KILLEEN — America’s World War II veterans are said to be dying at a rate of more than 200 per day and Killeen lost one of its beloved members of the famed “Greatest Generation” recently when Zac G. Shawhan died at age 101 on Christmas Day.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, around 300,000 U.S. World War II veterans are still alive (more than 16 million Americans served during that global conflict that lasted from 1939 to 1945). By the year 2025, it is expected that only 57,000 of those will be left.
Shawhan, meanwhile, was a resident of Killeen and a well-known figure around town for more than 50 years.
A memorial service is planned for 10 a.m. Saturday at Crawford-Bowers Funeral Home in Killeen. The public is welcome to attend.
Born and raised in Russell, Kan., Shawhan graduated from high school and joined the U.S. Army Air Corps — which later became known as the U.S. Air Force — when he was 19 years old. For a while, he worked in aircraft maintenance and later became a pilot.
Never mind that young Shawhan, the son and nephew of World War I veterans, did not actually know how to fly an airplane.
“The way he tells the story is that he didn’t know how to fly, but he wanted to fly so he told them he could,” said one of his six sons, Spencer Shawhan.
“He was in California, and he had gotten into a little trouble out there. He was doing stop-and-go (landings) on the runway and the way he tells it, he gave it a little too much gas and he touched one of the wingtips. His commander put him on non-flight duty, and he dispatched planes to Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7.”
Spencer, a 62-year-old father of three and grandfather of two who lives in Zachary, La., just north of Baton Rouge, says his dad spent most of World War II flying bombers in and around Alaska. When the war was over, he met Shirley Pacini in Baltimore and they were married in 1948. Shawhan then became a pilot for the Strategic Air Command and flew missions from Alaska to South America before retiring in 1960 as a major with 20 years’ service.
Following his military service, Shawhan went to Colorado to try his hand at entrepreneurship, buying property and selling modular homes. After a few years of struggles, he landed a job with McDonnell Douglas in St. Louis, Mo., where he wrote instructional manuals for NASA’s Gemini and Apollo space missions.
In 1968, he and the family moved to central Texas when URS Corporation hired him to run a project office on Fort Hood.
Shawhan also was involved here in buying and managing commercial real estate properties, a pursuit that included a working partnership with longtime area realtor David Barr.
“Zac and I go back probably 25 years,” Barr said, often speaking of Shawhan in the present tense. “He is unique. A great man you could look up to and learn from. Always had a smile on his face. Always wore that trademark black hat with a buffalo nickel headband.
“He started out as a client, as an investor, and we did property management for him. Over the years, we developed a real close relationship. He was a fascinating person, always looking for something to invest in. That was the kind of man he was — always looking for something new and exciting.”
Shawhan kept up with his real estate investments until he was in his mid-90s, always on the lookout for another good deal, before turning over his investment portfolio to two of his sons, Don and Zac III.
Longtime Killeen businessman and family friend Johnny Frederick remembers this conversation:
“When his wife passed away — probably 10 years ago — my wife and I were out to dinner with some friends and we ran into the family,” said Frederick, a 1977 Killeen High School graduate and friends since childhood with Spencer Shawhan. “They were all out having dinner after the services, and Zac called me over.
“I was on the (Killeen) planning and zoning commission and we always talked about different things going on in the city … land values and where growth was occurring. He asked me about a piece of property in the industrial park that he was looking at, and I said, “Are you going to buy it and resell it? Do you have a buyer?’
“He said, ‘No, I’m just speculating. I’m looking to buy something, hold on to it, and resell it.’
“I said, ‘Zac, how old are you?’
“He said, ‘I’m 91.’
“I told him, ‘Dude, you’re my hero. You’re land speculating at 91 years old.’
“That’s the way he was. Even the last time I saw him, he was still sharp as a tack. He was still driving himself around. He’d stop by the pawn shop just to talk. He was an amazing man.”
Not much could slow Shawhan down, it seemed, until he suffered a serious fall that took away some of his independence.
“He was having the time of his life,” Spencer said. “Until he had that fall last Christmas (2020), he was still driving around town and doing everything he wanted to do. He fell and his back was bothering him, so he spent a couple of months in a nursing home and then moved into assisted living (Stoney Brook in Copperas Cove). He would still get around, but we took his keys away from him and wouldn’t let him drive. We hired him a driver, instead.
“That was very hard for him. He did not like that at all.
“He was in pretty good health. His heart was giving him a little trouble in the last couple of months; he wasn’t maintaining good blood pressure. They couldn’t come up with any other medicines they could give him to address the issues. I had been in Killeen two weeks before and he had an exceptionally good weekend. We played chess and didn’t have any problems.”
Also on that visit was one of Spencer’s older brothers, Zac III.
It was a great visit, the brothers both said. Dad was in good spirits, alert, carrying on conversations like always, enjoying the company.
Two weeks later, he was gone.
“I knew that he was going downhill but when we went to visit, he was fine,” Zac III said. “He was very alert and engaged — as much as a person who is stone deaf can be — right up until the very end. When he took a turn for the worse, it happened very quickly.
“Did I break down in tears? No. Dad and I were never really close. Our whole family was kind of distant.
“Maybe that’s part of the 1950s phenomenon. Part of it was the military brat phenomenon. We were more or less semi-separate individuals that shared the same house.
“Dad’s parents were very tough and kind of … uncompromising. So that’s what he was like. Mom’s parenting style was much more easy-going. She tended to use psychology a lot to get us to do things. Dad would just say, ‘Do it.’ He wasn’t a monster; he didn’t beat us or anything. I didn’t hate him at all. We just weren’t used to him being around, and we certainly weren’t used to his harsher parenting style.”
Spencer, meanwhile, says all of his siblings had different childhood experiences, and so naturally they all have differing memories of their dad – some good; some not so good.
“He was a mixed bag, I guess. My three older brothers said he was tough, but I guess they wore him down before I came along.
“To tell you the kind of guy he was … he enjoyed helping people who were a little down on their luck. There are people around town that he paid dental work for; people he bought a car for. I imagine there’s probably 100 ladies in the Killeen area that have a painting he did of them. He never tried to sell anything; he just gave them away.
“He didn’t tell us about all the things he did. I would say he was a sucker, but he just believed in helping people who needed help.
“I am definitely going to miss him.”