The Combat Story of Ed Shames of Easy Company

Ian Gardner

Osprey Publishing, New York, 2015, 340 pages

Book Review published on: September 29, 2017

Like many recent World War II biographies, Airborne: The Combat Story of Ed Shames of Easy Company represents an important and admirable achievement to collect and piece together wartime experiences of an American hero. We all owe a debt of gratitude to Col. Ed Shames for the commitment and sacrifice to turn the whole of his experiences into a book, thus preserving it for future generations.

Going back seventy years presents a daunting challenge. Author Ian Gardner fills in Shames’s narrative of the war with factual information gained through research and returning to the sites of battles, correlating evidence gathered from ever-dwindling numbers of members of the regiment, and back-dropping those experiences into the big picture at the regiment level and above. Building on his previous works of Tonight We Die As Men, No Victory in Valhalla, and Deliver Us from Darkness, which chronicles the 3rd Battalion (Bn), 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR) from D-Day to Berchtesgaden, Gardner weaves an extended narrative that grows out of intimate knowledge of the unit’s missions, men, and battlefield exploits stemming from Shames’s two years’ service with the battalion. Gardner has masterfully tapped into the narratives of surviving veterans to get the story of the 3rd Bn, 506th PIR. Throughout this venture, Shames was with him every step of the way as a guide, a sounding board, and a critical reviewer. Gardner skillfully emerges with a collection of Shames’s most memorable actions of his thirty-three months of wartime service and postwar experience in Austria.

The story of Shames’s war began on a crowded train full of new recruits heading for countless reception stations and training camps. An airborne volunteer, he signed up to join the newly formed parachute regiment, the 506th PIR, and his destination was Camp Toccoa. Its prominent terrain featured Mount Curahee and provided such a “gut check” on the daily runs up the mountain that the regiment adopted “Curahee” as their regimental motto. During the course of Shames’s parachute training and maneuver exercises at Fort Benning, Georgia, he catches the eye of the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Robert Lee Wolverton. Wolverton, impressed with Shames’s map reading, tactical knowledge, and leadership skills, made him the operations sergeant, a position he held until the Battle of Carentan. Shames situational understanding and quick reporting to higher headquarters helps avert a disastrous flanking attack on a road known as “Bloody Gulley.” For his actions, Col. Robert Sink, 506th PIR commander offers him a battlefield commission. In fact, the chapters devoted to D-Day operations provide a very good study of 3rd Bn, 506th PIR operations in the Normandy campaign but be prepared to find your own maps as the book contains no maps or sketches.

Following D-Day, Shames got right back into it by making his second combat jump into the Netherlands. By then his reputation was well known. Again, the regimental commander selects Shames, this time to lead a special mission behind enemy lines. During Operation Market Garden, Shames receives command of 3rd Platoon, of the famed Easy Company 2nd Bn, 506th PIR. Easy Company’s exploits are well documented and widely known through Stephen Ambrose’s book Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler's Eagle's Nest and then later featured in the miniseries Band of Brothers. As in the book and miniseries, the Battle of the Bulge encompasses a significant portion of Airborne. But unlike Band of Brothers, Shames tells a different story with some of its more important engagements, particularly the Battle of Foy.

The rest of the book chronicles the 506th PIR’s push through Germany to war’s end and postwar occupation of southern Germany. As the fighting diminished, Shames platoon discovers a German extermination camp filled with dead bodies and living skeletons. Shames vividly describes the camp’s liberation provoking a visceral and lasting reaction amongst its liberators. The World War II journey ends in Berchtesgaden where Shames and his battalion discover Hitler’s Eagle Nest and a part of Hermann Göring’s massive stolen arts and antiquities collection.

The strength of Shames’s story lies in his remembrance of the men he served with, how they fought, and how many of them were killed in action. Airborne pays tribute to these warriors, presents detailed analysis and another point of view of the small unit actions of the 2nd and 3rd Battalions, 506th PIR making it worth the read.

Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Ronald T. Staver, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas