by COL Barry Willey, USA (Ret.)
Barracks Bible Studies
Jon approached several other new cadets in our company and assembled a small group of eager men who desired to grow in their Christian faith, while they progressed in their cadet experiences.
The discrete manner of Jon’s involvement in these men’s lives, however, and Jon’s own stellar reputation, created a situation that was easily tolerated by the members of Company G-1, though it could have been viewed by some as fraternization.
There was never any pressure to participate and Jon’s leading of these Bible study groups was personable yet scholarly and professional…and after duty hours. It would have been hard for anyone to find anything worth criticizing in the arrangement.
The group usually met once during the week, in the evening, down in the basement of the cadet barracks where the quiet atmosphere supported a discrete study of the Bible.
Participants, including members of the company other than Plebes, had to obviously be willing to sacrifice a portion of their evening that would have otherwise be devoted to studying for the next day’s academics.
As it turned out that year, not one of our group suffered adversely in academics. On one occasion, we were unable to meet due to scheduling conflicts. Jon wrote a personal note to the members apologizing. His note to me was brief and to the point, yet spoke volumes. It, in fact, is a microcosm of his life at West Point — developing relationships, meeting other’s needs, excellence and faith:
Willey, 4th Cl
Sorry about Thurs nite – I guess we all got a little busy – let’s shoot for another meeting Sun. nite – Daniel 3:17,18
The verses from the above passage, along with the context, describe the three Jewish lads, taken into captivity by an invading king, who defiantly worshipped their God and refused to bow to the king’s idols.
They were thrown into the fiery furnace but were kept safe by the “fourth man in the fire…who appeared like the Son of God.”
Though always a popular Sunday School story with younger ones, the trials, faith and courage of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego inspired Jon in his own daily faith. He wasn’t ashamed or hesitant to share that inspiration with his fellow cadets.
Again, his firm stance on living unashamedly as a Christian is another example of choosing the harder right over the easier wrong of just going with the flow and not making one’s faith a lightning rod for others to criticize.
Graduation was drawing near and preparing for life as an Army lieutenant became the one thing on most Firsties’ minds.
While many consider their professional legacies–how people will remember them–when completing a watershed event their lives, the main thing on Jon’s mind at the end of his cadet experience was ensuring the spiritual legacy of those who had gone before him was carried on at West Point. He wrote the below words on a green Department of Defense routing slip to young Plebe Barry Willey twelve days before graduation day for the Class of 1969.
WILLEY, 4TH CLASS, CO. G-1
Thru M/C (message center)
Let it be now and henceforth known that you will report to room 3921 at 031525 June for Special Inspection. This order to be superceded only by someone with 6 stripes.
Jonathan C. Shine
Cdt Cpt, 2d Bn, 1st Regt.
An order to report for Special Inspection strikes fear and anxiety into any plebe, especially when it comes from the Battalion Commander. I had gotten to know Jon in a more personal way throughout the year in Jon’s company and studied the Bible with him during our free time. It still was not clear, though, what Cadet Captain Shine wanted with Plebe Willey. When the day arrived for graduation, Barry Willey pulled out the green routing slip and double-checked the time to report and the room number. It was time.
With shoes highly spit-shined, a starch-stiff pair of white cadet trousers under a full dress gray coat–brass buttons shined to perfection–and crossed white parade belt with brass plate in the center of his chest, I was ready for the worst, most scrutinizing inspection imaginable…a Special Inspection by a First Classman–my company commander!
Knocking on the door, I could almost hear my knees knocking at the same time. I was nervous and sweating profusely against the high, stiff color of my parade jacket. What was about to happen? He guessed it couldn’t be any worse than what he had just finished going through the past eleven months.
The door opened and there stood Cadet First Classman Jonathan Cameron Shine, five gold stripes on his full dress coat, his red officer’s sash neatly tied around his waist and his gleaming saber ready at his left side.
“Come in Cadet Willey. I’m sure you are wondering why I called you here. Well, you are surely aware of the tradition of upperclassmen recognizing plebes on graduation day. It symbolizes the break from the tough plebe year to the ranks of the upperclass. It involves shaking the plebe’s hand and calling him by his first name.”
Jon then thrust his calloused gymnast’s hand toward mine and said, “Hi Barry, I’m Jon.” Hesitating but happy and relieved, I raised his right hand and firmly grasped Jon’s and our eyes met and a bond was formed that day that only the few who have experienced it can comprehend.
But that wasn’t the end of the Special Inspection. Jon then opened and held out his left hand, which had been grasping a dulled-silver dollar, a rather old vintage coin that held some significance to Jon. He explained its significance to me.
Jon had received the silver dollar from a graduating cadet when he was a Plebe, at a similar recognition. The tradition behind the coin transfer was this. The coin was to be given to a cadet who exemplified Christian character and leadership during his first year at West Point. It symbolized the faithfulness of a generation of men who were willing to risk ridicule and perhaps spiritual persecution while living a godly life as a cadet.
