Honoring Tom

It was a local high school student, Brian Hottel, at Peters Township High School, who first raised my awareness of Tom Shipe. A newspaper story said that Brian wanted to create a memorial at the high school to honor Tom, who had never returned to his Peters Township home from Vietnam.

After reading of Brian’s efforts, I decided to do all I could to assist him in honoring Tom. When we were done, a couple years later, our local Vietnam War hero was honored in several places.

This is the story in the local newspaper which first caught my eye…
Connecting with the past

BY BARBARA S. MILLER
THE OBSERVER REPORTER

McMurray, Pennsylvania

A Peters Township High School senior has launched a campaign to recognize a graduate of the school who died in combat in Vietnam 32 years ago.

Brian Hottel, 18, of McMurray, first heard of PFC Tom Shipe last fall when high school students designed a tribute for Lieutenant Kevin Schaeffer, a 1989 Peters graduate who was injured in the September 11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon.

Hottel’s curiosity about Shipe grew, and he eventually contacted Shipe’s parents, Marion and Conard Shipe of North Strabane Township. They maintain neatly filed photographs of their son, along with newspaper clippings and letters.

Soldiers in his company nicknamed Shipe “Rev” because he conducted religious services in the field when a chaplain was not available, Hottel learned.

On Sept. 19, 1970, Shipe’s company was exploring mountain caves on a reconnaissance mission when the enemy started firing. When shots hit Shipe’s sergeant, Shipe tried to drag him to safety. Shipe was shot, returned fire and then was fatally wounded.

The Army posthumously awarded Shipe, a paratrooper, the rank of corporal and several medals: the Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Army Commendation.

Hottel’s conversations with the Shipes became the material for a four-page research paper he submitted to the Washington County Historical Society scholarship essay contest. The society will announce the winner on April 30.

In the meantime, Hottel has asked Peters Township School Board and township council to support a memorial to Shipe at the high school, from which he graduated in 1967.

Dr. Diane Kirk, district superintendent, said Hottel’s request is the first of its type in Peters, and she intends to check with Michael Silvestri, township manager, to discuss how council handled the request.

Councilman Michael Neville requested council place the matter on an upcoming agenda.

Hottel did not describe what type of memorial he thinks would be fitting. But Robert Donnan of Southview Court, who introduced Hottel’s presentation to the school board and council, has some ideas.

“Whether there is a ‘Tom Shipe history day’ in our schools, a statue or a carved stone, it is my firm belief this should be much more than a $50 plaque hanging in the corner of a hallway,” Donnan said.

Donnan, also a Vietnam veteran, posts a Web site that pays honor to local servicemen.

Marion Shipe said she is deeply touched by the efforts of Hottel and Donnan on behalf of her son.

“This is so many years later,” she said Tuesday. “I don’t think Tom expected any recognition. He did what he needed to do at that time.”

She said about the possibility of a public memorial to her son, “I can’t get over what Brian’s done. I didn’t know anyone even thought about it anymore. I’m so happy with the effort everyone’s made, even if nothing comes of it.”

Hottel’s research showed that Paul D. Urquhart was the only other Peters Township resident killed in the Vietnam War. Urquhart graduated from a Michigan high school.

END OF NEWSPAPER STORY

Brian accepted my help, so next we appeared in front of the Peters Township School Board and Peters Township Council. As I recall, both meetings were being held the same evening. This video includes our presentations to both…
Following those meetings, I wrote several letters, the first to my township councilman, Mike Neville. It’s interesting to note that Mr. Neville’s son went on to become an Air Force Academy F-16 pilot. Here’s my letter to councilman Neville…

Honoring Tom Shipe

March 21, 2002

Dear Mr. Neville:

Enclosed is the paper Peters Township High School senior, Brian Hottel, wrote for the 2002 Washington County Historical Society essay competition. The winner of this scholarship competition will be announced April 30th of this year.

A bit of background on this story, and my involvement, is in order. Toward the end of February I received a phone call from Mrs. Shipe of 743 Waterdam Road. She told me how a Peters High senior (Brian) had seen information about her son Tom on a local web site. Mrs. Shipe had also learned that it was the “Venetia” web page at my website, and she went on to find my phone number. She was pleased that Tom was being recognized for his ultimate sacrifice in 1970, and we spent a while talking on the phone. I told her of my other website at http://www.landscaper.net and my efforts to reunite my former Vietnam artillery battalion here in Pittsburgh in 1992, and how that had led to three subsequent reunions with a fourth planned for 2003. She then invited me out to their house to see some of Tom’s photos and memorabilia from the Vietnam War.

