Edward Shames parachuted into Normandy and the Netherlands, joining the ‘Band of Brothers’ in Bastogne.
On December 16, 1944, German Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt’s forces launched a surprise counter- offensive in the Ardennes Forest of Belgium. On Adolf Hitler’s orders, the Germans punched through outposts where U.S. Army troops, believing that World War II in Europe was just about over, had been resting. The ferocious assault sent Americans scurrying to mount a desperate defense, and additional U.S. troops racing to the front.
One of the latter was then–2nd Lt. Edward Shames, who had already racked up experience in Normandy and Holland, serving in I Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR), 101st Airborne Division. When Shames joined Easy Company of the 506th—the famous “Band of Brothers”—in Bastogne, his new comrades in arms learned why he had a reputation as a disciplinarian who sternly enforced procedure. Like some leaders in today’s war on terror, Shames insisted on using ground-level intelligence against the enemy, and he was a fastidious planner.
Having grown up in Norfolk, Va., Shames enlisted in the 506th in September 1942 at age 19. He has been active in the regiment’s affairs ever since, and he helped set up a reunion in Norfolk in October 2004. In a recent interview with Michael Washburn, he cast light on his fascinating—and controversial—record.
Military History: Where did you join the Army?
Shames: Right here in Petersburg, Va.—at what’s called Fort Lee now. It was Camp Lee then.
MH: Did you expect to become an officer?
Shames: I always wanted to be an officer. Of course, I enlisted as a buck private. The call for recruits came out from Army headquarters at Fort Monroe, Va., where the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment was conceived. They put the word out that they wanted volunteers, but volunteers with special characteristics. The country, at that time, needed a shock force, something to get us out of the doldrums, because we had taken such a beating at Pearl Harbor and Corregidor. They decided they would recruit the very best, physically and mentally, form an elite unit and show the public what they had.
MH: Did nothing of the sort exist, in peoples’ minds?
Shames: Before World War II, many military people were regarded as the lowest of the low. It was the Depression, many were in the Army because they couldn’t get a job; some couldn’t even read and write. Here in Norfolk, a “good” girl wouldn’t be seen with a sailor or a soldier. A guy enlisted in the Army as a private, and he might stay there 20 years and retire as a private first class, or at most a corporal. The Army picked the best they could find from the existing units to form our cadres, teaching us how to salute, how to wear our uniforms, etc.
MH: What was your training like?
Shames: We went right from Fort Lee to training down in Toccoa, Ga. I believe, and people in the know have told me, that the reason they chose Toccoa was not because it had good training grounds and so forth—it had nothing! The site was an old Civilian Conservation Corps camp that had gone unused for a while, and at that time it was named Camp Toombs, after the segregationist senator from Georgia, Robert Toombs. It was in this remote area that no one had heard of, beyond the fact that Toccoa was the “coffin capital” of the world. We were there because if this experiment, this effort to craft a unit of “supermen,” didn’t work out, they could just abandon it right there, and at least avoid some of the embarrassment.
MH: What kinds of rigors did you face?
Shames: The training in Toccoa aimed at being the most severe undergone by any unit in the history of our armed forces. They had 7,000 recruits, and they had to cut that number down to regiment size, 2,500 to 2,700. They said, “We’ve got so many people, by God, we have a chance to get the very cream of the crop.” The first thing we faced was Currahee Mountain, outside of Toccoa. Every morning we had to run 3l⁄2 miles up and then back down. That weeded a whole lot of us out. There, they had the toughest obstacle course ever devised. When we left Toccoa after 16 weeks, the medics had it closed down, because so many people got hurt on that mountain. And we had to walk 10 or 15 miles out from camp, then back, until it was nothing to us, just routine. They took any excuse to kick people out. If your rifle wasn’t clean, if you couldn’t do 100 push-ups, if you were a mediocre marksman, out! And at the end, they still had too many.
MH: Did the hardships intensify?
Shames: We had to march down to Fort Benning, about 200 miles away. Another morning, toward the end of our training, they called us out with full field packs on and said we were going to a rifle range— not the one here in Toccoa, but another one. It was at Clemson College [now Clemson University], in Clemson, S.C., 49 miles away, and we had full equipment, weapons, everything—and they forgot to tell us there was a mountain between our destination and us. Some got lost on the way, and they were out.
MH: Did they expel those young men from the Army?
Shames: From the 506th, but not from the service. Those who didn’t make the cut went to other branches. In fact, some of the people who didn’t make it at Toccoa came back to us later as replacements, after the ordeals of Normandy and Holland and Bastogne.
MH: Did you train on the machine gun at Toccoa?
