Bittersweet Memories of Only One Game in the Majors
by Richard Tellis
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ROBERT EARL "BERT" SHEPARD
As the weather improved that spring, the base decided to organize a baseball team, and Shepard volunteered to manage. On the morning of the first game, May 21, 1944, another mission was scheduled to bomb Berlin. When he heard about it, Shepard volunteered, even though he wasn't due to fly until the next day. "I'd flown four out of the last five days, but it was going to be a rough mission," he says. "We were scheduled to do low-level bombing and strafing, so I knew we'd need as many pilots as we could get. Besides, [I thought] we'd be back in time for the ball game. But I never got back for that first game.
"I was going in to strafe an aerodrome, and I'm probably a mile or two away, about twenty feet off the ground. When you go in to strafe an aerodrome, they've got 100 or 200 automatic weapons, and they're just setting up a crossfire. Some airplanes had already strafed the field, and there were some German planes burning, so I had a good column of smoke to line up on. I didn't have to raise up to see the field.
"I'm probably a mile from the field, and they shoot my right foot off. You can just feel the foot coming loose at the ankle. I called the colonel and told him I had a leg shot off and I'd call him back later. In the meantime, I get hit in the chin and that caused me to slump over the controls and the next thing I know, I'm just ready to hit the ground. I pulled back. but I couldn't make it. The airplane crashes at 380 miles per hour, explodes, and burns.
"I wake up in a German hospital two or three or four days later. They had the leg amputated, and the gunsight had mashed in my skull over my right eye. They had removed about a two-inch-square piece of the frontal sinus bone over the right eye.
"I woke up fat, dumb, and happy," he says. "They talked to me a little bit, gave me a shot, and I went back to sleep."
After recovering from his injuries, Shepard was held in a prisoner-of-war camp and worked himself back into shape. A fellow prisoner crafted a crude artificial leg on which he could walk surprisingly well, and the two played catch every day. Shepard began to test his limits. He pivoted, practiced covering first base, and fielding bunts. He quickly discovered he could do a lot more than he had originally thought. A German doctor was so impressed he brought his hospital staff out to watch the American prisoner.
While Shepard explored his potential, the Red Cross came through the camp to interview injured detainees and identify those unable to return to combat. He was examined and cleared for repatriation in the next trade of POWs between the Allies and the Axis. In February of 1945, after eight months as a prisoner of war, he sailed into New York harbor aboard a Swedish Red Cross ship.
"I landed in New York and then went down to Walter Reed Hospital to get a new artificial leg," Shepard recalls. "While we're waiting, Secretary of War [Robert] Patterson asked two officers and two enlisted men that just returned from prison camp to come to his office. So he sent the staff car out, and I happened to be one of the prisoners that was chosen to go.
"He asked each of us what we wanted to do, and one old farm boy from Arkansas, he says, 'All I want to do is go home and get my shotgun and shoot some ducks.'
"Patterson [asked] me, and I said, 'Well, if I can't fly combat, I'd like to play professional baseball.' Patterson said, 'Well, hell, you can't do that on that leg, can you?' and I said, 'As soon as I get a new leg, I'm pretty sure I can.'"
Patterson telephoned Clark Griffith, a friend of his and the owner of the American League's Washington Nationals. He told Griffith, "We have a prisoner of war that just came back from Germany and lost his leg. He says he can play pro ball."
Griffith, perhaps sensing the publicity to be gained, replied, "Well, after he gets his new leg, have him come out."
From Once Around the Bases by Richard Tellis.
Copyright © 1998 by Triumph Books and Richard Tellis. Reprinted with permission.