Mr. and Mrs. Shipe and I sat in their living room talking for two hours that afternoon. She mentioned that some people didn’t want to talk about the war, but that sometimes she needed that. I brought her a few things related to Vietnam and later sent her my copy of the dedication ceremony of the Washington County Vietnam Veterans Memorial located in Washington Cemetery. (I received a copy of that tape since my company donated the landscaping for that memorial project several years ago) It’s with great pride that I also maintain two Vietnam War memorial webpages, one for Washington County and one for Allegheny County.

Mr. Neville, Mike as you prefer, I’m not telling you all this to blow my own horn. Hopefully what it does, is point out my long term commitment to recognizing the great sacrifices these men made for all of us. It’s very difficult working with these casualty pages, as well as the other four pages I maintain with our 15th Artillery historian in Ohio. But it is work that is as important as any we can do, or have done, when it comes to our fallen soldiers and their families.

The citizenry of this land is usually behind the troops when they go marching off to war, and for the most part during a war, but when it comes to the really important part, after the wars, we often fall very short. Whether it is just simple recognition as Brian is recommending in his essay, or long term health care and other military benefits, we should not send men and women off to war unless we are willing to make a long term commitment to them which covers the rest of their lives, as those lives have been affected by that war.

In this case as many others, the warrior is gone but his family remains. Can you imagine the pain of losing a son or a brother? The only thing harder to imagine is that the high school and community he grew up in would hesitate at all to fully recognize this great sacrifice.

It was good to hear your phone message tonight voicing full support on this issue Mike, and it gives me confidence that a former omission can be righted soon. The Shipe family members are eager to see any and all memorials to their son. (Mr. Shipe is a World War Two veteran and we are losing these veterans rapidly now, so time’s a wasting for him to ever see his son honored).  Brian Hottel is anxious to see his essay make a difference for this Peters Township war hero, whose actions were gallant enough to earn him a Silver Star, along with the Army Commendation and many other medals, which were awarded posthumously. Tom Shipe was trying to save a fellow soldier, as you will read in the accompanying essay.

Mike, I was hoping not to play a major role in this effort, but it appears necessary if this is going to become a reality. It will be 32 years ago come September, so we have waited long enough. It is time to act. You will certainly let me know what further steps are required from me.

Thank you for reading this long letter through and for your strong interest in this important matter. I hope whatever memorial is decided upon fits the scope of his bravery. You are welcome to share this letter with council and the public record if you so desire.

Respectfully,
Robert Donnan

Image of the Silver Star medal:
Just over one month later, I followed up with another letter to councilman Neville…

April 25, 2002

Dear Mike:

I just finished watching the tape from the April 22nd Council Meeting. 

Thank you for keeping the issue of the memorial to Tom Shipe alive.

If I had known the issue was going to come up at the meeting, I would have made sure you had the following updates at your disposal when you redressed the issue:

  1. With the kind assistance of renowned history teacher Vaughan Dailey at our Middle School, we have positively ascertained that there was at least one other Peters Township High School graduate killed in a foreign war; one William Boyd Philips killed in WW1. (See enclosure)
  2. Mr. Dailey also mentioned a plaque hanging in the Middle School, “From the Class of 1943,” listing veterans of WW2 and five of these names have stars in front, which indicate they were killed in action.  However, one last name is Devore, which led me to phone an elderly lady from our church who married into the Devore family.  She knew precisely of the man named, but said for sure that he lived in North Strabane and never attended Peters schools.  (She is a 91-year-old retired Peters Township school teacher).  Her conclusion is “the plaque is hanging in the wrong school.”  My guess: Perhaps it should be at Canon-Mac. Whatever the case may be, there is reasonable doubt about the 5 veterans of WW2 attending school in Peters, and maybe not even being from Peters Township.
  3. Tom Shipe will be inducted into the HALL OF VALOR at Soldiers and Sailors Hall in Oakland.  Due to a wedding in the Shipe family, they deferred his induction from June 15th until Fall of 2002, or possibly, Spring of 2003.
  4. I have heard nothing back from the Peters Township School District Board yet regarding further consideration of this memorial issue.  They are embroiled in other hot issues at the present, of course.
  5. There is a growing list of people interested in serving on a Tom Shipe Memorial committee, if necessary, to further this project along, and perhaps give the project some real meaning and scope.
  6. Brian’s historical society paper will be judged soon – April 30th I believe.

