Bittersweet Memories of Only One Game in the Majors
by Richard Tellis
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ROBERT EARL "BERT" SHEPARD
But the minor leagues were one of the early casualties of World War II, with the lack of players causing many teams to fold. At the start of 1942, there was no team for Shepard to play on. Within two years, only ten minor leagues would still be in operation. But it made little difference. He was drafted that May.
Shepard went to Daniel Field near Augusta, Georgia, and applied for pilot training, although he knew absolutely nothing about it. "I'd never been near an airplane. Hadn't been within a mile of one," he says.
Before being sent out for flight training, however, Shepard played first base for the Daniel Field baseball team and even got started on a brief football career, which he remembers happily. Although he'd never played football before, outside of an occasional pickup game, Shepard tried out for the base team. When asked where he was from, the young recruit replied, "Indiana," which was taken to mean Indiana University.
"I made first-string fullback and all the rest of the team were college players," recalls Shepard. "I went behind the barracks that night to practice the Notre Dame shift. I didn't want people to know I didn't know much about it.
"So I played one game against Clemson and got a rib hurt. Then two games later, we played Jacksonville Naval Training Station. They had six of their starting eleven out of the pro league. I intercepted three passes, made eleven clean tackles, and even gained a few yards even though we got the hell beat out of us.
"So I get back and my orders are there to go to flight training school. And the newspaper said, 'Daniel Field will miss the valuable experience of Shepard.' That's the first whole game I ever played," he laughs. "But you don't tell people all those things. It's a good example of how people often overrate the opponent."
At flight school, Shepard began training as a fighter pilot. "I go out with five other students to our instructor, and they've all flown before. The instructor gets to me and he says, 'Have you ever flown?' I said, 'This is the closest I've ever been to an airplane.' He said, 'Well then, I'll take you first.'
"I was getting into something I didn't know anything about. But I said, 'Well, I'm gonna give it a try.' I found I had some skills as a pilot, and I wanted to fly. I wanted to pursue it to the fullest extent, and the more I pursued it, the more I liked it. I enjoyed flying tremendously. You're the boss. You're in a fighter aircraft, a P-38, and in a dive we could get it up to about 525 miles an hour. We could go up to 46,000 feet. And I've rolled it fifty feet off the ground in front of the tower and been grounded for a couple of days," he laughs.
After completing his training, Second Lieutenant Shepard, P-38 pilot, took a train from Los Angeles to New York, where he boarded the troop ship Aquatania and landed in Scotland two weeks later.
After six more weeks of training, Shepard began flying combat missions with the Fifty-Fifth Fighter Group of the U.S. Eighth Air Force and piloting a fast, new P-38 Thunderbolt. On his thirty-fourth mission, he flew in the first daytime bombing raid over Berlin.
From Once Around the Bases by Richard Tellis.
Copyright © 1998 by Triumph Books and Richard Tellis. Reprinted with permission.