Even as a boy, Shaun McLaughlin dreamed of joining the military.
His grandfather, a World War II veteran, was against it. “I fought so you wouldn’t have to,” he said.
It would be years before the boy would know how close his grandfather — a man who never talked about jumping from a burning plane and spending six months in a German prisoner of war camp — had come to dying in that war, how easily young Shaun and his father might never have existed. William McLaughlin, who was a tool and die maker at RCA for 30 years, told his grandson to focus on school. “They can take away all my medals,” he said, “but they can’t take away your education.”
The younger McLaughlin listened to his "grandpop." Now 34, he's a doctor in his fourth year of six in a combined interventional radiology residency and fellowship program at Penn Medicine.
But he also listened to his heart. He joined the Pennsylvania Air National Guard because of the man who told him to stay in school.
This month, Shaun McLaughlin was commissioned as a flight surgeon with the 111th Attack Wing based at the Horsham Air Guard Station as his pediatrician wife, Jillian, and 4-month-old son, Sawyer, looked on from the front row. He will care for plane and drone pilots and crews. Ultimately, he hopes to join a Critical Care Air Transport Team and serve aboard airborne intensive care units that fly critically wounded military personnel back to the United States. He might help those members of the military do what his grandfather and so many from the World War II generation did: Work hard, build a thriving family, and move forward.
“If you look at that generation … they were something else,” McLaughlin said. Their service, he said, “paved the way for us to have a remarkable life here in America.”
Education was what brought the two McLaughlins closer. The son of a doctor, Shaun McLaughlin had grown up in Mountain Top, near Wilkes-Barre. He came to Drexel University to study computer science, decided that wasn’t for him and switched to biomedical engineering with an eye toward medical school. He liked the idea of taking care of people. “People trust you with their lives, and I think there’s something sacred about that,” he said. He lived with his grandparents in Broomall during his last two years at Drexel.
Shaun McLaughlin studied late into the night and soon learned his grandfather had night terrors, a sign, the grandson thought, of post-traumatic stress disorder. The older man would come downstairs at midnight or 1 a.m. and the two would talk. Over Entenmann’s doughnuts and ice cream, William McLaughlin started opening up about his combat experiences, although he never did talk about his months as a POW.
This was a man who had not discussed the war with anyone, including his wife. Regina McLaughlin, now 91, met him at a church dance several years after the war, derailing her plans to become a nun. “He was wonderful, wonderful,” she said. “The best thing of all is he was great with his mother.”
She did not even know he was a veteran when they married in 1954, and it would be years before she found out he’d been a POW. They had five children, who produced 16 grandchildren. “I knew nothing,” she said. Shaun, she said, “knows more about it than I do.”
William McLaughlin told his grandson that he had not been drafted like his two brothers because the government wanted men like him to keep producing war supplies. He had always wanted to work on airplanes, though, and he applied to be released from his job so he could enlist in the Army Air Corps. He trained to be an aviation gunner on B-24s.
He was stationed in Italy, where many of the crews were targeting Hitler’s oil fields. He manned the plane’s Martin top turret. He proudly told his grandson that he knew every nut and bolt on that turret gun and could get it to work in any conditions.
The day it was shot down — Dec. 6, 1944 — McLaughlin’s plane was on its seventh run. It was heading, along with its squad, for oil fields in Czechoslovakia when it met resistance from a group of German ME-109s. McLaughlin thought his crew took out two of the German planes before it went down. He was called away from his gun to help get the bomb bay doors open so the crew could parachute out. He kicked the jammed doors open, and those who could bailed out.
He admitted that he was scared, that he prayed. William McLaughlin, broke both ankles when he hit the ground.
Five of the 11-man crew died.
Shaun McLaughlin didn’t get much more out of him before he died, at age 90, in 2010. Shaun knew that his grandfather prayed for forgiveness during his nearly daily visits to church after the war. He assumed that having served on a bomber “weighed heavily on his heart.”
About four years ago, when his grandmother was moving, she found a leather suitcase with her husband’s war mementos in the attic. Last year, Shaun dived into the records. He learned that his grandfather had recommended several of his crew for military medals. He found a remarkably mundane letter, handwritten in capital letters, delivered from the POW camp, Stalag Luft 1. The imprisoned William McLaughlin told his family in West Philadelphia that their “wandering son” was OK, that he had been reading, playing cards, and developing a taste for German brown bread. He wanted a turkey dinner when he got home. “Love to all and I’ll be seeing you,” he wrote.
A letter from a crewmate said a German officer had called McLaughlin “one helluva shot.” The grandson saw that Slovakian researchers had contacted his grandfather, wanting his history. He hadn’t replied, but Shaun McLaughlin did. They sent him a fuzzy, black-and-white picture of his grandfather’s crumpled plane in Devinska Nova Ves, Slovakia.
McLaughlin searched German records and found the name of the German pilot who downed his grandfather’s plane: Maj. Karl Rammlet. He read about conditions in the POW camps, which were brutal but far better than those in concentration camps. He checked all the public records he could find about his grandfather’s crew.
By then, Shaun McLaughlin, who wears one of his grandfather’s dog tags, had already decided to join the guard. The Army rejected him because of an old shoulder injury, the result of his own brush with death as a teenager on a dirt bike. The Air Force took him. His research into his grandfather’s service left him with a greater appreciation for how different America might have been if men like his grandfather had not stopped Hitler. It strengthened his resolve to serve, and honor William McLaughlin’s legacy.
“My grandfather and all those guys survived because people took care of them. … I want to give some of that back,” he said.
As he was commissioned, he felt humbled and honored. He thought of the sacrifices his grandfather had made. Even the fact that he could raise his right hand for the oath was cause for reflection. There was a time when that shoulder injury had made raising his arm impossible.
He worries that the history of men like his grandfather will be lost. He wants his son to know who his great-grandfather was.
“It’s my family story,” he said.