Yours truly,
Robert Donnan

Next came our efforts to see Tom Shipe honored at our local V.F.W. post, beginning with my letter…

August 27, 2002

Board of Trustees
VFW Post 764
460 Valleybrook Road
McMurray, PA  15317

SUBJECT: Wall of Valor at VFW Post 764

Gentlemen:

During our meals in the dining room of Post 764, it has been very interesting to look at the plaques, and read about all the fine men on the “Wall of Valor.” During our meal there last Friday, we noticed there is a space available for the next hero.

I would like to recommend an individual from the Vietnam War who should easily fit within all your criteria, Tom Shipe. The following facts apply:

  • Tom Shipe made the ultimate sacrifice in the Vietnam War.
  • Tom’s father is a member of VFW Post 764.
  • Among several other medals, Tom was awarded the Silver Star.
  • Tom’s “Home of Record” is Venetia and inside Peters Township.
  • Tom will be inducted into the Hall of Valor at Soldiers & Sailors Hall next year.


Adding Tom Shipe’s plaque to your Wall of Valor can be done without any additional expense to Post #764, since donated monies will purchase his plaque directly from the artist for direct delivery to Post #764 once it is completed by the artist.

Please find enclosed Tom Shipe’s supporting paperwork, indicating his official award of the Silver Star. Please contact me with any additional requirements or questions you may have.

Respectfully,
Robert Donnan

Since Tom wasn’t a member of that local V.F.W., (how could he be after all), he didn’t fully fit into the criteria for Wall of Valor induction. I then became a Life Member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and that particular Post’s Wall of Valor committee, to help ensure his induction. (I went on to help honor another Vietnam veteran from Peters Township, Paul Urquhart, with his story featured in a future blog).
Next was my follow up letter to the V.F.W. Memorial Park Post 764 Commander in Peters Township, Dom DeFranco…

December 30, 2002

SUBJECT: Tom Shipe plaque for VFW Post 764

Dear Dom:

This past Saturday, I was very pleased to finally deliver Tom Shipe’s plaque to Dan O’Neill. All expenses for the plaque have been paid. As I told Dan and Fred Scherrer, I would like to donate the plaque to Post 764 in honor of Tom Shipe and the Shipe family.

This same plaque is already on display at Soldier’s and Sailor’s Hall in Oakland, where Tom is scheduled to be inducted into their Hall of Valor on June 28, 2003.

I’m sure you will have questions concerning the image of Jesus in the battle scene on Tom’s plaque. While Tom was in-transit to Vietnam, he met a young lady on the West Coast who took him to a prayer meeting with her one evening. This was a very moving experience for Tom, enough so that you could say he became a ‘Born Again Christian.’ 

Former Peters Township High School senior Brian Hottel tells the rest of the story in his 2002 Memorial Scholarship essay:

“Tom was given the nickname ‘Rev,’ short for Reverend. He would conduct religious services for the soldiers in the field when a chaplain was not available. Tom had found a place for God in his heart during the war. His letters sent home said he planned to enter the Episcopal Ministry after completing his military service. He was a member of St. David’s Episcopal Church in Peters Township.”

Please feel free to call on me if I can be of any further assistance in honoring Tom Shipe at Post 764.

Bob Donnan
cc: Dan O’Neill

The following year, I sent this letter to Tom’s mother, Myrna Shipe…

March 10, 2003

Dear Myrna:

It was very nice to see you today and visit for a while.  You remind me a lot of my mother, which is a real compliment. You two show the same spirit for life!

I promised to send you a note with a list of 3 important dates coming up:

School Board Meeting – You present Tom’s plaque to the school board on Monday March 17 at 7:30p.m.

School District building right next to Peters Twp Middle School.

Memorial Day: Rededication of Peters Twp war memorial with 11 men from 3 wars.

Monday morning May 26: Time to be announced (9 a.m.??) at the War memorial next to the flagpole at the Peters Township Municipal Building.

Hall of Valor: Tom’s induction at Soldiers and Sailors with approximately 19 other soldiers on Saturday June 28 at 5:00 p.m.

Soldiers and Sailors Hall is in Oakland (near the Pitt campus)

Yours truly,
Bob

These are the words I read at Tom Shipe’s induction ceremony at Soldiers and Sailors Hall on June 30, 2003…

Webster’s definition of a hero: “A man noted for courageous acts or nobility of purpose, esp. one who has risked or sacrificed his life.” 

Tom Shipe was a hero at many levels:

  1. To his fellow soldiers, by providing spiritual comfort.
  2. To the US Army, by proving to be a brave soldier.
  3. To his country, by volunteering to serve in wartime.
  4. To the Vietnamese, whose freedom he died defending.
  5. To his family and God, for being a faithful witness.
  6. To young people like Brian, who recognize his valor.
  7. And to his Vietnam Brothers, who honor his sacrifice.

