Ed Shames, of Band of Brothers, First Fight in Normandy.

In the summer of 1942, Ed Shames saw an ad in the Virginia-Pilot: a muscular man with a parachute and a beautiful woman on each arm. The ad was for a new branch of the Army; parachute troops, men who jumped out of airplanes behind enemy lines. The advertisement said only the toughest, fittest and smartest men were needed. Shames decided the poster was describing him and he wanted to fight with men like that by his side. The only problem was that men had to be twenty one years old to join without their parent’s permission and Shames was just nineteen. Shames had lost his father as a boy and his mother was protective of him. He knew she would not give her consent for her son to go to war. So Shames did the only thing he could; he forged his mother’s signature and went off to join the paratroopers.



Ed Shames was the son of David and Sadie Shames, a Jewish family from Norfolk, Virginia. His father died of pneumonia when he was five and Ed Shames was raised by his mother. As a kid, he spent his time bicycling around town with a compass and ruler making maps of the area in his notebook.

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First Lieutenant Ed Shames

 

From his home town in Virginia Beach, Ed Shames went to Camp Toccoa, Georgia. Camp Toccoa was originally named Camp Toombs after Confederate General Robert Toombs but the name was changed to Toccoa after the camp commander noted the irony that recruits, walking on Georgia Highway 12, passed the Toccoa Casket Company then went through a cemetery before they arrived at Camp Toombs.

Ed Shames was assigned to Item Company, 3rd Battalion of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment. For three months, Shames and other trainees marched, raced and drilled in exercises designed to weed out the weak. They ran up and down Mr. Currahee, a three mile high mountain overlooking the camp. In training, Shames impressed the commander of the 3rd Battalion, Lt. Colonel Robert Wolverton with the map making and reading skills he had learned as a boy.  Wolverton made Shames his operations Sergeant.

The 506th commander, Colonel Robert Sink read a Readers Digest article about the Imperial Japanese Army marching over one hundred and thirty miles in 4 days and decided his regiment could do better. 3rd Battalion was ordered to take the train to Atlanta and then march to Fort Benning in full combat gear in less than four days. During the march, Shames and some friends bought high proof whiskey at a local store to fight the pain and fatigue. Drunk, they made noise and carried on until a Lieutenant found them and asked if they had been drinking. The officer refused to believe their claims of sobriety and ordered them to share their liquor.



The march of the 506th made headlines in Georgia. Local townspeople lined the way to Fort Benning to welcome them. A half mile from the fort, the men were ordered to run the rest of the way. The 3rd Battalion entered Fort Benning to cheering civilians and where met by a sign inside the gate which read: “Welcome 3rd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry: Long Walkee. Big Talkee. No Jumpee.” In June 1943, the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division.

America was collecting its vast resources and men in England for the invasion of Western Europe and the 101st Airborne Division was shipped there in September 1943. The Americans had no idea when and where they would invade. In late May 1944, Ed Shames, accompanying Lt. Colonel Wolverton, learned in a staff meeting that June 5th would be the date of the invasion and the place would be Normandy. The mission of the 101st Airborne would be to drop behind Utah Beach, clear the causeways for the beach landings, seize key towns and block the German advance. Shames built sand tables for the invasion and briefed officers and men on the topography of their landing zones. During a briefing, an officer commented that he would rather fight the “Limeys and the Jews” than the Germans. The room fell silent and Shames cursed at him and told the man “if he got between him and a German he would blow his brains out.”

On the night of June 4, 1944, the paratroopers were given a special meal of fried chicken, steak and strawberry ice cream. They darkened their faces with greasepaint and prepared to board their planes. Word came out that a storm had socked in the Normandy coast. The invasion had been postponed until the next day.



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3rd Battalion commander, Lt. Colonel Robert Wolverton (center) on the eve of D-day.

At his headquarters, the commander of the Allied Forces, General Dwight Eisenhower worried about whether to launch the invasion. He feared he would lose more than half of the paratroopers being sent to France, now the weather was throwing its hand into the mix. He considered canceling the airborne invasion and just going in by sea, but he needed the one British and two American airborne divisions to seize vital objectives and occupy German forces while the beachheads could be established.

If Eisenhower did not launch his invasion by the 6th, bad weather would continue and he would have to postpone the invasion indefinitely. After a long night conferring with weather men, advisors and other Generals, Eisenhower decided to launch the invasion on the 6th with the words “Okay, let’s go”.

On the night of June 5, Ed Shames climbed into a C-47. The planes carrying the 6,600 men of the 101st Airborne began leaving England at 10:15 pm. The flight took about two hours, time for men to think about what lay ahead. Shames was supposed to jump next to Lt. Colonel Wolverton but a mix up put him onto a different plane with men he didn’t know. He thought of the speech Wolverton had given on the airfield before they got on the planes:

“God almighty, in a few short hours we will be in battle with the enemy. We do not join battle afraid. We do not ask favors or indulgence but ask that, if you will, use us as your instrument for the right and an aid in returning peace to the world. We do not know or seek what our fate will be. We ask only this: that if die we must, that we die as men would die – without complaining, without pleading and safe in the feeling that we have done our best for what we believed was right. Oh Lord, protect our loved ones and be near us in the fire ahead and with us now as we pray to you.”

