SHERIDAN — In 1945, Frank Shaffer watched the now famous raising of the American flag on the island of Iwo Jima. He also walked the streets of Hiroshima after an atomic bomb decimated the city. Last week, he recounted those experiences and others to recent Sheridan High School graduates Cody Wills and Luke Ostrowski, who are both leaving for Navy basic training later this summer.
The meeting between the 90-year-old Navy veteran and some of Sheridan’s newest Navy recruits came by chance after a recent house fire in Big Horn.
“Tim Arndt with Galloway Construction is repairing the house and came across an old Sheridan Press paper from 1942 and hung it on the wall for other contractors to see,” explained Dave Wills, Cody’s father, who works at Wyoming Building Supply. “I was visiting the construction site when I saw the paper hanging on the wall. There was a picture of a sailor and a headline that said that there were 325 people from Sheridan County that were in the Navy fighting in 1942. The picture got my attention and I asked Tim if I could bring it home to show my son (who had recently enlisted). He said sure and then said, ‘Check out the story about this guy.’ That is when I read the attached story of Frank Shaffer.”
The article Wills read recounted Shaffer’s multiple attempts to join the Navy. He was denied entry four times due to “physical unfitness,” but the fifth time was the charm.
“I was turned down four times before being accepted for the Navy because of bad teeth,” Shaffer said in the article. “In August my local draft board granted me a deferment so that I could have my teeth put in shape to meet the Navy’s requirements. I hitchhiked from Sheridan to Cheyenne in July to enlist, but was told to have my teeth fixed and come back again.”
Two weekends ago, Wills and his sons Cody and Carsten, traveled to Casper for a ceremony with Gov. Matt Mead and Sen. John Barrasso, honoring Wyoming armed services enlistees. On the drive back, the family discussed a World War II veteran who gave the invocation at the ceremony. Carsten, who works at Starbucks in Sheridan, noted that there was a WW II veteran who frequented the coffee shop and was a favorite customer among the employees.
“He said his name was Frank,” Dave Wills said. “I said ‘Would his name be Frank Shaffer?’ Then I told him about the article. He said that we would find out. I sent him a picture of the article and he said that it was definitely Frank. He said that he looks exactly the same.”
After confirming his identity, a meeting was arranged at Starbucks last Thursday evening. Cody Wills and Luke Ostrowski were able to visit with Shaffer for an hour and hear his stories.
“I was surprised, yes,” Shaffer said about the meeting. “The girls (at Starbucks) notified me that somebody wanted to talk to me and that was all I knew. I was surprised and I appreciate what they were trying to do. I went ahead and went through my military career from the time I enlisted into the Navy until it was over.”
“Actually I didn’t ask him any questions specifically, I just listened to him talk about his experience in the Navy,” Cody Wills said. “It is pretty cool to hear about his experience back in the day.”
One of Shaffer’s experiences was watching the raising of the American flag on Mount Suribachi, which was made famous by a photograph taken by Joe Rosenthal.
“I stood on the bridge of my ship and we were laying two off the southern tip of Iwo Jima and I was watching the Marines work their way up that mountain fighting the (Japanese) on the way up and suddenly I let out a big yell and the skipper was sitting in the wheelhouse and said ‘Shaffer, what the hell are you yelling about?’
“I said ‘Sir, they just raised the flag on hot rocks,’ which was the nickname for Mount Suribachi,” he continued. “I was still watching later on, maybe an hour later, I can’t remember exactly, when I saw the big flag that went up that Rosenthal took a picture of. I saw both of them go up.”
Shaffer was also able to see firsthand, the destruction of Hiroshima after it was hit with an atomic bomb on Aug. 6, 1945.
“I was in the Philippines when the war ended and they sent my ship, I was on a fleet tug, they sent us back up to Okinawa and we were put in a fleet of ships that went to Japan and we anchored in the bay there next to Hiroshima,” Shaffer said.
“I spent a half a day in Hiroshima. It was unbelievable what one bomb could do,” he continued. “Everything was ruined. In the olden days on the TV when they were showing a lot of pictures of Hiroshima, there was usually one cement building still standing and my buddies and I, we walked into that building. It didn’t have any doors or windows left but the walls were still standing.
“There were steps that went on to the second floor and we were able to go up and get a view of the whole thing and there was nothing left but ruins. Where the (Japanese) were still alive, where their homes were, they just dug holes and they were living like rats. It is something that I sincerely hope never happens in this country.”
After the visit at the coffee shop, Dave Wills, who owns Let ‘Er Buck Carwash, presented Shaffer with a certificate that gives him free car washes for the rest of his life. Shaffer also received a free drink certificate from Starbucks. Cody Wills, Luke Ostrowski and Jack Syring, all recent Sheridan High School graduates, leave later this summer for basic training at Naval Station Great Lakes in Illinois.