Shames: They had ranges for everything— rifles, machine guns, pistols, M1 carbines, grenades, land mines, you name it.
MH: What was the next phase like, jumping from airplanes?
Shames: When we got to Fort Benning for jump training, we were in top shape. The Fort Benning people, at the jump school, were supposed to be the elite of the Army, and boy, were they waiting for us! They had a nickname for our unit—the “Big Talky, No Jumpy.” One of the first things they did was have us run around with our full field equipment. They had us go for three hours, then we said, “Oh no, we don’t want to stop, let’s continue!” Soon they were begging us to stop. Then they devised the shock harness and all kinds of foolish things—to scare the hell out of us—but we survived.
MH: What was the toughest part of jump training?
Shames: They had jump towers at Fort Benning about 200 feet high, like a 20-story building. They pulled you up and released your parachute, and you floated down. We used to fight to get ahead in line. It was like going to Disney World; it really was fun. But then they had this shock harness, which was a steel beam, 10 feet long, with a rope on each end going to a center rope that they pulled from atop the tower. We were strapped underneath the beam, and they pulled us up. You got up about 150 feet, then the microphone told you to count one, two, three and pull the ripcord, and you dropped a sheer 50 or 60 feet before rubber bands—what we now call bungees—grabbed you.
MH: What about the actual jump?
Shames: Ninety-eight percent of all these guys had never landed in an airplane. Ninety-eight percent had never been in an airplane. Some of them refused to jump. Now, there was a deal about jumping. If you refused the first jump when you got on a plane, they just booted you out of the unit. Naturally— you can’t be a paratrooper if you can’t jump out of airplanes. Now, if you made the first jump, but then got on a plane and refused the second jump, you got six months in the guardhouse because you wasted government money. They thought, first jump, you don’t know what’s going to happen to you, so you jump. Second jump, you do know what’s going to happen to you, so you refuse to jump. It didn’t work that way in practice. Most of us made two jumps the first day and three jumps the second day. That was qualifying, five jumps. You got your wings.
MH: Where did you go after Fort Benning?
Shames: Advanced infantry training in Camp Mackall, N.C.
MH: What came after that training?
Shames: We shipped out to England in early September 1943.
MH: What was it like waiting for the Allies to launch the invasion of occupied France?
Shames: Never a dull moment. We had practice jumps, navigation, field operations, weapons training, everything. I had become the operations officer for the battalion, and I made the sand tables for our jump into Normandy. The tables showed exactly where we were supposed to jump and where we would get together on the ground. I had to brief every platoon, every squad and every company. It went on like this from the end of September to June 5, 1944, the night before D-Day.
MH: After all the preparation, did things go as planned?
Shames: It didn’t work out that way. The guy in front of me on the Douglas C-47 fell down at the door, and I had to help him get up and get out the door. They scattered us all over the place. I jumped seven miles from where I was supposed to land, and I ended up in the barn of the Carnation milk factory, with the cows. I didn’t know where I was, and I was supposed to know everything! Fortunately, we had a tracer plane going over us every few minutes, north and south, sending signals to tell us where to go. So I picked up 18 men on the way to our objective, which was two bridges at Brévands, a few miles from Carentan, leading inland from the beaches. We had to hold onto those bridges so that the Germans could not bring reinforcements against the men landing on the beaches.
MH: Did you come under German fire on those bridges?
Shames: Not just German fire! The Germans were intent on getting us out of there, and I got shot across the bridge of the nose. There were many firefights. But the American air forces didn’t know we were there, and because of the snafu, they sent planes out to bomb the bridges. They didn’t hit them, and we blew the bridges ourselves. We accomplished our mission with only a handful of people.
MH: How did you get your commission as a second lieutenant?
Shames: We were in an area outside of Carentan, and I was operations sergeant. Many of the officers had been killed in the jump, and actually I was doing the job of a high-ranking officer. Our commanders decided we needed to find out what was around us, and I got the order to take my men and radio and look around. Did we have another American unit to our right? We had lost a lot of people, cleaning up this hedgerow area. The artillery was going all around us—it was really fierce—until finally there came a lull in the shelling.
MH: And then?
