An American hero has fallen to the Coronavirus and the world may never see the likes of him ever again.
Ninety-eight-year-old George Shenkle, a card-carrying member of the “Greatest Generation” took part in the invasion of Normandy more than 75 years ago, freeing our universe from the evil of the Nazis. He served as a paratrooper with three combat jumps – including both D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge — and got a purple heart in return for the wounds he received after hitting the ground and running into enemy fire and explosions.
He didn’t know at the age of 21 when he enlisted and became member of the Army’s 82nd Airborne in 1942 that he was to take part in the largest amphibious assault ever. No more than 25 percent of the troop were expected to survive although a good 50 percent eventually made it back home.
“D-Day,” as the Sixth of June since been called, started a two month-long attack on the beaches of Normandy, France, and led to Hitler’s downfall a year later. It almost never materialized. General Dwight D. Eisenhower was ready to quit as commander of the Allied Forces when England Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his Air force leader opposed the plan. They gave in to Ike’s demand and as they say, the rest became history.
“When we flew over the English Channel, we saw thousands of boats crossing, we thought we could walk on water.” Shenkle recalled in an interview with Marc Laurenceau of the D-Day Overlord association. “Above the French coast, we were hit by anti-aircraft fire. We were relieved to leave the plane!”
As a radio operator, Shenkle provided communications between headquarters and his commanding officer. But the latter jumped far from the drop zone and he did not find him, according to Laurenceau (See post at D-Day Overlord).
“Our mission was to protect two bridges over the Merderet River, at La Fière and Chef-du-Pont,” Shenkle reported. At dawn, with a few soldiers, he joined a group of 200 paratroopers awaiting orders. They took possession of what was designated Hill 30, According to Laurenceau. For three days, the paratroopers defended this promontory against German assaults.
German casualties were at a staggering 320,000 (30,000 dead, 80,000 wounded and the rest missing) and Allied casualties were at about 230,000 (more than 45,000 dead).
The entire operation was one of the bloodiest battles ever for Americans, as 19,000 U.S. soldiers lost their lives and more than 70,000 were wounded or went missing. For comparison, of the 12,000 British casualties, 200 were killed.
Over the course of “the longest day” of June 6, 1944 over 10,000 servicemen – Brits, Frenchmen Poles and other allies of the Americans who suffered the lion’s share of those killed or wounded.
He was awarded the French Legion of Honor in 2014 by both Presidents François Hollande and Barack Obama.
Many of the men returning from the war suffered from nightmares, depression, rage and some even turned to alcohol, drugs and a few to suicide. This man became crotchety, some would even call him a “curmudgeon” in a more loving way as he roared like a lion at home and at work. He suffered from an untreated life-long dose of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) which was labeled as Battle Fatigue for World War II and “Shell shock” from World War I. “A Soldiers’ Heart is what doctor’s called the injuries of soldiers who fought in the Civil War.
But no bullet, no artillery shell or no landmine ever stopped this man. He survived flack shot at his airplane, which was part of an aerial armada C-47 Skytrain or C-53 Skytrooper which carried the elite paratroopers on their mission to seize objectives ahead of the seaborne landings.
No, the enemy never got to him in 1944, but the Virus of 2020 did. “These are no ordinary times,” is what his daughter, Rebecca Goff, said of the battles her father engaged in during World War II. The same can be said today about our battle with a different enemy as we honor this man who placed himself in harm’s way so that his family, friends and nations of the world would have a better life.