Obituary: Gale O. Shreffler / WWII veteran gave away Purple Heart

April 29, 1924 - May 31, 2014

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Gale O. Shreffler, a decorated World War II veteran whose courage and humility continued to serve others long after the war, died Saturday in Monroeville. He was 90.

Born in Franklin, Mr. Shreffler was just 17 years old when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into WWII. Mr. Shreffler traveled to Erie and enlisted in the Army Air Force.

"Dad, if I go in the Navy and the ship is shot up 1,000 miles off shore, I can't swim that far," he told his father at the time, according to a 2009 interview with the John A. Adams '71 Center for Military History and Strategic Analysis at the Virginia Military Institute.

In the Air Force, Mr. Shreffler reached the rank of lieutenant and served as a navigator with the 313th Bomb Wing, 504th Bomb Group, flying numerous bombing raids in the famed B-29 over Japan -- a 3,000-mile round trip that lasted 15 to 16 hours.

Soon after a near-fatal crash in July, 1945, Mr. Shreffler was back in the air. On the night of Aug. 14, 1945, Mr. Shreffler's B-29 flew a mission to mine the Shimonoseki Strait in southern Japan.

"There were a number of enemy fighters," Mr. Shreffler said in 2009, describing the mission. "I said to myself, 'These guys aren't ever going to quit.' "

The combat Mr. Shreffler saw that night was some of the last of the world's bloodiest war.

After the war, Mr. Shreffler married his high school sweetheart, Dora "Jean" Boyd, who he met years earlier in the school band. They became engaged during the war and, since he was overseas, his parents took her the ring.

With the help of the G.I. Bill, Mr. Shreffler went to college, graduating from Kent State University. While in school, his first daughter, Linda, was born. They would later have a son, William.

After college, Mr. Shreffler began what would be a 34-year career with U.S. Steel. The start of a family and career, however, did nothing to dim the veteran's courage. On March 19, 1961, Mr. Shreffler ran into a neighbor's burning home to rescue a 3-year-old boy, Robert Dunn. He carried the boy out of the house while another neighbor escorted the boy's sister and mother to safety. Mr. Shreffler was awarded the Carnegie Hero Award for his actions, though he shied from the attention that came with it.

"When he saved that family, they wanted to interview him on TV, and he wouldn't have any part of it," said daughter Linda Sundin of Monroeville. "That's just how my dad was, very humble."

His humility also served others. One day, he read an op-ed in the newspaper by a fellow WWII veteran who, despite a wartime injury, never received the Purple Heart. Feeling that individual was more deserving than he was, Mr. Shreffler packaged up his own Purple Heart and mailed it to the man. Mrs. Sundin only recently learned this from her father, though he gave away the award years ago.

When it came to golf, Mr. Shreffler's favorite hobby, he was not shy about one achievement. On Aug. 8, 1988, he hit a hole-in-one. Every Aug. 8 since, his son William called him to reminisce about the perfect stroke.

Mr. Shreffler is survived by Mrs. Sundin, as well as his son William Shreffler of St. Louis. He is also survived by his two sisters, Jean Ehlert, of Massachusettes, and Jane Lundquist of Oil City; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Friends will be received from 2-4 and 6-8 p.m. today at Maurice L. Knee Ltd. Funeral Home in Plum. Funeral services will be held at 10 a.m. Wednesday at the Presbyterian Church of Plum. A military funeral will follow at Plum Creek Cemetery.


Matt Nussbaum: mnussbaum@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1504.

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