James S. Shuster was born in 1922 and raised in the small Allegheny River town of Freeport, PA. During the Great Depression, Jim’s father worked for the railroad. It was good and steady work in tough times, Jim recalls. “My Dad and his friends with seniority would get together and give the younger guys with families some of their work days,” he says proudly. “Can you imagine people doing that today?”
Jim’s father died of kidney disease in the same year as the Great Flood of 1936, when 9 feet of water submerged their small wooden home along Water St. Despite family hardships, Jim managed to attend two years of engineering school after graduating high school in 1940. With his technical training he landed a crucial job with the Scaife Company, along with a permanent deferment from the war—if he wanted it. But Jim wanted to serve; it was his duty.
Flying had always been in Jim’s blood. As a boy he had a room full of airplane models. So after enlisting in the Army Air Corps, Jim spent several months in Kentucky, Alabama, Florida, and Arkansas earning his pilot’s wings. As much as he always wanted to fly something small and fast, he was given command of an aircraft that was heavy and slow–the B-24 Liberator—a ship in which he would eventually fly 51 combat sorties with the 455th Bomb Group.
The B-24 was a solid aircraft that cruised at 28,000 feet. It sure could take a pounding. Its big four engines turned over 1,400 horsepower on takeoff, Jim recalls. Some airmen were fond of saying that Henry Ford made them, but Ploesti broke ’em. Yet, it was in The Pittsburgh Babe that Jim survived the infamous Allied bombing raids on the Nazi oil fields.
And there were so many other missions throughout Europe that he made it through, Jim recalls, including three top secret flights and an unforgettable raid on Athens, Greece. The Germans were trying to flee from the invading Soviets, Jim says painfully, and we dropped anti-personnel bombs on them. “We killed so many with those bombs. I hated that. It didn’t appeal to me.”
The law of averages might have caught up with Lt. Shuster, as he expected it to, but he reached his mission quota in 1944. “With every mission I thought my time would be up. My luck had to run out sometime,” he wonders aloud. “But it didn’t.” In part, it was because of the many red tailed Tuskegee fighter escorts who routinly fended off the German “bandits” before they could reach Jim’s vulnerable formation. They were terrific flyers, Jim recalls with admiration and gratitude.
Lt. Shuster is a 2006 member of the distinguished Hall of Valor at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum. The Hall of Valor was created in 1963 to honor Pennsylvania veterans, living and deceased, for valor “above and beyond the call of duty” while in action against the enemy. To be eligible for induction, recipients must have at least The Congressional Medal of Honor, The Kearny Cross, Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross, Air Force Cross, Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross or Soldier’s Medal.
Mr. Shuster holds a Distinguished Flying Cross—sometimes known among airmen as The Lucky Bastard Ribbon—as well as the Air Medal with three Oak Leaf clusters.
On January 28, 2012, the Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh Transmedia Oral History Initiative visited with James Shuster at his home in Carnegie, Pennsylvania to speak with him about his WW II experiences as a B-24 pilot. VVoP volunteer Richard Voelker assisted in the production of the interview, which was recorded in both audio and video formats. Historian Todd DePastino conducted the interview.
In My Own Words
“We faced death every time we flew,” says Jim Shuster, certain that the law of averages would catch up with him someday. But it never did. Luck and good fortune were with him–certainly during the war, but also during his childhood and post-war years. At age 89 Jim reflects, “My life has been blessed.”
Listen to Jim’s conversation with Todd DePastino, as he tells us his story–in his own words–by way of our full audio interview here, or the video interview below.
The Final Story
James S. Shuster Sr., 89, of Pittsburgh passed away peacefully at 8:45 a.m. April 24, 2012 at VNA Inpatient Hospice in Butler. He is formerly of Allegheny Township. James was born in Freeport on Oct. 21, 1922. He was the son of the late Helen (Baird) and Edgar T. Shuster Sr. James is the widower of Ruth E. (Gariepy) Shuster who passed away in 1985.
He served in the U.S. Army Air Force as a first lieutenant pilot during World War II. After his service to his country, Jim went to work for a number of years as a mechanical draftsman for Warnick Engineering in Butler. Jim then took a job as a mechanical engineer with PPG Industries in Creighton.
Mr. Shuster piloted 51 missions in his Consolidated B-24 Liberator over the skies of Europe during World War II. He received his Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters and the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions. In 2006, Jim was inducted into the Hall of Valor at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Pittsburgh.
Jim was a member of the United Presbyterian Church of Freeport. He was an avid arrowhead hunter and enjoyed learning about local history. He also enjoyed golfing, hunting, woodworking and traveling.
Mr. Shuster is survived by his three children, son, James S. (Pam) Shuster Jr. of Butler Township and daughters, Lee Anne (Frank) Palermo of Allegheny Township and Ruth (Fred) Hoculock of Apollo. He also is survived by his five grandsons and two great-grandsons.
Jim was preceded in death by his brother, Edgar T. “Gigs” Shuster Jr. and his four sisters, Helen Humphreys, Virginia Gritzan, Grace Moore and Betty Koestline. He also was preceded in death by his friend and companion, Elizabeth Glance.
At Mr. Shuster’s request there will be no public visitation. A memorial service will be at the United Presbyterian Church of Freeport, 411 High St., Freeport, at 11 a.m. Saturday, May 19, 2012, with the Rev. Dr. Paige L. D. Creach officiating. The burial will be at Greenwood Memorial Park, Lower Burrell.
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the United Presbyterian Church of Freeport, 411 High St., Freeport, PA 16229. Arrangements are entrusted to Redmond Funeral Home, Freeport.
Read James O’Tool’s narrative obituary in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: James S Shuster: WWII Bomber Pilot Was Student of History.