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Bob Noody, and fellow paratroopers of Fox Company, 506 Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division wait to take off for Normandy.

The mission of 3rd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment was to land on Drop Zone D south of Vierville and east of Angoville Au Plain. From there, they were to go south and take two bridges near Le Port over the Carentan Canal.

Shortly before midnight, the planes carrying the paratroopers began reaching France. Shames would be the last man out, the man farthest from the exit if anything bad happened. The paratroopers were weighed down with a hundred pounds of equipment; they could barely walk let alone get out of the plane quickly in an emergency. The sky lit up with explosions as the Germans opened fire. Around him, Shames could see the arc of tracer bullets and the flashes of anti-aircraft shells exploding. Planes were getting hit, some were going down. The green light went on and the men began to jump. The C-47 rocked, knocking the man in front of Shames down. Shames helped the man to his feet and out the door. Shames followed him and jumped into the bullet filled night.



Below him, Shames saw an industrial area on fire and a herd of cows in a feed lot. The cows were coming up fast and Shames braced himself for impact and managed to avoid landing on an animal. He got rid of his parachute which snagged on a cow’s head. As he jumped over the fence he looked up at the burning factory and saw a sign reading “Carnation Milk Plant”. Shames had no idea where he was, none of this was on the sand tables he had prepared.

Moving away from the factory, Shames walked into the French night. There was sporadic gunfire in the distance. Shames banded together with other paratroopers who were as lost as he was. The men came across a farmhouse. Shames and another man knocked on the door as others stood guard. A farmer and his wife opened the door. The woman screamed when she saw the men with their guns and blackened faces. Shames put his hand over her mouth and lowered her to the ground. The other man with him did the same with the farmer. Shames used his best French to tell them the American’s had come, and asked them where Sainte-Mère-Église and Saint-Côme-du-Mont were. When Shames asked the farmer where Carentan, a heavily defended German occupied city was, the farmer pounded his fist on the floor. When Shames asked again, the farmer pointed to the floor. Shames got up and told the other men they needed to get the hell out of there. They were miles from their objective and on the wrong side of a river. They left the farm and headed west.

Before daybreak, the group managed to reach the bridge over the Carentan Canal where other men from 3rd Battalion were gathering. 600 men from the 3rd Battalion were supposed to have rendezvoused there, but by dawn, fewer than 200 had gathered. The morning was quiet and many men wondered if the invasion had been called off. At 5:30am, Allied battleships opened up with their pre-invasion bombardment. The men could hear the massive sound of the shells flying and could see the shells as they went past.

As the seaborne invasion went on, the 3rd Battalion held out against German counterattacks. The Battalion commander, Lt. Colonel Wolverton did not show up and men began to wonder if he had been lost. The men at the bridges fought until nightfall when the fighting died down. Their communication lines were bad making it impossible to request re-enforcements or get any news about the progress of the invasion. After sunset, Shames fiddled with his walkie-talkie and was surprised to hear the BBC reporting that the invasion had happened and had succeeded. Ed Shames survived his first day of combat. The war was far from over, but he had proven to himself that he had what it took to fight.



Epilogue

Ed Shames received a battlefield commission for his actions in Normandy, the first non- commissioned officer in the 3rd Battalion to receive the honor. His commander, Lt. Colonel Robert Wolverton’s body was later found hanging in a tree in his parachute. Wolverton’s body had over 160 bullet holes in it as the Germans had used it for target practice.

After the Battle of Normandy, Ed Shames was transferred to the 2nd Battalion and became a platoon leader in Easy Company. He fought with Easy Company in Holland and the Battle of the Bulge. He was with them when they liberated a Nazi slave labor camp and with them in Germany and Austria.

Ed Shames made the Army his career, eventually rising to the rank of Colonel. He moved to Norfolk, VA, married and had two children. Because of his membership to Easy Company, 506th, Ed Shames is a well-known and honored member of the community and a much sought after speaker all over the US and in Europe. Today, Ed Shames is the last living officer to have served in Easy Company, 506th.

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One thought on “Ed Shames, of Band of Brothers, First Fight in Normandy.

  • Peter Kubicek says:

    The Normandy Invasion of June 6, 1944, was the the most difficult undertaking imaginable. The ships and landing vessels faced withering fire from German bunkers above the coast. Once the invasion succeeded, it became the turning point of the War and the beginning of its end. But one of the reasons the invasion succeeded is that by that time the German air-force had been totally destroyed by Allied bombing. I can testify to that because I was a prisoner in the Heinkel concentration camp in winter 1944. Heinkel were the German heavy bombers. By the time I came there, the entire production of the the factory had been bombed out. We prisoners were housed in former airplane hangars and slept on the frigid concrete floor. The only work we performed was building air-raid shelters.

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