Pictured: Colonel Ed D. Shames, YouTube video: Profile in Valor: Colonel Ed Shames, Used for non-profit and educational purposes under YouTube’s fair use rule. (Source: YouTube: American Veterans Center)
Written by: Machla Abramovitz, (Published by Mishpacha)
Second Lieutenant Edward Shames, age 92, has the voice and demeanor of a man ten years younger. Speaking from his home in Virginia Beach, Virginia, he comes across as personable, straightforward, funny, and somewhat self-effacing. “I’m no hero,” he insists. “I did a job that I was trained to do and I did it well because I was trained to do it well.”
Born in Norfolk, he was one of an elite group of paratroopers that served with the 3rd and later 2nd Battalion of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR) of the 101st Airborne. Both these battalions distinguished themselves on D-day and throughout World War II. Their astonishing exploits are recounted in Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers, which was the basis of an HBO series by that name. The 3rd Battalion’s exploits are also explored in Ian Leonard Gardner and Roger John Day’s Today We Die as Men. Shames features prominently in both books.
Jewish, and of Russian origin, he was the youngest of four children raised by a single mother after his father died. His mother raised him on strict principles: Be respectful of others, helpful, honest, and the best, no matter what the task, at everything you undertake. He lived by these principles. Married for 68 years, he has two sons – one an attorney and the other an optometrist, both of whom served in the US Army – as well as many grandchildren.
He is somewhat elusive about what he’s done since retiring from combat. He’s been back to Germany many times and to the Middle East 94 times. He sees himself as a taskmaster, hates slackers, and is a perfectionist. “I’ve obviously never attained perfection. But I strive for it,” he says.
Shames saw lots of combat while serving in the US military. His most deadly and brutal challenges, though, took place 70 years ago on the coast of Normandy on D-day and on the weeks that followed, when the 506th PIR went head-to-head with the Germans at the Battle of Bloody Gully. He recounts what it was like to live through those critical, bloody days, which contributed to the Allied victory in World War II.
D-day almost never happened. It hinged on one long-term weather forecast. The weather over the English Channel and in the skies of Normandy was so bad that it would have been impossible for the Allies to breach the European continent. Weather radar indicated only one day – June 6, 1944 – when it would slightly improve. None of us knew that at the time. All we knew was that we would be jumping into the fray, but had no idea the day or the time. We only found that out while stationed in Exeter, England, three days before we actually jumped.
I was 21 years old then and raring to go. The job of the 3rd Battalion Airborne Division was to seize key bridges and crossings to prevent the Germans from coming to the beaches where the British, Canadian, and American forces were landing. Our mission was to give them a chance to get a foothold onto the continent of Europe. That’s why it was important we get there first.
The plan was to fly us over on the 4th and for us to jump into Normandy on the 5th. That day, we anxiously waited on the planes, but the weather was so bad that they had to call it off. The next afternoon we were back inside and, at midnight, took off for Normandy. There were about 4,000 of us that left hat night, in three separate shifts spaced at specific time intervals. In all, 30,000 paratroopers would jump into Normandy.
We had been well trained. The 506th Airborne was not just any unit; it was the finest unit that was ever assembled in the US military and it saw the most combat of any of them. The 406th was an elite experimental unit that flew in C-47 transport planes and dropped soldiers into hostile territory. We were volunteers trained at Camp Toccoa, Georgia, as no other unit was ever trained – before or since. It was inhumane what they put us through. Our commander, First Lieutenant Herbert Sobel, had us do daily three-hour runs up and down Mount Currahee. We marched 149 miles in three days. Our obstacle course was called the “death trap.” Young men – I was 19 then – broke bones in the process. Even the Israelis aren’t that hard on their soldiers, though they are probably the best army in the world. I know because I’ve trained with them. The training made us tough. But I was born tough. My father died when I was five years old and to get to cheder[Hebrew school] I had to walk though tough neighborhoods. I was also the toughest Jew Boy in the battalion. None of the anti-Semites there messed with me.
Still, this would be my first jump into enemy territory. As confident as I was in my capabilities, I was also scared to death. The flight was choppy. To keep off the German radar, the panther flew at only 500 feet altitude. Once we were over the water, all lights, except for the formation ones, were turned off. It was dead black.
