Easy Company Paratrooper Shares His Story

I have conducted hundreds of interviews with veterans
and people of interest in aviation and history. So, why was I nervous for this
one? I was about to call Col. Ed Shames and talk with him. He is one of the
real-deal, 101st Airborne paratroopers made famous as a member of Easy Company,
the “Band of Brothers.” This man had jumped into Normandy on D-Day, fought at
Market Garden, survived the Battle of the Bulge, liberated a concentration
camp, took Hitler’s Eagles Nest, and then helped set free the rest of Europe.
What’s to be nervous about, right?

All the nerves in the world were immediately set aside
once we started talking. Ed’s very friendly demeanor puts one at ease. As we
started to talk, he wanted one thing out upfront. “I’m no hero. I was just an
ordinary soldier. I was good, but I was not the best. However, I had the best
around me.”

In December 1941, Ed was in Hamilton, Ontario. “We were
joining the RCAF. We were too young to join the United States Army Air Corps,
so we went north. We were in a hotel for two weeks. My two friends and I had
just finished all of our testing and exams on Friday the 5th. We were to be
commissioned on Monday the 8th of December.”

Sunday morning around 11 a.m. found Ed listening to
Duke Ellington on the radio. Suddenly, a bulletin announced the Japanese had attacked
Pearl Harbor. “The three of us knew it was a game changer,” he said. “Being our
country was now going to war, we wanted to fight for the U.S. When we reported
to the RCAF on Monday, they already knew. They had the paperwork ready for us
to go home.”

Once home, Ed did not have a plan as to which branch to
join, but he knew he wanted to join and not be drafted.  He took a ferry to Fort Monroe where the Army
Operations Center was located. There he found information on a new experimental
unit that was being organized: the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment.

“They were looking for the best,” he said. “And that is
who I wanted to go to war with if I was going. Plus they paid you an extra $50!”
They issued him a test and said, “If you can pass this test, you can pass any
test.” He came through with flying colors.

Next, they told Ed his mother would have to sign for
him and handed him a form. His mother was at home. “They asked me if she was with
me. I said she was out in the car. They said, ‘OK have her sign that and you
are set.’” He went outside, signed the form himself, and returned.  “Years later I found out most of the men did
the same thing!”

From there it was off to Fort Lee. “I was there for
three days when they told me I was to go catch a train to Toccoa, Georgia. I
had never heard of it! Someone told me there was a guy in our unit from
Georgia. I hunted him out and asked what it was like there. He just laughed and
said that you can’t get there from here!”

Once there, Ed found that training in Toccoa was not
going to be easy. “Toccoa was a real bitch,” he said. “No unit today can match
the training we had. Not the Navy Seals or Special Forces. We had 7,000 men
qualify to join. 2,500 graduated.”  Examples
of some of the training included a 149-mile march with full gear, including
weapons, which meant Ed had to carry a .30 caliber machine gun. “We marched
from Atlanta to Fort Benning. If you fell behind, you were out.”

Then there was Currahee Mountain. Currahee is an Indian
word meaning “stands alone.” Not far from the camp, this mountain rises up to
1,735 feet. The trail to the top is 3 miles up and 3 miles back. “I used to run
Currahee three times a week. I got so sick of it,” he said. “I swore I never
wanted to see that mountain again.”

Their leader in training was a controversial officer by
the name of Herbert M. Sobel. His training was very tough and some felt he was
out of line or going too far. Ed felt different. “Col. Sobel was one of the
best. Yes, he could be mean, but he was trying to make us tough.

“In Normandy we had heavy losses. After just the first
night, we lost 35 percent of our officers and 30 percent of our enlisted men.
We were in a jam because we couldn’t take ordinary soldiers as replacements.
They just didn’t have the training we did. Col. Sink saw this and decided he
needed to start a jump school in England. If you start a school you want the
best, right? Well, that was Col. Sobel. So, he was sent to run the jump school.”

Ed spent his training at Toccoa learning how to handle
his weapon, pack his parachute and, of course, proper techniques for jumping
from a C-47. Through a chance inspection by Lt. Col. Wolverton, he was made the
battalion operations officer, or S3. This set the stage for Ed to be the person
who created the sand tables the men would study in Normandy for that fateful
jump into history.

In the fall of 1943, the 506th shipped to England. Each
man wore the famous Screaming Eagle of the 101st Airborne on their shoulder. “We
were very proud to wear that patch. Everyone knew what it was throughout the
war, even when we would be on leave in Paris. If someone saw that patch, they
had a certain level of respect for it.”  As
they left New York on the troop ship Samaria they passed by the Statue of
Liberty. Ed hoped he’d get to see it again someday.

