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Lawrence Shoemaker: Honoring Our Vets

It was a chilly night in early May of 1945, just after American troops received knowledge that World War II was ending in Europe. After the news arrived, Lawrence Shoemaker and 73 members of his company decided to leave their camp in Czechoslovakia a night early, not wanting to wait a minute longer to get back to the American camp across the German border. They asked their guard if they could leave alone that night instead of waiting until the war was officially over the next morning, and although they knew it was unsafe, they wanted to make the journey immediately. After leaving around 6:00 p.m. and eight following hours of walking in safety, the group was commanded to “halt,” by a 12-13 year old German boy around 2:00 in the morning. Much to their surprise, he spoke English, and the first words out of his mouth were “are you Americans?” Shoemaker and his company responded in the affirmative and the boy said “follow me, I’ve been taking prisoners in all night.” They were shocked to be lead to an American outpost just across the German border. The boy got on the phone and a truck came to pick them up. They stayed at that outpost until daylight, then loaded the truck which took them to a satisfying breakfast—the first one they’d had in months. “The war was over. We were making our way back,” said Shoemaker. He and his company flew that day from Germany to Reims, France. They spent one night there then flew from Reims into Le Havre, France where they stayed at camp Lucky Strike (named after the cigarettes). They arrived around 2:00 p.m. on May 9 and waited there until June 6 when they loaded the ship and headed back across the Atlantic to the U.S.

Nineteen months prior to being sequestered by the young German boy, Shoemaker was drafted into the Armed Forces. The 18-year-old hadn’t been “any further than Pulaski, Virginia,” when he was drafted and was in no hurry to leave home. That’s how he ended up in the Army.

“They initially wanted to put me into the Navy but you only have seven days to stay at home after induction,” said Shoemaker. “But you got 14 days for the Marines and 21 days for Army. I didn’t know what difference each branch would entail but I knew that with the Army I got to stay home longer, so that’s what I chose.”

His first camp was Fort Mede, Maryland where he stayed for 10 days, followed by Fort Eustis, Virginia, Fort Benning, Georgia, and finally Camp McCain, Mississippi, for his 20 weeks of infantry basic training. “I was home on leave on June 6 of 1944, the day they invaded France (D-Day) and I left the states on the 26 of July. I arrived in that same spot on Omaha Beach on August 12, 1944 and joined my company the very next day.”

And from there it began.

It was two months and one week after D-Day when Shoemaker arrived in France. The day he landed, his company was in battle. After that battle was finished, they waited in Saint-Lo, France for about two weeks before being shipped to the Germany/Belgium border. He worked in Kemnath, Germany starting the first week of October.

“I worked in an automobile factory. One day, the village was bombed and the factory where I worked was destroyed – so from then on out we just did our best to save those who were trapped in buildings or in fires after the bombings. One time I pulled someone out of an elevator who was on the top floor of the building and the elevator fell all the way down to the basement.”

They were finally relieved by 106th division on December 10 of 1944. Without much time for recuperation, the infamous Battle of the Bulge followed shortly after on the 16th at 5:30 a.m. That night, going into the battle, Shoemaker experienced one of his most life-threatening situations during the war as his company had to march through a mine field. They walked single file with nothing more than a wire to hold onto, staying along the path away from the mines that the engineers had quickly tested.

After making it through by the break of daylight, they rescued prisoners from surrounding buildings and went directly into battle. His division, and one other, held out until 1:30 the next day on December 18. They stopped the Germans cold at the crossroad leading them out of Bastogne (as part of the Siege of Bastogne) until his company was wiped out.

Only 12 men were left. They were all captured.

“We marched for three days and nights after we were captured, and the first place the Germans took us was a training camp in Muhlenberg, Germany where we stayed for about two weeks. Then we were loaded in box cars and taken to another German camp on the Czech border.” There, the directions fighter planes flew in the sky above was the only indication of the circumstances of the war.

“On Christmas Day 1944 I heard that we had lost about 100 bombers in a raid – 1,000 men right there –killed and captured. We saw all the fighter planes in the raid go right over our head before they got our men,” said Shoemaker. “We had stopped working for lunch and watched our planes going over head when suddenly there was a loud noise. We looked up and here was coming a German plane just about 100 feet over our head. And then one of our B-51 fighter planes came right behind it and shot it down—right over us! We said that was our Christmas present for the year.”

They were kept at that camp in Czechoslovakia until the end of the war. Until that evening around 6:00 p.m. on May 7, 1944 when Shoemaker and his company made that 8-hour walk through Czechoslovakia and into Germany. That evening that he saw the German boy: the point that began his journey out of Europe, out of WWII, and back to home.

“The day we were liberated was the happiest day of my life I guess. In fact, I know it was,” Shoemaker said.

