When Colonel Edward Shames parachuted into Normandy 70 years ago – on June 6, 1944 – the first thing he said was “Moo.”
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That’s because the Jewish 21-year-old from Norfolk Virginia had landed amid a herd of cows at the Carnation Milk factory – miles away from the Utah beach target at the start of the crucial D-Day invasion that would ultimately turn the tides for the Allied Forces and help them win World War II.
“I had no idea where I was. I was scared to death,” recalls the feisty southerner, now a few days shy of his 92nd birthday on June 13 (which, in 1944, he celebrated in the midst of battle, describing it as “the worst day of my life.”)
But his June 6 landing could have been worse. He was actually supposed to be on a different plane. “At the last minute my colonel said to me ‘A naval officer from USS Nevada is taking your place,’ so I got on a different plane. Maybe that was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
The plane he was meant to be on landed in an SS compound. “Had I been with that other plane, I would have been murdered or taken prisoner.”
Instead he found himself with the cows. “It was a holding pen. Normandy had the best cows in the world, and the Germans were making condensed milk and shipping it to Germany. They sure weren’t giving to German Jews.”
Of course at the time of the battle, Shames, like the rest of the world, was not aware exactly what Germany was doing to the Jews, but still, “As far as I was concerned. I was after Mr. Hitler and his bunch of bums. I detested him.”
What was he thinking when he landed on the cows?
“I was thinking about one thing: trying to get to my objective,” says Shames. He and the others in the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment in the 101st Airborne Division (“the finest military unit that has ever been in the United States military”) were meant to defend a number of bridges, preventing the Germans from bringing armor to the beaches before the land forces arrived by sea at 6 A.M., some four hours later.
Shames took a bullet across the bridge of his nose (“Got me a new nose,”) but after taping it up, he moved on to his objective: The Douve River, a 79 kilometer-long river that was the boundary of the allied left flank – the landing forces on and Omaha beaches.
After holding off the Germans for three days, they crossed the river and, on June 10, the Battle of Carentan began. “We got orders to chase the Germans out of Carantan, the town itself, which we did on June 12, and after we chased them out of town, we were told to push them back further, to give the beach forces a little buffer room there.
"June 13, 1944, was a very significant day for me. It was my birthday – and that was the roughest day I ever spent in my life,” he says. “If we had not succeeded, we would still be over there trying to get the Germans out.”
It was also a significant day for Shames, who became the first officer to get a battlefield commission – he became a lieutenant. He wasn’t sworn in until he went back to England, where the army gave him $500 to get a uniform fitted by a Bond Street tailor. They told him to bring back whatever he didn’t spend. “Imagine telling a Jew-boy solider that. You know what I brought them back? My bubbe – you know what a bubbe is? -- my bubbe would have said ‘bubkes.’”
Shames grew up the youngest of four children in a family that belonged to the Orthodox synagogue B’nai Israel, where he attended Hebrew school and was bar mitzvahed.
What was it like to be a Jewish soldier?
“There was plenty of anti-Semitism during the 30s and 40s but I was tough. I was very tough. I didn’t put up with it."
He tells a story about what happened three days before the invasion of Normandy, when, as the battalion operations sergeant, of the battalion, he got up to brief the company which was gathered around the model of the terrain, known as a sand table.
“This is where we’re going – Normandy is our objective," he said. One of the officers, a new lieutenant who didn’t know Shames, said, “My god, I’d much rather be fighting the Jews or the Limeys.”
“When he said that I saw red,” Shames says. “I blurted out – can you listen to a little curse word? Will that embarrass you? – I said to him: ‘You sonuvabitch, if you get between me and a Kraut I’m gonna blow your goddamn brains out.’
Everything was quiet in the room, Shames says. “And he realized that these people knew that I was a Jew – a lot of them probably thought the same thing, that they’d rather fight the Jews, but they wouldn’t say it to me.” The officer also kept his mouth shut.
Shames fought many more battles (including the famous Siege of Bastogne in December 1944 as part of The Battle of the Bulge,) was wounded two more times, and was awarded three Purple Hearts (“big deal,” he says.)
He has a lot of stories: about how he killed Germans (“I detest them with a purple passion. Today if they dropped an atomic bomb on top of them I would go to shul.”); how he took 19 German pistols and used the to barter his way on the trains in hopes of going to fight in the Pacific (he didn’t); how he dislikes the negative portrayal of him in “Band of Brothers,” the 10-part miniseries on World War II based on the 1992 book by Stephen E. Ambrose (“One of the biggest anti-Semites in history. 'Band of Brothers' is garbage.”)
But he’ll never forget going to Dachau and the smell of the bodies. “That was a whole lifetime in two days,” he sighs, but doesn’t want to talk about it beyond that.
“After being in Dachau, I have become in my heart a deist,” say Shames, who has been married 68 years (“I didn’t know what war was until I got married – but I’m still in love”) and has two sons, three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. After World War II, Shames served in the Army Reserve and retired as a colonel. He and his family have visited Israel many times.
“I’m a Jew through and through,” he says. “You couldn’t have a truer Jew than me.”