Jacksonville Daily Progress
It has been nearly 70 years since war veteran Thomas L. Shafer last saw combat with the U.S. Army – war experiences he said earned him both a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. But he will certainly be revisiting these memories this week.
Shafer, 88, served as a U.S. Army private first class in the Second Battalion, 311th Regiment, 78th Infantry Division in the European theater. Between September 1944 and August 1946, he saw combat various times – including the Battle of Ruhr Pocket, Remagen, Rhineland and Black Forest.
The Jacksonville resident is one of 30 area World War II veterans planning to visit the WWII memorial in Washington, D.C. as well as other sites this week. The veterans are being escorted as part of a trip sponsored by East Texas-based regional grocery chain Brookshire Grocery Co.
They plan to depart at 7:30 a.m. Thursday and return 8:30 p.m. Saturday from and to FRESH by Brookshire’s, 6991 Old Jacksonville Hwy in Tyler.
Members of the community are asked to support the veterans during the “send-off” and “welcome home” events.
This program, titled “Heroes Flights,” is Brookshire's way of paying tribute for the sacrifices and service these WWII veterans selflessly made for their country, officials said.
And as a matter of fact, “Heroes Flights” is one of Brookshire's largest community service efforts. As many as 195 veterans have participated in similar Brookshire-sponsored trips.
A great many of these vets – now in their 80s and 90s – have never even seen the memorial, which was constructed in 2004. Many would never have had the chance to go if not for this program, officials said.
It is the seventh such trip since spring 2010. Brookshire employees and community leaders are designated as guardians to help the GIs during this journey to the past.
It is free to them: Brookshire's is footing the bill.
In addition to the trips to the World War II Memorial and tour of the U.S. Capitol, there also will be stops at various landmarks such as the Vietnam, Lincoln, Navy and Air Force Memor-ials.
Additionally, the veterans will also attend the Changing of the Guard ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.
Veterans participating in the trip are from many different areas of Texas, including Tyler, Hide-away, Mineola, Flint, Mt. Vernon, Mabank, Sul-phur Springs, Palestine, Ben Wheeler, Blooming Grove, Chandler, Canton, Troup, Ovilla, Lindale and – of course, Jackson-ville.
In an issued statement, Rick Rayford, Brookshire's president and chief executive officer, said the veterans are owed a debt for their service that can never be repaid.
“Our company is committed to giving back to local communities, and the Heroes Flights is one of our most rewarding efforts,” Rayford said.
In the time since Shafer left the military, he has worked in business management, lost one daughter and raised three others.
He was married to his first wife, Virginia, for over 68 years before she passed away. He said he married his second wife, Billie Gillespie, four months ago.
However, despite all his life experience, Shafer still can recall early January 1944 – when the group of soldiers of which he was a part landed at the beach at La Havre, France.
Each soldier carried at least 100 pounds of gear, he said.
“We had full filled packs, plus duffel bags full of stuff,” Shafter said. “We were dumped into the water up to our necks. For some of us the water was over our heads – especially those who weren’t as tall as me. I was between 5 foot 11 and a half and 6 feet tall.”
Those who survived the cold and water faced a two-hour march in freezing cold and wet clothes.
Shafer's first assignment was piling up dead bodies.
Later, he was horribly wounded at Remagen, near the German border – thrown against a pile of rocks when a German bomb hit a bridge he had just crossed.
The impact broke his shoulder bone and he also sustained shrapnel wounds.
But Shafer said he ignored his wounds and made his way to the bridge again and again to help wounded civilians trapped by the battle.
After he returned home he received the Bronze Star for evacuating wounded and dead people off the bridge.
Another time he helped shoot down a German plane into the Rhine River with a Browning automatic.
At another point, he was literally shot in the head, wrapped up and left for dead.
His survival from that circumstances earned him his Purple Heart. And the only reason he did survive was a passing soldier heard a soft moan coming from the body wrap and carried him to a first aid station.
And oddly? The medic who teated Shafer's wounds was a captured German.
At times, the injuries Shafer endured seemed so severe it appeared to be a miracle he survived. But there were also some very close calls.
For instance, there was the time Shafer was nearly ran through by a German solider wielding a bayonet. (This battle was so intense it drained both sides of ammo. So the soldier had no other weapons.)
When the German soldier lunged at Shafer with his bayonet, Shafer had nothing to defend himself with.
But an American with his own bayonet emer-ged from around the corner, yelled “Halt!” to distract the German and ran him through when he turned around away from Shafer.
Back in the here and now, Shafer said he has a roommate he will share his Washington experience with. The roommate served in the same WWII outfit as him, although the two were in different regiments and didn't know one another until recently.
“He lived here until about two years ago,” Shafer explained. “After he moved to Jacksonville we got to know each other pretty quick.”