Through the next few months in England, there would be
a series of training and dress rehearsals. Then, at the very end of May, they
moved to the marshalling area near an airfield. This was it. No dress rehearsal
this time. Ed and his men started building the sand tables. These were scaled-down
models of the drop zones and target areas used to brief the men. On these
tables was a flag and note on the church steeple in the town of Carentan. The
note said, “AVOID AT ALL COSTS!”  This is
where they suspected a division of German soldiers to be headquartered. Their
target was the Douve River outside of Carentan. Once there, they were to defend
a bridge. As they were being assigned their aircraft for the jump, Lt. Col.
Wolverton had to make a slight change.

“I usually was in the seat next to him,” Ed said. “This
time there was a British reporter who was going along. So, he was taking my
seat and I had to go on another airplane. It was pretty confusing for a few
minutes as no one could tell me which plane I was supposed to go on. Eventually
I found it. The evening of June 5 would see nearly 50 C-47s lift off from our
airfield and head toward their targets. This is what the months of training had
been building for, to begin the final push to free Europe.”

Ed said the engines and wind noise in the C-47s made
communication on board all but impossible. After what seemed like forever, the airplanes
started to throttle back. This meant they were close to their target. A red
light in the troop bay turned on. This meant stand up, hook up your line, and
prepare to jump. After equipment checks, the men were ready. Enemy
anti-aircraft fire could be seen outside lighting up the sky. One airplane was
hit and was seen going down. Finally, the green light! The men bravely exited
the aircraft into history.

As they were exiting their aircraft, the soldier in
front of Shames fell. It took a moment for him to get up and get to the door.
The delay would mean that their group would be spread out more. Although the
descent down was brief, it was one to remember as Shames saw tracers all around

Shames landed in a herd of cows at a Gloria dairy
factory. He had landed alone and not far from the city of Carentan, the
suspected German headquarters the sand tables said to avoid at all costs.
Shames was happy that the cows mooing would cover his sounds a bit. He
immediately assembled his rifle. Using just dead reckoning and a compass, he
started to get his bearings. Eventually he met up with others from various
units. “There were about four of us together and none of us had seen anyone
from the lead plane yet.”

While in combat at the Douve River bridge, Shames got a
mortar tube. This tube needed a base to be used and the base was missing. Using
his foot as a base to steady the tube, they began to fire shells at the enemy
until the tube buried itself in the ground! Through the night, and next day,
they held the bridge. As the day went on, they kept trying to find the men from
their lead plane. No one seemed to know anything about them. A few days later
Ed was informed that Wolverton’s entire airplane was listed as missing in
action and presumed lost. Later he found that the men on that airplane had
landed in a German-held town and most were killed, including Wolverton.

For his action at the bridge, and in the battle for
Carentan, Shames would receive a battlefield commission. This was the first one
awarded in the regiment and in Normandy. 
“Usually with a commission you have to leave the unit. General Taylor
waived this on my behalf. When I thanked him, he said he didn’t do me any
favors. He said officers won’t like you and neither will the enlisted men.”

Shames went on to lead the 3rd platoon of Easy Company
and served through the war with them, starting with Operation Market Garden in
Holland.  The next battle was in Belgium,
the Battle of the Bulge. When asked about the Bulge, he just chuckled and said,
“It was cold.”

“I was on a truck going to France on leave,” he said. “We
were 10 miles outside of camp when an MP stopped us. We had no idea what we
were going into.” What Ed and his men were going into would become the largest
engagement the U.S. Army has ever fought. The Battle of the Bulge took place
near Bastogne, mainly in the woods, with an underequipped U.S. force. They had
no winter clothing, were short on ammunition, and it was one of the worst
winters the area had ever seen. Despite all of these odds against them, they
held their position. “God, it was miserable,” Shames recalls. “The lines were
always shifting around. It was hard to know where it even was sometimes.”

After surviving the Bulge, they had a short time to
recover and then continued across Europe. They liberated a concentration camp,
which Shames has a hard time talking about because of his heritage and the
sights seen there. They then took on the Eagles Nest, Adolf Hitler’s personal
retreat in the Alps. Once there he scored a great souvenir: a bottle of Hitler’s
cognac, which he brought home to the U.S. The bottle even has Hitler’s initials
on it.

Ed Shames has led an amazing life, and he lives each day to its fullest. He attends EAA AirVenture, and at the age of 98 mastered the use of video conferencing. He’s truly an inspirational man. When looking back on his career, he is most proud of the fact that his platoon brought more men home than any other, especially since his was a patrol platoon. “I am sure there were times that they didn’t like me, but I brought them home.”

I always ask if people would like to leave a word of
advice to younger generations. These were his: “The idea that we are the
greatest generation is nonsense. There are amazing people in these younger
generations as well. They are every bit as good as we were.”  I want to personally thank Jeff Smoot and Bill Fischer for the chance to
talk to this legend.  I will forever be
thankful for the opportunity to talk with such inspirational and larger-than-life
people such as Col. Ed Shames.

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