NAME: Walter B. Shambarger
DATE ENTERED SERVICE: October 8, 1942
CAMPAIGNS: Normandy, Northern France
DECORATIONS: Air Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster
Walter Shambarger was in his third year at Ohio’s Bowling Green State University when he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces on October 8, 1942. He received his training in San Antonio, San Angelo and Lubbock, Texas, before graduating on December 5, 1943. After earning his wings, the young pilot began flying Consolidated B-24 Liberator bombers in the Eighth Air Force’s 68th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), 44th Bomb Group (BG). Experience came quickly to Shambarger, and within three months he had been promoted to first lieutenant.
The 44th’s July 7, 1944, mission to Bernberg, Germany, would be Shambarger’s 23rd. Part of a huge effort by the Eighth Air Force to bomb strategic targets in central Germany, the 44th BG’s objective that day was an aircraft factory and airfield. Shambarger flew as second pilot on 1st Lt. Ted L. Weaver’s B-24J Full House. Given the importance of the target, the pilots were warned at the pre-mission briefing that there would be heavy flak and determined fighter protection over Bernberg.
After takeoff, Full House and the rest of the 68th proceeded toward the target, their route taking them deep into Germany. Shortly before 0930 hours, as they prepared to make their final turn before beginning their bomb run, the Americans ran into the predicted enemy opposition. Lined up 15 abreast, some 60 enemy aircraft dove out of the sun onto the bombers from 1 to 2 o’clock high, firing as they attacked. Orange tracer shells from 20mm cannons were soon blazing through the formation.
Three of the 68th’s bombers were hit in the first pass. Any Gum Chum was struck in the No. 4 engine and immediately fell out of formation and plummeted to earth. First Lieutenant James A. Wilson’s Patsy Ann H was hit in the No. 1 engine and dropped out of the group. Also forced out of formation was Full House.
That bomber had been hit by fire from Messerschmitt Me-110Gs that knocked out three of four engines on their attack. Weaver was only able to feather one engine, but the other two were wind-milling. Badly damaged, Full House dropped to 15,000 feet and, escorted by a pair of Lockheed P-38Js, limped along with Wilson’s B-24. The bombers were soon attacked again by enemy aircraft. With flames now consuming two of his engines, Weaver reluctantly gave the order to abandon ship.
Shambarger was one of eight who made it safely out. A ninth, Stanley Nalipa, had been wounded during the attack, and although he was assisted from the plane by his fellow crewmen, the chute of this Ploesti veteran failed to open and he perished. The bomber came down near Valthe, Germany, where six of the crew were quickly taken prisoner. Weaver landed just over the border in Holland and was led into hiding by the Dutch resistance.
Shambarger also landed in Holland, in a meadow where he was immediately surrounded by Dutch citizens who offered their aid. One pregnant woman in the crowd later recounted that as Shambarger shed his parachute harness he was approached by a 22-year-old man named Geert J. Trechsel. The American extended his right hand and said “friend” in Dutch. As he did so, Trechsel, who was a Dutch Nazi, grabbed it and pulled the American into a bayonet he held in his left hand. Before the bleeding could be stopped, Shambarger died. Trechsel fled.
Montpelier, Ohio’s newspaper, the Leader Enterprise, chronicled Shambarger’s fate, and reported that his parents had received the news that their son was missing only 24 hours after they were notified that he had won the Air Medal for “exceptionally meritorious achievement while participating in bomber combat missions over occupied Europe.” Then on August 31, 1944, the Leader reported that Shambarger had been killed and that his parents had “received word of his death last Thursday [August 24, 1944] somewhere in Germany.”
After his murder, Shambarger’s body was taken to Rutenbrock, Germany. It was while collecting the body after the war that the Americans learned the circumstances of his death. Trechsel was eventually turned in to Allied authorities. Convicted of his crime, he was sentenced to 81⁄2 years in prison but was released after only a short time. Given his past loyalties, he was hounded by his neighbors and driven from town. Shambarger’s remains were eventually taken to Belgium and interred in Plot D, Row 11, Grave 28 of the American Battle Monuments Commission cemetery at Neupre, just one of 5,328 buried there.
I was aware of none of this when I received a phone call in October 2004 from a Reg Miller, who had been contacted by Mike Shambarger, a cousin of Walter, who through a series of Internet connections had been asked by a Belgian couple for assistance in finding a picture of the late pilot. Miller, who lives in Cleveland, called the superintendent’s office of the Montpelier schools, which in turn suggested he call me since I am currently the district’s yearbook adviser. The next morning I found Walter Burton Shambarger’s senior picture in a 1940 Montpelier yearbook.
Achiel and Marina Hoeterickx had requested the picture. Achiel had taken an interest in Full House, and when he learned the circumstances of Shambarger’s death, he and his wife adopted his gravesite at Neupre. The couple regularly bring flowers, pay their respects and care for the grave. Hoping to put a face to the name, the Hoeterickxes contacted Luc Wagt, a historian whose mother was the young pregnant woman who had witnessed Shambarger’s death. Wagt eventually corresponded with Mike Shambarger.
Shambarger’s relatives still live in the area, and they have their memories of him. So does my father, Robert G. Wilson, who played taps at Shambarger’s Montpelier memorial service as a young man. So does Luc Wagt, who has learned much more about what his mother saw that day. And so do the Hoeterickxes, who now have a picture of Walter Burton Shambarger of Montpelier, Ohio, a courageous young man who fell out of the sky and landed in their hearts.
Originally published in the April 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.