hernandez survived. Crigler escorted his friend’s body home to Wisconsin.
Decades later, Tom Shaw’s family was contacted by a man named Ron Paye with an organization called American Huey 369. The group was flying a restored Huey to Wisconsin for the L.Z. Lambeau Vietnam Homecoming in Green Bay. On the way, they hoped to fly over Tom Shaw’s grave.
“(Paye) introduced himself as being in Tom’s unit after Tom had been killed, and he sat down with me and showed pictures from the unit and explained to me the event,” said Dave Shaw, another of Tom Shaw’s brothers. “From then on, we stayed in touch. I feel like I can reach out to Tom again through him.”
Three years later, Paye brought the restored Huey back to Wisconsin, to that memorial in Sheboygan. He also brought along the second group of honored guests: Jim Crigler, Bruno Sanchez and Bernie Hernandez. For the first time, the men Tom Shaw served with met the family he left behind.
“We went to dinner with them, told them our stories, what happened on that fateful day when Tom died,” said Hernandez. “I feel like they welcomed us as part of the family, and that’s what I feel like, part of the family. I’d love to come see them again.”
In the afternoon, Tom Shaw’s brothers and widow climbed aboard that restored Huey. So did crew members Crigler, Hernandez and Sanchez. Together, they took flight.
“The flight was very moving, very emotional,” Kevin Shaw said. “It’s cathartic in so many ways to be able to talk to these guys and touch them and hug them.”
“What we’ve learned with all vets and helicopter pilots and guys that served in this crew, the bond that they have is just never ending,” Dave Shaw said. “After 42 years, it was like we knew them.”
For more stories, information, and resources available for returning veterans, please visit Veterans Coming Home.