Former Oak Creek Mayor Vi Shaffer persists in recovering medal awarded to her brother who went down with his ship

Tom Ross
After three handwritten letters to the Bureau of Naval Personnel failed to win a response, Oak Creek resident Vi Shaffer, 80, wrote to President Barack Obama asking for a new Purple Heart medal to replace one awarded to her brother who went down with his Navy ship in 1943. Her wish was granted.
Tom Ross

— When her brother’s Purple Heart arrived in the mail this winter, the tears that former Oak Creek Mayor Vi Shaffer cried were a mixture of pride and long deferred mourning for an older brother she barely recalls.

“I think getting the medals brought the closure and made me realize that yes, he was gone,” Vi, 80, said this week.

Navy Fireman 2nd Class Philip Jess Vawter died Nov. 24, 1943, with 643 of his shipmates after a torpedo from a Japanese submarine struck the American aircraft carrier USS Liscome Bay broadside. He was 17 years old. HIs little sister Violet, at home in California, was just 8.

The torpedo that sank the Liscome Bay off the Gilbert Islands struck the bomb storage area resulting in a massive explosion that broke the ship in half, causing it to sink 23 minutes later.

Jess had been eager to follow an older brother into the Navy, and so his father had signed for him so that he could enlist at such a young age.

As much as Vi’s story is one about a young sailor who gave his life for his country, it’s also a story of a plucky elderly woman who was unrelenting in her efforts to recover tangible evidence that her brother was honored as a hero.

Vi remembers her parents, Orville and Charlotte Vawter, sitting at the kitchen table while they read the telegram informing them, regretfully, that their son was missing in action.

But it wasn’t until 2012, when Vi’s daughter, Debi Hoskinson, also of Oak Creek, made her a book of photographs and documents representing her family history, that Vi learned her parents also had received a telegram informing them that Jess Vawter had been awarded a Purple Heart.

She called her older sister, Lola Mae, now deceased (Vi had nine siblings), on the phone and asked, “Do you know anything about this?”

“He got it, but I don’t know what happened to it,” came the reply.

There is evidence in the form of a telegram to the Vawters announcing the medal, that the Navy intended to, and likely did, send the original Purple Heart to the Vawter family. But Vi has no memory of it being in their home. And partly because she was so young when her brother died and struggled to comprehend the loss, she felt an urgency to seek closure in the form of the medal.

Vi called local Veterans Affairs Officer Michael Condie who promptly sent her forms to fill out and send to the Navy. After several handwritten letters sent to the Bureau of Naval Personnel in St. Louis in 2013 and 2014 went unanswered, she refused to give up.

Ultimately, Vi wrote to President Obama at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

“I was hoping you could get me a new medal,” she wrote to President Obama. “I am now 80 years old and pretty much housebound. I hope you will not ignore me like the Navy has. I thank you, Violet Shaffer.”

She included her brother’s full name and service number. And at last, Vi caught somebody’s attention.

The Purple Heart, or possibly a second Purple Heart replacing the original, arrived in the mail Dec. 4, 2014, along with several other medals.

“Thanks for your correspondence to President Barack Obama,” T.E. Decent, head of congressional affairs for the Navy Personnel Command, wrote to Vi.

He continued to say that he had reviewed the personnel file of Vi’s brother and confirmed that he was not only eligible for a Purple Heart but also the Navy Good Conduct Medal, WWII Victory Medal, the American Campaign Medal and an Honorable Service lapel pin. He also enclosed a Gold Star lapel button with a purple background for Vi.

And when the medals arrived, she cried tears that were more than 70 years overdue.

“I’m glad that everything worked out for her,” Condie said this week.

Vi feels gratitude but has no illusions that President Obama himself read her letter. Just the same, she sent him a thank-you note. And Vi wants other people to take encouragement from her resolve and determination.

“This story is about closure on my part and encouraging somebody to go for their goal,” she said, “Even if it means going to the top.”

Vi lives today in a well-kept apartment building for senior citizens in Oak Creek, which she seldom leaves because she has heart disease and emphysema.

“Why the good Lord is keeping me here, I’ll never know,” she said.

One answer might be that she has 10 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchilden, all but two “living within shouting distance.”

Her daughter, Debi, visits for lunch once a week. Another daughter, Melody Longwell, lives in Eaton and can’t visit as often. But her son, Butch Shaffer, a mechanic, visits every Sunday to make her breakfast.

Butch served in the Navy for four years himsel, and remained in the Naval Reserves another two years.

And it’s ironic that just as her father did for her brother Jess, Vi signed for her own son to enter the Navy when he was still just 17.

“A week after (high school) graduation (from Soroco), he was gone,” Vi said.

And then, wistfully, she reflected on her father and his decision to allow her brother to go off to war. She still has the last letter that Jess wrote home to their parents, promising to send pictures soon.

“I’ve often wondered how Dad felt, signing for him, and then to lose him like that,” she said.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Steamboat and Routt County make the Steamboat Pilot & Today’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.