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88-year-old WWII veteran has lived through what many have only read about

November 11, 2012|By DAN DEARTH | dan.dearth@herald-mail.com
  • George Shinham military photograph during WWII.
Submitted photo

George Shinham keeps a 1924 silver dollar in a small box with his Purple Heart and his Prisoner of War Medal.

The 88-year-old Shinham said he and the coin have been through a lot since he picked it up as a young airman in 1943.

“I was carrying it when I was shot down,” he said.

Shinham, who now lives in an assisted-living center south of Hagerstown, was a B-24 turret gunner assigned to the 15th Air Force during World War II.

On Aug. 18, 1944, Shinham’s bomber and hundreds of others took off from airfields in Allied-occupied southern Italy to raid the oil fields at Ploiesti, Romania. The fields provided more than 30 percent of the oil for Hitler’s war machine.

By that stage of the conflict, the Soviets had gained the upper hand on the Germans in eastern Europe, and the western Allies were pushing into France after the D-Day invasion.

Shinham said German fighter planes offered little resistance in the sky above Ploiesti, but the anti-aircraft fire from the ground remained intense as the American warplanes dropped their bombs.

“On our 13th mission, which was our crew’s fourth over Ploiesti, we were hit by ground fire,” Shinham said. “It disabled our control to three of the engines. It didn’t bother the fourth one at all, and it didn’t bother the flight controls ... We drifted back toward Italy before the pilot ordered us to bail out at about 10,000 feet.”

He said the crew took turns getting out of the aircraft through the bomb-bay doors.

It was his first parachute jump.

“We never had any practice; all we ever had were lecture sessions on how to operate the parachute,” Shinham said.

When he cleared the plane, Shinham pulled his ripcord and slowly drifted to the ground. From the sky, he watched as his 29-ton bomber struck the earth and fractured into pieces.

Still in his parachute harness high above the ground, Shinham saw women, children and old men threshing wheat in a field. He said he landed a short distance away and was quickly surrounded by peasants holding pitchforks.

Shinham said that despite the icy reception, the Romanians warmed up to the downed fliers and treated them with kindness.

“Some Romanian lady brought me a bowl of wheat soup and a small bottle of wine for my first meal,” he said. “That lady was very gracious. The Romanians detested the Germans because they confiscated their oil, everything they could ship back home. These people were poor — stolen poor by the Germans.”

Shinham said there was a language barrier between the Americans and Romanians, but they all understood enough French to get by.

“I had a year of French in high school,” he said. “I could tell them I was hot or cold or hungry.”

Shinham said civilians handed the fliers over to Romanian soldiers, who took his bomber crew to a prisoner of war camp near Bucharest on Aug. 23. That same night, Romania severed ties with Germany and joined the Allies.

“The prison gates were opened and I walked in on my own volition rather than be put in prison,” Shinham said. “I was free to go in and out. Actually, I was never interred in the prison.”

Shinham said the Americans were placed under the command of one of their officers, who flew back to Italy in a captured German plane that was repainted with U.S. markings, to arrange for the downed aviators’ repatriation.

“That took a lot of nerve on (his) part to do that during wartime,” Shinham said.

He said the American commander arranged to have them picked up in modified B-17 bombers that were fitted with plywood over the bomb bays. They started to return to Italy on Aug. 31 — 13 days after he was shot down.

Shinham said that on Sept. 13, 1944, he left Naples in a 13-ship convoy on a 13-day voyage to the United States.

“I’m not superstitious. Thirteen is a number between 12 and 14,” he said.

After the war, Shinham said he moved back to his family farm near Clear Spring and “bummed” around for about 18 months until he found work at the Hagerstown Post Office, where he remained until he retired in 1979.

He said he met his wife, Marie, at St. Paul’s Church east of Clear Spring. They were married in 1947 and recently celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary.

The Shinhams said they raised four children and have traveled from Oregon to Florida to attend POW reunions, but the number of attendees has decreased with each passing year. Only three of the 10 members of his crew are still alive.

Shinham said some of the children and grandchildren of the airmen have taken over the responsibility of organizing the reunions to ensure history lives on.

“It’s happy and it’s sad, too,” Shinham said. “There’s not many of us left.”

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