Shames: I looked over to my left, and there were people on my left, I think it was H Company. I scanned the area to my right, and there was a road over there. You couldn’t sit around and try to scan the area on the far side of the road, because of the hedgerows—you had to go all the way over there. I flew across that road—it was blazing hot, the sun was high—and looked for the other company that was supposed to be there. I saw that there was no one, that we had an exposed flank. This was on my birthday, and all I could see were the words, “Born June 13—Died June 13.” I flew back over and got on the radio and called the battalion headquarters. I said, “Put an officer on!” I spoke to [regimental commander] Colonel Robert Sink. “Sir, this is Sergeant Shames, there’s nobody on our right flank,” I said. Sink was a tough cookie who didn’t mince words. He said, “Shames, do you know what the hell you’re talking about?” So I got on my bicycle, and I double-timed it back [to headquarters]. I showed him [on a map]. He had me go back to the hedgerow area with Colonel Charlie Chase, and we crossed the road again. You could see the machine gun bullets kicking up dust in front of us on that hot road. We got over the road, and I said, “Here’s where I was before.” He was surprised because he thought F Company was there.
MH: So what was the upshot?
Shames: Colonel Sink pulled a company out of the reserves and sent it right up there. That night, I got a call to come to Colonel Sink’s headquarters right away. So I ran over there, and they said, “Colonel Sink wants to see you.” I went to him and said, “Colonel Sink, Sergeant Shames reporting as ordered, sir.” He told me, “Shames, you are now a lieutenant.” I thought I was hearing things. He said, “Goddamn it, Shames, can’t you hear?” “Yes, sir!” I replied. Sink said, “You are now a lieutenant. I’ve already cleared it with the 101st headquarters.” He added, “Now, we can’t formally commission you; we have to go through all the paperwork—it’s a formality that has to wait until we get back to England. When we get back to England, everyone is going to know you are now a lieutenant.”
MH: How did your day-to-day role change?
Shames: I went from a staff sergeant to a second lieutenant, and I didn’t know what the hell I was supposed to do. So I reported back to my people and spoke to Lieutenant John Martin. He said, “I don’t know if you know it, but I’ve been named company commander.” I said, “Yes, sir, I heard about that.” He said: “I need some help. I know nothing about being a company commander. You’re pretty sharp, you know what’s going on, and I need a first sergeant.” I asked if he knew about my commission. He said, “You’re not formally a lieutenant until you get all the paperwork done.” He had spoken to Colonels Sink and Chase, and they were in agreement. So I was a first sergeant for a week or so, until we got back to England, and I got my formal commission. I was a buck private, private first class, sergeant, staff sergeant, first sergeant, and then I became a second lieutenant.
MH: Your next major operation was Market Garden, the jump into the Netherlands on September 17, 1944.
Shames: Yes, and it was a fiasco. That fiasco in Holland was due to the very setup of the operation. We captured all the bridges, we opened up the roads, but then the British didn’t come through them! They misread the intelligence, and when they got to Arnhem, they ran into German forces that were not supposed to be there—at least according to the British, but not according to the Dutch people, who had tried to warn them. It’s a matter of record now. But at least the 506th did what we were supposed to do: opened up the corridors and kept them open.
MH: What else did you do in the Netherlands?
Shames: Did you know that I took part in the rescue mission on October 22-23, 1944?
MH: Stephen Ambrose did not give you much credit in Band of Brothers. But he at least mentioned your name in connection with the rescue mission in which you and British troops crossed the Rhine to save 125 trapped British troops, along with a handful of Dutch resistance fighters and Americans.
Shames: It was one of the more important actions in Holland.
MH: After Arnhem, you were rushed to Bastogne to join up with Easy Company in response to the German counterattack.
Shames: I think of the first mission that I went out on, with Earl McClung and Rod Strohl. When we first got into Bastogne, Colonel Sink came up to me and said, “Shames, you go up the road and make contact and find out where the enemy is.” Strohl and McClung and I went down this road, and we saw vague shapes way off in the distance that looked kind of like haystacks, and we also heard this noise far off, and I told Strohl that it sounded like tanks to me, and that’s what it sounded like to him, too. We stayed there and waited until the fog lifted a little, and I then asked Strohl if the shapes still looked like haystacks to him, and he said no—they were tanks! We counted 19 tanks that the fog had camouflaged. We went back to report what we had seen.
MH: What do you remember of the battle for Bastogne?
Shames: I was out on an observation patrol one night with this guy, Edward Stein. We were standing near this field, and I was miserably cold. It was the coldest day I ever remember in my life. I was so cold, I was thinking of taking one of our morphine syrettes and sticking it in my leg, to kill the pain. Then a tree burst came from out of nowhere. It must have been a mortar. We got down on the ground and huddled under a blanket, and I asked Stein if he was hit. He said no, but then I looked and saw blood coming from Stein’s leg. It was so cold that he didn’t even feel it—a piece of shrapnel from the tree burst had sliced through one of the veins in his leg.
MH: Did you run into problems with morale?