Once over the designated drop point, we lined up to make our ump. In the rush out, the man in front of me slipped on the floor. He was one of our mortar men – his tube was strapped across his shoulders. I was carrying maps, grenades, landmines, my rifle, ammunition, clothes, and gas masks – about 90- pounds of weight on my back. By the time I helped pick him up, we had passed the point.
We jumped into fireworks. German bullets were singeing our parachutes. I was scared stiff. The noise was deafening. A lot of people got killed. Maybe I was praying at the right place and time. All I wanted was to get onto the ground. When I landed, I found myself in an open field with cows. I found out later that I’d landed at the Carnation Milk Plant near Carentan, a town I had hoped to avoid at all costs. This was where the Hermann Goering Armor Brigade was headquartered. These cows perhaps saved my life because they made enough noise that the Germans didn’t hear me land.
I was alone. Al the men had been scattered about. That wasn’t supposed to happen. The Germans thought that 200,000 of us had dropped into their midst and quickly began sending their reserves that were stationed at Calais, in northern France, down to Normandy. I was the operations sergeant of my unit and I had fabricated the “sand tables” of the area back in England. These are living maps of what you are supposed to see on the ground: They are made of sand, mud, sticks, and rocks. It was my job to brief the entire battalion as to where we were once we regrouped into fighting units. But even with a pretty precise knowledge of the terrain, it took me about ten minutes to figure out where I was and the direction I was supposed to go. Our immediate objective was to block two bridges crossing the Douve River, about five miles from Utah Beach, where American troops were landing.
I made my way through the open fields. There was gunfire all around. We’d been given clickers – recognition devices that you hold between your thumb and your forefinger. I’d go click-click-click, and others would answer click. It’s like someone whistling – loud, but not too loud. I rounded up about 18 men and they followed me like ducklings. Along the way, we hit quite a few Germans. One of them blew off a bit of my nose. I was bleeding, but thank God, it was no big deal. I’d be wounded four times during the course of the war and would later get three Purple Hearts. That was a big deal.
It was black and noisy and we were terrified. I was determined to get us to the bridges, which I did. But, instead of the 640 men we should have had, there were 160 men to hold the Germans off. We didn’t know it at the time, but hundreds of paratroopers had perished. Some had drowned, weighed down by their backpacks. German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel anticipated a possible invasion from the sea and ordered his troops to flood hundreds of square miles of fields by damming two major Normandy Rivers. Others had crashed on impact when their parachutes didn’t have time to open, and still, others died when their planes came under machine-gun fire. In all, one in five paratroopers either died or was wounded.
We immediately organized a defensive position to prevent German tanks from crossing the river. Bullets were flying everywhere. It wasn’t only the Germans we feared, but also the Americans. Our unit was scattered. Our walkie-talkies weren’t transmitting so we lost communication with other units. We were isolated. The US Army Air Force just assumed that we were a lost battalion and that the bridges were open; their default plan dictated destroying the bridges under those circumstances. Thunderbolts were sent to blow them up. They sprayed us four or five times.
At one point, I jumped into a hole to get out of the way of the machine-gun fire, straight onto Chaplain McGee’s shoulders. I yelled to him that I had orange-smoke grenades and panels. These were indicators that we were Americans. I jumped out, grabbed him, and gave him the panels to assemble. When the pilots saw the panels of orange smoke, they took off.
I was the only one with a somewhat functioning walkie-talkie. By fluke, it picked up the BBC World Services that were beamed of ships in the Channel. That’s how we knew we were winning. What we didn’t know was at what price. At Omaha Beach that was close to Utah Beach, Allied troops had been slaughtered. The advantage that the Allies gained by luring the Germany army to Pas de Calais was practically wiped out by Rommel, the German’s master strategist. Months before, the Allies had assembled a fake army base complete with inflatable tanks and landing gear at the base of the English Channel across from Calais. Playing along, General George S. Patton paid a number of high-level visits. The Germans were fooled and sent most of their troops there, in anticipation of an imminent invasion.
Rommel, meanwhile, understood that the shores of Normandy were vulnerable. He reinforced the open beaches with barbed wire and land mines. Additionally, there were concrete barracks that overlooked the beaches; German gunmen were stationed there. They bore German-invented machine guns – MG 23s that fired 25 bullets a second directed at advancing troops. Adding to the horrors, a series of calamities occurred. The Allies’ secret weapon, its DD tanks – tanks that could float – drowned. The rough seas caused water to penetrate their canvas covers. As well, bomber planes, afraid of accidentally hitting their own ships, waited too long to fire. They missed their targets and didn’t take out any Germans or weapons. Many say this was D-day’s greatest failure. Within hours, the narrow strip of beach was littered with human carnage. It would take hours for the Allies to break through, and only from sheer determination and bravery.
