The excerpt below is an abbreviated version of a story published in the November issue of The Mill, an N2 publication serving the Gates Mill community in Cleveland, Ohio. While this story, written by The Mill editor Gina Pumphrey, was originally written and published for the residents of Gates Mill, it’s too good not to share! This is part one of a two-part story – the second of which will appear in December’s issue of The Mill. Enjoy, and Happy Veteran’s Day!
There aren’t too many WWII veterans left; to find one in our own community, and one so willing to share his stories, was truly a unique experience. Before we arrived, Jim Shelby had pulled out photo albums, letters from senators and presidents, framed photos, and shadowboxes holding many medals, his three Bronze Stars and his Purple Heart. Among the letters was one signed by former President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama – congratulating Jim on his 100th birthday, last year.
Jim Shelby, now 101 years old.
After visiting with Jim and his son Kevin for a couple of hours, we left with the feeling that if you’d name any major event from WWII in Europe, Jim Shelby had been a part of it. He shared that he’d served with the 82nd, the 17th, and the 101st Airborne Divisions in WWII, as a co-pilot on a glider. “They paid us suckers an extra $50 a month for being in the Airborne. Have you ever seen a glider?” I responded that I hadn’t, and Jim continued, “It wasn’t very safe, built of canvas over wood. The guns would fall through the sides when we hit turbulence; we towed two in the back of a plane – those gliders were more disposable than reusable. They had no parachutes; we couldn’t get out of the door, and we prayed continuously.”
Jim said he was never given any flight training; he was the copilot, only on maneuvers, and controlled the rudder. “We hated the gliders; they were the worst things in the world. It only cost $35,000 to build a glider in those days – can you imagine that?”
Jim was in Kentucky at the beginning of his enlistment. He rose to the rank of Master Sergeant partly by completing the requirements, and partly by skillfully using the other men to help him. He told a story about how the unit had to cut down some trees; Jim challenged some of the guys to prove themselves, cutting down the trees for which he was responsible, and repeating the dare several times. When the time came for the evaluation of the task, the commanders were impressed with how much Jim had accomplished, and promoted him to Private 1st Class.
Another memory shared was that, at that time, some of the men in Jim’s unit were unable to read or write, and he helped them with writing letters to their mothers, grandmothers, wives, and/or sweethearts. “One day, I got the idea to add a note at the bottom of the letter before I sent it for them, that ‘PFC Shelby would like some cookies.’ I started to get boxes of cookies, one after the other, from all over the US. Everyone was wondering why I was getting so many cookies!” Jim was chuckling at the memory of these capers, as he related the stories. His son added that, to this day, his father loves cookies – any kind of cookies. (I promised to bring some when I returned to visit to finalize this article, and I did. True to the story, Jim was very happy to have cookies brought to him – a small gesture for someone who had done so much for our country, and who willingly shared his stories with us.)
We wanted to know how Jim had earned his Purple Heart medal. Jim explained that “a mortar fragment hit my head; it went under my helmet, and I was blinded for a day, and I thank God my sight came back. I cried so much, I think it brought my sight back.” We could see and touch the fragment, which he’d saved, allowing us to hold a piece of WWII history in our hands. Jim was a part of an HQ outfit, and continued, “for some reason, we were ahead of our troops. We didn’t have radios, we had telephones, field phones, and I called to see what we should do, and they said to get markers on field, so the American planes would know on which side of the field the Allies and Germans were. These were big red and yellow cloths, and the enemy was from here to the backyard from us. They were watching me, and they laid mortars towards me when they saw me going back into the woods, and that’s when I got hit.”
Jim's many medals and recognition.
We owe a huge thank you to Jim and others who have dedicated their time, careers, and lives to fight for our freedom. It is a great blessing to have men and women willingly carry the burden of keeping us safe so the rest of us can live free and in peace. We are beyond grateful for those who have served, and our thoughts and prayers are with those who are active duty. Thank you for your service.