McCrabb: Hamilton fighter pilot’s life ‘cherished’ 75 years after death in World War II

HAMILTON — Seventy-five years later, people are still intrigued by the short life and tragic death of a Butler County World War II pilot.

And that “truly thrills” his niece.

“People are still thinking about him today,” said Carolyn Gannon, 75. “It’s quite fabulous. I don’t know if I will have such a legacy.”

We’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Let’s turn the clock back to March 18, 1945, six months before World War II ended.

Second Lt. Asa William “Bill” Shuler, 22, a Hamilton High School graduate, was flying his P-47 plane, “Battlin' Beanie II," over enemy German tanks. Shuler’s mission: Destroy the powerful tanks so American soldiers could advance on the ground.

After two unsuccessful attempts, Shuler, part of the 362nd Fighter Group, 377th Fighter Squadron, either was shot down or flew his plane into the tank, depending on what account you believe. Either way, Shuler’s actions probably saved countless American soldiers, his family said.

“A real hero,” Gannon called her uncle during a phone interview from her California home.

His body was recovered two days later and buried in the Luxembourg Cemetery along with thousands of American soldiers. His body was exhumed in 1948 and buried at Greenwood Cemetery in Hamilton.

Gannon was born eight days before her uncle’s death. In the years since, whenever the family gathered, Shuler always was a popular topic at the dinner table.

“Everyone adored him,” said Gannon, one of Shuler’s two nieces and two nephews still living. “He was the life of the family. He was a practical joker and he lived life large.”

His life’s story could have ended that morning of March 18, 1945. Instead, thanks to enthusiastic collectors and the internet, Shuler’s story continues to be told.

Nathan Merique, 28, a North Carolina native who serves active duty in the U.S. Army out of Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, started collecting World War II memorabilia 14 years ago. He purchased a few items that belonged to Shuler and that began his passion of piecing together Shuler’s life.

“A deep appreciation for World War II veterans,” Merique said.

Five years ago, there was “another twist” in the story when Merique was contacted by Col. Patrick Collett from France. He owned more of Shuler’s military items, including the sterling silver engraved bracelet he was wearing when he was killed.

There also was a jacket, cap, military paperwork, combat photos, and information about the tank he tried to destroy. Merique paid nearly $2,000 for the items.

Merique said when he sent his mother Shuler’s military photograph, she asked: “When did you get these done?”

He told her: “That’s not me. He just looks exactly like me.”

When Merique shows off Shuler’s items and tells his friends what he paid, they think he’s “nuts,” he said.

He thinks otherwise.

“You can’t put a price on history, and in Shuler’s case, for someone who gave his life,” he said. “I need to honor his life and preserve his stuff. That’s the least I can do for him after what he did for me.”

There was a pause on the phone: “He had his whole life ahead of him. He was 22. Shuler is part of me now."

Those are comforting words to Gannon. After the war, Shuler, the only son born to Frank and Mattie Shuler after two daughters, was supposed to return to Hamilton and take over the family’s business, Shuler & Benninghofen Co. Woolen Mills.

Instead, he died for his country and thanks to Merique, his memory remains.

“Quite thrilled” is how Gannon described knowing most of her uncle’s possessions are being “genuinely cherished” by one collector. “He lived to be only 22, but his legacy continues.”

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