Being recognized not only as an upperclassman, but as a spiritual leader with responsibilities to the Lord and to his fellow cadets was a distinct honor…and an awesome charge. I felt a deep awe at this nod to my potential as a spiritual leader and a little bit of trepidation, hoping and praying that I could live up to the expectations inherent in this tradition. One more handshake and a heartfelt, manly hug sealed our friendship and bond as brothers in arms and brothers in faith.
Jon left that evening for his home in Pleasantville, N.Y. and a well-earned respite before the requisite military schools and training that would prepare him for a combat tour in Vietnam. 2nd Lieutenant Jon Shine, who had taken the oath of allegiance to support and defend the Constitution as a commissioned officer early that day, was now ready for the toughest challenges of his life. They would soon be upon him.
Marriage and Preparation for Combat
Jon married Gail while a student at the Infantry Officer’s Basic Course and they headed to Colorado for a short stint before he deployed to Vietnam. A good friend of Gail and Jon and former Executive Secretary of the Officer’s Christian Fellowship (OCF), Paul Pettijohn remembers some quality time with the two of them while they vacationed at the OCF’s Colorado retreat center, Spring Canyon, located a couple of hours from Fort Carson. “I vividly remember going to their chalet to talk with them about getting ready to be apart and to prepare for his going into harm’s way. Jon was very calm (author’s note: this calmness will manifest itself again in an amazing way later in Jon’s story) and he was spiritually ready. He was at peace with the task that was before him. The three of us talked about the role of the Word of God in our lives and ended up having a very meaningful prayer time together.”
Paul also remembered a Scripture verse that Jon sent him in a letter from Vietnam in which Jon shared what became Jon and Gail’s favorite verse–Romans chapter 8, verse 28: And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to those who are called according to His purpose (the verse on the plaque at Fort Shine).
“I remember as if it were yesterday,” Paul recalled. “I felt the power and significance of what Jon was writing me. 2LT Jonathan Shine, U.S. Army, was saying in what proved to be his last letter to me, ‘no matter what happens in Vietnam, I know it is going to work together for good.’ What a powerful and profound application of God’s Word by a young officer who was going into his first round of combat!”
While difficult decisions for young lieutenants at Fort Carson and elsewhere were few, Jon, nevertheless, experienced some kind of serious dilemma during that time at Carson.
While we do not know exactly what Jon faced, it tore at him and he shared it with Gail. Gail swore to Jon then that she would never reveal the dilemma’s details to anyone. “It was very painful for him,” Gail shared many years later. “He told me not to tell anyone. And it would be wrong for me to share (the details) now. It involves other people and somebody who was involved might read this and be hurt by it.” Thirty-two years later, she kept her promise.
We only know that it was extremely serious and caused Jon no small amount of anguish. It could have been an attempt by a superior officer to test Jon’s personal and professional honor code.
Perhaps pressure to “fudge” the monthly Unit Status Report that reflected the readiness status of the unit and could get a commander fired if it weren’t up to par. It could have been a valued subordinate caught breaking a regulation or committing a serious breach of ethics and forcing his platoon leader to make a tough disciplinary call.
It could have been a peer, committing an indiscretion and forcing Jon to either turn him in or turn the other way. Gail classified it as an “ethical dilemma that he had to confront.”
Jon had been through some tough times before and knew it would not be an easy choice to make. When he finally made up his mind and chose a course of action, it evoked the following comment from Gail:
“Despite his rank, he stood his ground and said he would not compromise his principles. He simply couldn’t do that. There was no question (about it)…he would not be compromising.
A higher ranked officer said, ‘I hope you keep your high principles, Lieutenant Shine. I doubt it, but I hope so.'”
The Shines’ time at Fort Carson was over before they felt they were settled as a new Army couple. Time was now nearer their point of separation than they would like to admit. Orders were in hand for the Jungle Operations Training Center in the Panama Canal Zone.
While not Vietnam, it was the next best thing for replicating the rigors of maneuvering and fighting in the complex terrain such as they would likely find in Vietnam.
Jon left for Panama on August 15, 1970 and completed the two-week training scenario at the Army’s Jungle Operations Course on the 29th. Next stop–South Vietnam.
Jon Shine arrived in South Vietnam in August of 1970. He had been in combat operations for only a few weeks when he wrote Al, his older brother, about a desire he felt to simply look out for the men in his platoon and keep them from becoming casualties as the politicians back home sorted out the U.S. policy toward Vietnam, the President prepared to start bringing troops home and many back home protested the war in America’s streets.
He knew that wasn’t how things were supposed to be but was being honest with Al.
When Al received Jon’s letter he immediately penned a reply that mildly scolded Jon and lovingly but directly charged him with the firm responsibility of taking the fight aggressively to the enemy.
