Colonel Ed Shames: World War II Hero

by | Nov 6, 2015 | Other News

It is safe to say the bottle of cognac Colonel Ed Shames opened in celebration of his son’s bar mitzvah at Norfolk’s B’nai Israel synagogue in 1961 was unlike any bottle opened for a b’nai mitzvah in Hampton Roads. Shames’ bottle came straight from Adolph Hitler’s collection.

Edward Shames, featured in Ian Gardner’s book, Airborne, The Combat Story of Ed Shames of Easy Company, and portrayed in the HBO mini-series, Band of Brothers, was born in Virginia Beach in 1922. Starting on D-Day in 1944, Ed parachuted behind enemy lines, fought his way through France, Holland, Belgium and Germany—surviving the frozen siege of Bastogne—witnessed first-hand the horrors of Dachau and ultimately savored victory over Germany from the opulence of Hitler’s mountaintop villa in Bavaria. Who could blame the young Army Platoon Commander for helping himself to the Fuhrer’s monogrammed bottle of cognac? The bottle he saved to open when son, Steven, became a bar mitzvah 16 years later.

Ed Shames was born to be a soldier. A patriot and a proud Jew, Shames volunteered for the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment at the age of 19 following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; signing up at Fort Monroe in Hampton. The 506th was a new tactical invention at the time, a precursor to the modern day Delta Force. Shames quickly proved to be an exceptional leader, rising through the ranks and receiving the first battlefield commission in the entire 101st Airborne Division following the D-Day invasion. It is clear from Gardner’s book that Shames possessed incredible bravery, intelligence, poise under fire and a love for his fellow soldiers that has carried throughout his long and interesting life. At the age of 94, Shames is still feisty, sharp and proud to travel the country representing the members of Easy Company, 506th Regiment—his “Band of Brothers.”

In advance of the Lee and Bernard Jaffe Family Jewish Book Festival at the Simon Family JCC, I sat with him to ask about his community, his faith, his heroism and his newfound fame.

Of his childhood, Shames says, “Things were tough at that time for Jewish boys. There were times when you had to fight your way through. One thing people learned about me…they never called me ‘dirty Jew’ twice. I was a tough SOB; not mean, just tough.”

Shames grew up fast. His parents, David and Sadie, raised four children in an orthodox household, sending them to B’nai Israel for Hebrew school when B’nai was still downtown. Unfortunately, David Shames passed away at the age of 42 in 1927, when Shames was just five years old. The family then pulled together to work alongside their mother at Shames Provisions on Virginia Beach Boulevard. Shames learned to be independent, resourceful and determined from those challenging early days, traits that fared him well when he enlisted in the 506th in 1942.

“I was determined to make it through training, and we had the toughest training of any regiment in the military. I wanted to get through it and learn everything I could. Also because I was a Jew, I didn’t want to wash out, and lots of guys did. Heck, they had 7,000 volunteers they had to whittle down to 2,500 soldiers. They wanted to discharge me after I hurt my knee on my first parachute jump. I wouldn’t let them. After walking 149 miles from our training base at Camp Toccoa to Ft. Benning in full gear over three and one-half days, there was no way.”

Shames had a specific goal in mind. “In high school we had a Jewish fraternity that met at the 20th Street Shul. We were walking past Shulman’s Men Shop and I saw an officer’s uniform in the window. I said to my friends, “I’m going to wear that uniform one day.”

One of the things Shames is most proud of is the battlefield commission he received after proving his mettle during the D-Day invasion. Shames was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant and placed in charge of a platoon. Later, on leave in England, he purchased an officer uniform similar to the one he set his sights on at Shulman’s. Shames remembers, “that uniform went with me to Bastogne.”

At various times during Shames’ early military experience, he dealt with blatant anti-Semitism. While training in England prior to D-Day, Shames was tasked with organizing a trip to a local Passover seder. “We had 18 men from the regiment sign up and this officer made a disparaging remark about Jews. I could have received a general courtmartial for what I told him.”

Shames proved to be an excellent leader and took great pride in the survival rate for his men. “My platoon returned more men from battle than any other platoon in the entire division—that’s over 500 platoons.”

After surviving the bitterly cold and brutal siege of Bastogne and Battle of the Bulge, Shames endured the shock of being an early liberator of Dachau, an experience he refuses to discuss. Shames also experienced summiting Kehlstein Mountain in Bavaria—home of Hitler’s mountain retreat known as “Eagle’s Nest.”—and taking a bottle of monogrammed cognac back to Virginia Beach, to be opened at his son’s Bar Mitzvah. “My buddy Lee Kantor finished that bottle and I threw it out. Do you know it would be worth $15,000 today.”

After the war, Shames worked in a capacity for “The Company” that he doesn’t discuss. He has traveled extensively in Israel and the Middle East and he served both his country and his Jewish roots admirably.

Today, Shames is looking towards celebrating the 70th anniversary of his Temple Beth El wedding to Ida Aframe on January 27, 1946. “She and I went to school together. Before heading to England I visited her where she was working as a hospital volunteer. She gave me a goodbye kiss on the cheek and that made an impression on me. At the time, Ida was engaged to a Naval officer from New York named Joseph. I got to her just in time after the war. You know, to this day, she won’t tell me his last name.”

After a third successful career in insurance, Shames was ready to settle into a well-deserved retirement. HBO’s Band of Brothers and Airborne author, Ian Gardner, had a different idea. After nearly six decades of relative quiet regarding Shames’ World War II exploits, the HBO miniseries and Gardner’s meticulously researched book thrust Shames into the war hero spotlight. Shames has received numerous well-deserved honorariums and is a soughtafter speaker, having just returned from an engagement in Minneapolis before heading to Washington, DC for another talk. In his 90’s, Shames is more popular than ever and still fit and sharp-minded.

Although Shames bristles and waves his hand at the hero reference, he truly was heroic—keeping his wits about him when it would have been easy not to, and using his courage, smarts, and doggedness to help take the battle to the German Army while placing his platoon in position to succeed. When asked about his exploits and his late-in-life fame, Colonel Shames simply states, “I did my job.”

by Jay Klebanoff