“When we would go walking without the guards we would have to be careful, even though the war had ended. Once, we met German troops along a road and there were two or three trucks and a tank of German soldiers who stopped—so we stopped. After a minute of tension, the rest of my company walked on but I stayed behind to talk with one of the Germans who spoke good English.”

“We had a chat, I wished him luck and said that I hoped he found his family and all. He was relieved it was over too. You know, I even felt sorry for him,” said Shoemaker. “At one time or another I wouldn’t have cared if every German there died, children and all, you just reach that point in war. You get into that thing and it eats on you. But in reality they were just like us—they had to do it. And if they hadn’t have done it they would’ve been put in prison.”

Coming back after he left Europe, the war was still going on in the Pacific. Shoemaker and all the other troops coming home from Europe were given a 70-day leave before having to go back for more training. Luckily, he was still pretty healthy when he returned home aside from some weight loss.

“I weighed about 165 pounds when I was captured and probably 120 when I was liberated. I was a lucky one though. Some of the others who had weighed 200 pounds at first were down under 100. Some of them turned up just skin and bones.”

More than anything, after returning home, Shoemaker was worried about the war in Japan. He was afraid that after his leave he would probably have to go fight in the Pacific. But his experiences as a German prisoner of war changed things for him.

“I had made up my mind that if I did have to go, I was not going to surrender. I was going to make them kill me. I did not want to face the Japanese as a prisoner. The Japanese seemed unhuman—they didn’t care. You train for the things that you expect, but when you get into the battle it is altogether different,” Shoemaker said. “What they train you for is impossible to really know once you’re there.”

Despite these worries, he enjoyed his time at home: It was just like old times after a week or so. He ate a lot, gained his weight back and moved into a new house with his mother and brothers (who have also both served in the Armed Forces). Once his leave was finished, he was sent down to Asheville for nine days then to South Carolina, just outside of Spartanburg. He stayed there until they had news that the war was finally over in September of 1945. He was stationed at his camp until just after Thanksgiving, then was officially discharged.

“I was glad with President Truman’s decision to drop the bombs and end the war. I know it was hard and there were a lot of men, women, and children who lost their lives. But if we would have invaded Japan we were estimated to lose at least 1.5 million men and they would’ve lost 3.5 million (as opposed to an estimated 200,000 killed by the bombs). It was a hard choice. A lose-lose situation. But it needed to be done.”

After returning home for good, Shoemaker moved to Kingsport and worked for the Kingsport Times Press. After only a couple of days back to work, he met his wife there at the plant.

“I started back on January 7 1946 and we were married on the fourth of July 1946,” he laughed, after all, that was considered a little hasty. “It worked out though!”

After he retired, he joined the Honor Guard with American Legion and helped to do more than 4,500 military funerals over his 24-year tenure. That, along with traveling the world with his wife, are what kept him busy after retirement.

“In 1989, I went back over to Europe on a 15-day trip with my wife. We flew into London and boarded a ship over to Caen, France and then a bus took us all the way back to Omaha Beach. We toured our way through France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and Czechoslovakia. And I didn’t like it. I went back to show [my wife] where I had been, and I’m glad we did it together, but I wouldn’t care if I never see those places again after that.”

After 69 years of marriage, Shoemaker’s wife passed away last September due to Alzheimer’s disease. They did not have any children so once she became ill, they moved into an assisted living community where the 91-year-old man still lives today.

As he sits at his arm chair, looking at his case of medals and honors sitting on a glass shelf, digging through photo albums of old tattered sepia-toned prints in uniform, his time during WWII is reflected through the core of his being. He remembers exact dates and numbers so precise that he says he can remember “better back then than he can yesterday.” With every story told and with every intricate detail, it is evident that time is what shaped the man he became throughout the rest of his life.

“I mentioned the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Once I was doing a military funeral at Oak Hill, and after, a service a lady came to talk to me (he was Color Guard Commander at that time). She walked up and said that of all the military services she had ever been to, that we had done the best. Of course that made me feel great—but you’ll never guess who she was,” he said. “She told me that she was the daughter of Colonel Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the Enola Gay, the plane that bombed Nagasaki. Her father had just passed away 4 or 5 years ago.”

Shoemaker says that recognitions like this make him proud to have served in the Armed Forces, especially during WWII. He says that he fought amongst some heroes in his own company, and even more so respects the true forgotten heroes—those who didn’t get to come back.

One of these being William D. Soderman, a man in his company who received the Congressional Medal of Honor during the Battle of the Bulge. Another, Billy B. Hill, who was wounded and came home early in December 1944 when he went out on patrol and felt a landmine under his feet. He told the 11 others that he was with he was standing over the mine and told them to scatter. He had nothing to do but to dive off as it exploded—but he survived.

“But me? I’m not a hero,” said Lawrence Shoemaker. “I’m just a member of the team.”

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