Thank God, we didn’t know any of that. We had enough on our plates. Our commander, Lieutenant Colonel Robert L. Wolverton, had been killed, and just a handful of us held off the Germans on our own, which we managed to do for three days. We slept on the ground … if you can call it sleep. It’s hard to sleep with bullets flying all around you. The Germans were fighting to get over the bridges, but we couldn’t let that happen. We knew how important our mission was. Rommel had stated that if the Allies got hold of the beaches, the war would be lost for them. At the end of three days, another unit took over. By then, about 160 of us were either killed or wounded.
It wasn’t over yet for us. We moved inland to lick our wounds and regroup. We became a unit again. We connected with hundreds of reinforcements that were flown in on gliders. By then, most of the German ground troops were already in Normandy. One of our goals was to push them out of Carentan. This was a key town. It linked Utah and Omaha Beach and could provide us with a supply base for further attacks inwards. For these reasons, the Germans were determined to hold on to that town and push us into the sea. It was a tough battle, but we finally succeeded in hitting its rear guard and defeating it soundly.
The next day, June 13, proved a make-it-or-break-it day. Now under the command of Colonel Robert F. Sink, our unit was ordered to push forward, starting at 4 a.m. Unknown to me, the Germans were given identical orders. We met head-to-head. This battle would be called the Battle of the Bloody Gully. June 13th was significant to me for another reason. It was my birthday. In my mind’s eye, I could read the epithet, “Born June 13th; Died June 13th.” That was the toughest day I ever spent because that was the roughest battle of the entire war.
The sky was clear, but our advance was blocked by hedgerows, rows of tightly spaced shrubs, like fences that littered the countryside. The SS troops attacked with everything they had; assault rifles and tanks. The 506th’s left flank took a real beating and fell back. I immediately brought this to Colonel Sink’s attention. On our end, we had everything going at once; artillery; ground forces, airplanes. It was mayhem. It was all open space with nowhere to hide. Thank God, I wasn’t hit. My good friend, who was standing to my left, was hit. I was sure he was dead. Two months later, I was shocked and gratified to see him back in England, alive and well. It wasn’t until the 2nd Armored Division arrived that the German assault was repelled. If we hadn’t prevailed that day, we would still be out there fighting. That’s how important that battle was. The liberation of Western Europe depended on its success.
June 13 was also significant to me for another reason. It was the day Colonel Sink called me into his office and confirmed what I already knew – that I was made a second lieutenant. I had just turned 22 and was the first enlisted man from the 506th to receive a battlefield commission. My appointment was officially confirmed in writing when I got back to England. It was some birthday present.
I saw a lot more combat. When I returned to England, I joined Easy Company. Together, we helped liberate parts of Holland and rescued 140 British troops from across the Rhine. We also fought in the Battle of the Bulge at Bastogne for 29 days in the bitter cold and without proper clothing. There, as elsewhere, the weather was more brutal than the enemy.
But what was even more brutal is what I witnessed at the War’s end. On our way to Salisbury, Austria, we came upon two sites that no human being should ever have to see or witness. The first was the prison in Lindsborg, Germany, wherein 1924, Hitler wrote Mein Kampf. Boxcars were filled with human bodies – most dead, but some alive. This, though, was nothing compared to what still lay ahead. I was the first American to walk into the Dachau concentration camp. I didn’t help liberate anybody; the camp was open when I got there. The Germans were gone. Had they been there, I would have shot every one of them personally. The foul smell of death; boxcars filled with human corpses; skeletal survivors who couldn’t talk and could barely walk. What I saw there has haunted me every night in my sleep for the last 69 years. I spoke to a lot of rabbis – I thought I was going crazy. But, I’d never spoken publicly about this, including to my family. That is, until three years ago when I addressed a gathering on Yom HaShoah in Chandler, Arizona, and, again, last year.
On my son’s Bar Mitzvah, we opened a bottle of cognac. The label on the bottle read, “For Hitler’s use only.” This was a bottle I took from Berchtesgaden, Hitler’s Bavarian retreat. We drank it all up. A small victory, indeed.