At 96, Robert “Shep” Shepard still stands tall, although he uses a cane for balance. In 1944, at the age of 27, Shepard was living as a prisoner of war in Stalag Luft, a camp outside Barth, Germany about 200 miles away from Sweden, where he and about 8,000 other military prisoners were surrounded by miles of barbed wire.
“The Russians, under Marshal Zhukov, liberated the camp after we’d been there for seven or eight months,” said Shepard. “They drove tanks right over the barbed wire, flattening it and we took the doors off the barracks, laid them on top of the wire and walked out.”
In the library of the Gold Country Retirement Community, the veteran reflected on his service during WWII. As an Air Force flight engineer aboard a B-17, Shepard flew 17 combat missions over Germany. It was Shepard’s job to keep the bomber and all of its equipment in good shape.
“We flew 13 missions over Berlin,” said Shepard, “and we got shot down on the 13th one. That made me a little superstitious.”
The B-17 crash landed outside a farm village and the villagers soon arrived with deer rifles, pitchforks and shotguns to take charge of the crew. All of the crew had survived.
“I had the only injury,” said Shepard who was wounded in his right hand. “A German doctor sewed two of my fingers back on and told me, through his nurse, to get it fixed right when I got home,” said Shepard as he flexed his fingers. “I did and they work perfectly.”
After liberation, the former prisoners walked over the barbed wire into the village of Barth and then were sent to Layon, France.
“We took a ship out of LeHavre and cruised to Camp Patrick Henry in Virginia,” said Shepard. “We got some medical attention and new uniforms in the camp and then they put us on a troop train home.
“One of our first stops was up in the mountains in Virginia. The women of the town set up card tables on the train platform and they were piled with cakes, pies, sandwiches — everything,” he said. With emotion in his voice, Shepard added, “They fed us.”
That welcome meant a lot, but the welcome days later in Shepard’s home town of Berkeley was even better.
“We ended up in Marysville and some of us went into town,” said Shepard. “I went to the bus station and asked if there was a bus going to Berkeley.”
There was no bus that went to Berkeley, but out in the bus yard, Shepard found a bus going to San Francisco.
“I asked if the driver if he could drop me off in Berkeley and he said no, but for $8 I could sit right behind him on top of my duffle bag,” Shepard said. “He drove into Berkeley on University Avenue and when he got to San Pablo, he said, ‘Is this good enough?’”
Shepard hopped out, walked to a drugstore and called his wife to pick him up. She had no idea he was home.
“She and the dog picked me up and when we got home we had a great family reunion with my son, who was 5, and my daughter who was 2 or 3,” he said.
Two days later, Tech Sergeant Shepard returned to his job at Emeryville Western Electric where he was a telephone repairman. It was a practical, take-care-of business approach shared by many World War II veterans, who picked up their lives as best they could where they had left them before the war.
Before the war, Shepard grew up all over Northern and Central California with his two sisters. Older sister, Kate, taught him how to talk to girls and his parents took them camping in Yosemite. “I’ve climbed a lot of mountains in California,” said Shepard.
Despite being married, with a young son, Shepard enlisted in the Air Force after the war started. He worked for years for the Monarch Flying Service at the San Francisco Bay Aerodrome in Alameda as a flight mechanic, so the Air Force was a natural choice.
“This was my country and enlisting was the thing to do at the time,” said Shepard.
He can still recite his military serial number and remembers, some 69 years later, the names and home towns of his “rebel” crew.
“Our pilot was from Alabama, the engineer was from Bainbridge, Georgia, the tail gunner was from Piney Flats, Tenn. and the navigator was from the south too. The bombardier was from Chicago and we were the ‘damn Yankees,’” Shepard said.
“It was just something you had to do,” said Shepard of the harrowing bombing missions. “We were lucky — most of the time we just got flack. We had a few holes. It wasn’t until you were back on the ground that you saw what they missed.”
Shepard was the tallest man on the nine man bomb crew and his friend John “Shorty” Coble, was the shortest. “He was stationed in the ball turret and I was in the top turret. Everyone had a sector of sky to watch,” he said.
After the war, Shepard kept up with Shorty, who lived in Southern California. “We were buddies,” Shepard said. “We visited back and forth for many years but we lost touch three or four years ago.”
Despite the many years of flight he logged in as a passenger, Shepard never took up flying on his own. “I had enough of flying,” he said.
Shepard and his wife Doris were married 42 years. He has a son and daughter and grandchildren who live out of the area. At one point in his life, he moved his family to Lake Tahoe where he maintained the switchboard systems for casinos like Harrah’s and Harvey’s and he operated the Purple Sage Motel.
Shepard and Doris moved to Pollock Pines where they built their dream home. After Doris died, Shepard moved to Gold Country and married Josephine, who is now deceased.
While Shepard attended the May 21 Memorial Day event held at Gold Country Retirement Community to honor the many veterans who live there, he said, “It’s just another day on the calendar. I have a lot of memories, but no desire for parades. I pay my respects.”
Contact Wendy Schultz at 530 344-5069 or [email protected] Follow @wschultzMtDemo on Twitter.