“June 6, 1944, is a day I will never forget. I wasn’t scared because I didn’t have time to be. It was hot in the tanks that were being transported for D-Day by boat. The Germans kept shooting and shooting and there were pools of blood everywhere. The Germans laid traps for us. We lost tanks in the water, it was chaos. Many tanks never made it. The ramps came down, and I waded towards the beach at Normandy getting shot at, wondering if it was the day I was going to die.
I was born and raised on a farm in Tilden, Nebraska. I had two younger sisters. I was a farmer and a cowboy. Daddy lost the farm. I was working odd jobs and trying to help him out when I was drafted and entered the Army on March 2nd, 1943, in Ft. Crook Nebraska. They sent me to Ft. Campbell, Kentucky and I took eleven months of hard, hard training. They trained us to know how to fight the Germans them, and how to handle them We were also trained for the Japanese so we could fight them both. I was sent to England in February, 1944 where we did more training and waited. I was just 19 and didn’t know I was preparing for one of the biggest days in military history.
Late one night, I dug a slit trench. We dug slit trenches to lay in so if anything went on at night we wouldn’t get hit. I woke up the next morning to someone standing over me saying, ‘Wake up soldier! God Dammit! You are going to drown!” I moved my head and saw water running in that slit trench and it was about to fill my nose and my mouth. I was about to drown and didn’t know it.
One day it was time to eat. There was a tank ahead of us. They rolled over a landmine buried in the ground and blew the track up. They were trying to get out but there were Germans behind the hedgerow on the other side. We came up and protected them from behind. The got and away and we all went back to eat. I saw one man we saved, let’s say his name was Bill. I told him, ‘Bill, you have a hole in your helmet. You should be dead.’ Another guy pointed out there was a hole on the other side of Bill’s helmet. The bullet went in one side and out the other side. That was Bill’s lucky day.
We fought our way into Saint Lo, and came upon a hedgerow. You can’t see behind them. We only had three tanks, ended up in a hedgerow fight. We had the best Lieutenant on the planet. That’s when I heard the worst words a soldier can hear “Ubergabe! Ubergabe!! Surrender!! Your officer is dead!!” We surrendered. When we came around the hedgerow, we saw they had 22 tanks against three of ours. We didn’t stand a chance.
We were prisoners of war and marched until we came to a checkpoint. They separated us by last names. Jews went in one group, Christians in another. I went into a third group because I had blonde hair and blue eyes, from my German heritage. The Germans spoke English fluently, as well as you and me. I learned to speak German while I was a POW.
We slept in bunk beds. I was in the third bunk, on the top. One night the bottom fell out and three of us were hurt. The Germans took us to the doctor, where we were treated and told not to go to work. The next day a big officer came by and said, “What in the God Damn Hell are you doing here? You are supposed to be out there working!” I told him why and he asked my name. I told him it was Shell, and he asked me how I spelled it. I said Shell, but I know how you spell it. He left me alone after that.
One day, a guard acted like he was mad. I asked him if it was something we had done, and he said, “It’s not you.” Hitler liked blue-eyed, blonde-haired people like me. There was a place where they sent women to be bred like animals, so they would have blue-eyed, blonde-haired offspring. The guard said, ‘The reason I’m mad is, they sent my wife there today to be bred like cattle.’
There was another German guard who talked to us a lot. He was an older man, and we called him Walrus because he was big and had facial hair like a walrus. Walrus became friends with us. A German lady would drop potatoes in a ditch where we were working. We stuffed the potatoes in our shirts and Walrus pretended to pat us down and never mentioned the potatoes. He was in on it. I was treated well in prison camp. If it weren’t for the war going on, the Germans would have seemed like neighbors. The Germans paid the POWs 10 cents a day and abided by the rules of the Geneva convention.
We moved camps several times because the Russians were closing in. The Germans didn’t want anything to do with the Russians.
I knew the war was over because I heard it on the German radio. I knew enough German by then to know what they were saying. We were liberated by the Russians on the day Germany surrendered. After they set us free, five of us wandered until we found an empty house to sleep in. We found the Americans the next day and got ready to head back overseas. Walrus wanted to come with us, but we couldn’t take him. None of us had a pen and paper to write down his address or any way to stay in touch. Not knowing what happened to him is my only regret.
Before they discharged us, they gave us a lot of talks for several days about what it would be like when we got home. I had some nightmares about being held captive, but that’s it. I am 96. It doesn’t bother me to think about the war. A lot of time has passed.”