Jon never received Al’s letter. But he really didn’t need it. He knew in his heart what he had to do…
…Sergeant Joe Christopher left his four-man reconnaissance element at a concealed location, only yards from eight North Vietnamese Army regulars, their radio blaring, and the soldiers oblivious to the U.S. infantrymen nearby. M-60 machinegunner Carl Nichols got specific instructions from Christopher not to fire unless it was absolutely necessary. Christopher then rejoined his main element, led by Sergeant Greg Yahn, about 30 to 40 meters away. At the same time, Lieutenant Jon Shine, leading the Third Platoon, in Charlie Company, 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment (The Manchus), operating in two groups on this mission, also linked up with Sgt. Yahn when he heard about the enemy sighting. The men quickly discussed in low voices how they should handle the enemy force.
A typical tactic for this kind of contact was to pull back a safe distance and call in artillery, helicopter gunships, and jets to unload their ordnance on the unsuspecting enemy. Jon Shine’s small force could certainly count on the help of their higher headquarters’ arsenal to cover their actions.
Another possibility was a frontal assault, achieving shock action and hopefully a quick, decisive victory, but a very risky venture with high probability of casualties.
A third course of action involved an aggressive attack on their flank, thereby gaining some measure of surprise and less likely to result in serious casualties.
RAT-TAT-TAT-TAT-TAT-TAT…the unmistakable sound of the infantry grunt’s best friend in battle-the M60 machine gun!
Something must have happened to cause Nichols to fire off a burst of thirty rounds. No more discussions of options. It was now time for action. Jon called out to his men as he literally lurched toward the enemy’s flank, leading the rest of the platoon in this gutsy move.
In pursuing the smaller enemy unit, however, they soon discovered they had run into that unit’s larger force, a huge enemy bunker complex with what was later determined was about 100 NVA Regulars and two 30-caliber machineguns trained on them.
The action quickly turned into a larger fire-fight in which the 3rd squadron of the 11th ACR eventually became decisively engaged.
The ground trembled and opened in wide gaping holes as North Vietnamese Army mortar rounds landed nearby the men of Jon’s platoon. The deadly projectiles, lobbed with precision accuracy from perhaps one terrain feature away, were joined by rocket-propelled grenades, arcing into their oblong piece of ground, exploding into hundreds of molten-hot fragments. Man-sized chunks of mud rose from the earth like geysers each time a round landed. NVA 30 mm machine guns and AK-47 assault rifles joined the cacophony that became a roar in the ears of Jon and his soldiers. Sgt. Greg Yahn shared with me his memories of that battle:
“We had just decided on a compromise of Lt. Shine taking a flanking position, when the firing started. The Lt. ran forward, with Sgt. Roberts following, towards his platoon, and leading them on a flanking position from where our main group was set.
The jungle was thick, from anywhere just off the path, and made visibility of the enemy past 10 meters impossible to detect without observing muzzle flash.
As he rallied his troops to move to our right, they maybe made about fifty yards progress, when he was cut down by machine gun fire.”
Rob “Doc” Jackson, Jon’s platoon medic–and now a pastor in Maine–unhesitatingly moved to the front of the column when word came to him that casualties had been sustained.
He began intently working on Sgt. Joe Roberts, one of Jon’s squad leaders, as Jon lay five feet away. Both men were seriously wounded from the initial enemy fire. Roberts had taken two bullets in the chest and Doc feverishly tried to stop the flow of blood, deal with the “sucking chest wound” that comes from penetrations of the lungs and treat for shock.
Oblivious to the enemy fire all around him, Doc knew his lieutenant was either wounded or dead nearby. At this point, Rob “Doc” Jackson’s remembrances are powerful:
“As I was trying to bandage his wounds and assess what was appropriate to do next, I heard a voice just a few feet to Robert’s left. I realize all this was happening in intermittent hails of fire like torrents, but somehow I could hear Jon very clearly. It was for me a very special moment, it was holy, and I realized it even then.
I had just been saying the name of Jesus out loud, over and over as I worked on Roberts, and I hear Jon say, ‘Doc, I’ve been hit in the head but I’m OK. Just throw me some bandages and I’ll stop the bleeding until you finish with Roberts and get back.’ That’s very close to verbatim.
Over the years I’ve told the story many time and I always include how remarkably composed he was… It wasn’t until I met you, Barry, that I understood how he could be so calm, so secure, it was of course Christ in him the hope of glory.
What a privilege to be there with him even for those few moments. I threw him the bandages and while I was dragging Roberts back he was killed and I never saw him again. Lewis Lesnikowski and Gene Hess both got up to him or close but he was gone home and in the Savior’s presence, as we labored on.”
From Jon’s life story, we now know of his propensity to sacrificial living and action when others are involved. He constantly chose the harder, more risky, more dangerous “right” rather than the much easier “wrong” when confronted with such dilemmas.
We have seen that he moved–yes, bolted–into action, without any hesitation, toward the enemy that was engaging and threatening his small band of soldiers, 75 yards from his platoon position.
He could have tried to call in artillery and jets to bomb the enemy force but his troops were too close and that would take too long and even now they were engaged in a life-or-death struggle at close quarters.