Shames: Not in my outfit. I think of one soldier, Private Joseph Lesniewski—the biggest job I had was to keep him quiet! He talked his head off about everything, even when he went out on patrol. But he was a hell of a good soldier.
MH: During Operation Greif, the Germans dropped men behind your lines in captured American uniforms, to commit sabotage. When did you first learn of this?
Shames: I think we first heard about it on the radio the night before we left Mourmelon. It was a topic of conversation on the way to Bastogne. So we knew about it.
MH: Did some of the “American” troops look suspicious?
Shames: When we infiltrated the Germans’ areas while on observation patrols, we saw guys in American uniforms walking around with a bunch of Krauts—it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what was going on. So we decided to wait and see where those “Americans” went, and then we nailed four of them in the woods outside of Foy. We made them reveal the location of other infiltrators to us.
MH: It’s clear that observation and accurate intelligence were things you insisted on as an officer.
Shames: When you went out on a patrol, you had to watch for observation posts and check for any wires on the ground, so you would know if others had been that way and if they were looking out for you. It’s simple, yet it takes time to learn how to do these things. You have to be fairly intelligent to become a leader and if you are, you can impart this intelligence to others.
MH: The writer and veteran Paul Fussell, in his book Wartime, says that replacements were like “unread books on a shelf”— they got killed off so fast, you never got to know them as people.
Shames: When you got into combat, it was a bit too late to get on the learning curve! Everyone who went into my unit, from the ground up, I made damn sure that he was well-versed, he knew what was going on beforehand. We had meetings constantly, we had map orientations constantly, we had layouts constantly, we had overlays constantly—we knew what we were supposed to do, when we were supposed to do it.
MH: Ambrose and the writers of the Band of Brothers television miniseries portrayed you as an overly severe commander with a very short fuse. Do you agree with that portrayal?
Shames: I had a serious argument with the author of Band of Brothers, and that’s why he almost cut me out completely. When I got the pilot book [a set of advance galleys], I went straight through the roof! When I called him and raised factual points, he told me, “Look—I’m here to sell books.” He added things, he left things out. Take Rod Strohl, who is hardly mentioned. Paul Rogers—how could you write a book about these people and hardly have Rogers in there?
MH: In some editions of the book, there’s a passage where Darrell Powers seems to break down under the demands you put on him, and he doesn’t want to go on a mission.
Shames: That’s not true at all. Once when Ambrose called me, one of the first things he asked had to do with this. I said that Darrell “Shifty” Powers was a guy who would go on any patrol, anywhere, anytime. So don’t print that, because it’s not so. Ambrose replied, “Oh, no, I won’t dare print that.” When I got that pilot book, it was in there. When I called him, he said, “Oh, I’m going to take it out, it’s just a pilot book.” But when the book came out, it was in there. They also started this thing about me yelling at the men and the other officers. Of course I yelled at them! I meant business. This is why I brought more men home than most of the officers in the 506th. I was the only second lieutenant in the regiment who was a platoon leader, and in contrast to the other officers in the 506th, they didn’t even relieve me once. I must have been doing something right.
MH: You’re referring to a scene that made it into the miniseries, where they don’t pick you to lead the company because you yell at the men for interrupting briefings.
Shames: Well, in the first place, I was a brand new officer in Easy Company. They wouldn’t have considered me as a company commander; I wouldn’t have expected them to. So that’s a lot of garbage. And then they portrayed Lewis Nixon as a hero. His father was the owner of Nixon Industries in New Jersey, so no one could touch him. In any event, I’m sure that the men didn’t love me. I didn’t want them to love me; I wanted them to respect me.
MH: What was your impression of Lieutenant Norman Dike, whom some see as a weak and indecisive commander, and who is scathingly portrayed in the miniseries?
Shames: I can’t say I really knew him. He didn’t strike me one way or another.
MH: Which of your men really stood out?
Shames: I had four damn fine soldiers: Paul Rogers, Earl McClung, Shifty Powers and Roderick Strohl. They distinguished themselves constantly. I never said to my men, “You, you and you, go out on a patrol.” I said, “All of you come with me on patrol.”
MH: You were tough at times, but did some of your men understand where you were coming from?
Shames: At the Easy Company reunion in Phoenix in 2002, one of the four men I’ve named came up to me. He said, “Shames, you are the meanest, roughest son of a bitch I’ve ever had to deal with. But you brought us home.”
MH: You understood the need for discipline.
Shames: Not just discipline. Perfection.
Michael Washburn is a New York–based writer and editor specializing in historical and literary subjects. For further reading, he recommends: Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War, by Paul Fussell; and Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy From Napoleon to Al-Quaeda, by John Keegan.
Originally published in the June 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.