Thanks to the efforts of student Brian Hottel, artist Randy McKenzie, and the work of Linda Fuller, Joe Dugan and Soldiers and Sailors Hall, Tom Shipe’s heroism will live on in the hearts and minds of future generations.

My next mission was to ensure that Tom’s plaque remained in its place of honor at the high school, with annual visits to the high school library. During one visit, the plaque was missing from the spot in the above photo, which led me to write this letter…

July 3, 2003
SUBJECT: Tom Shipe memorial plaque

TO: Dr. Englert
Peters Township High School
264 E. McMurray Road
McMurray, PA  15317

Dear Dr. Englert:

I wanted to thank you for clearing up the mystery of the missing Tom Shipe plaque in the PTHS Library.  I was surprised to hear the librarian removes all photos and plaques from the walls each summer, but if that is required to keep them safe, so be it. This is much better than gaining the reputation of former administrators by letting important high school memorabilia “disappear.”  I will look forward to visiting the high school library this fall, and in future years, to ensure the plaque is in its appointed spot. 

As a side note, it was a very meaningful and memorable event, Saturday evening June 28th, when Tom Shipe was inducted into the Hall of Valor at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall in Oakland. There were four generations of the Shipe family present to accept his plaque (the same one that is in the PTHS Library).  Some family members traveled from as far away as Florida and Maryland to be part of the event. Your recognition of Tom at the high school is equally important to their family.

Yours truly,
Robert Donnan

The criteria for the Silver Star award and Tom Shipe’s Silver Star Citation…

Silver Star Criteria: “The Silver Star is awarded to a person who, while serving in any capacity with the U.S. Army, is cited for gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States while engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force, or while serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party. The required gallantry, while of a lesser degree than that required for award of the Distinguished Service Cross, must nevertheless have been performed with marked distinction.”

AWARD OF THE SILVER STAR (POSTHUMOUS)

DEPARTMENT OF THE ARMY
Headquarters, First Field Force Vietnam
A.P.O. San Francisco 96350

4 November 1970

For gallantry in action while engaged in military operations involving conflict with an armed hostile force in the Republic of Vietnam: Private First Class Shipe distinguished himself by heroic actions on 19 September 1970, while serving as a rifleman on a combat operation in the Nui Mieu mountains in the Republic of Vietnam.

On that date, while searching for a Viet Cong Political Prisoner of War camp in an area known to contain many enemy soldiers, Private Shipe’s element spotted an enemy soldier at the entrance to a cave and took him under fire. Realizing the importance of intelligence that could be obtained from inside the cave, Private Shipe volunteered to be one of two men to enter and search it.

After entering the cave a short distance he came under enemy fire at a very close range and was immediately wounded. He began to return fire in the direction of the enemy muzzle flash in order to enable his comrade to reach the cave entrance and signal for help. He continued to return fire until he was mortally wounded by the enemy fire, sacrificing his own life in an attempt to accomplish the mission.

By his valorous actions he imparted a sense of urgency, purpose, and determination to the men that ultimately played a key role in the success of the mission. His efforts proved to be the force that helped disrupt the enemy’s mission and indirectly saved the lives of many other comrades.

Private First Class Shipe’s extraordinary heroism was in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflects great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Army.

END OF CITATION

Artist’s Sketch on Tom’s Wall of Valor Plaque…

It’s interesting to learn why artist Randy McKenzie added Jesus to the battle scene on Tom Shipe’s plaque.

While in-transit to Vietnam, Tom met a young lady on the west coast who took him with her to a prayer meeting one evening. This proved to be a life-changing experience for Tom.

Former Peters Township High School student Brian Hottel tells the rest of the story in his 2002 Memorial Scholarship essay:

“Just before he left to go to Vietnam, he wrote his parents a letter saying he had found God. In Vietnam, Tom was given the nickname ‘Rev,’ short for Reverend. He would conduct religious services for the soldiers in the field when a chaplain was not available. Tom had found a place for God in his heart during the war. His letters sent home said he planned to enter the Episcopal Ministry after completing his military service. He was a member of St. David’s Episcopal Church in Peters Township.”

To this day, Tom’s story continues to have a profound influence on family and friends.
We remember Tom Shipe today, tomorrow, Memorial Day, and every day.
As the saying goes, “Sacrifice is meaningless without remembrance.”
Bob
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