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Ralph Shear: Invincible Infantryman

by Gary Greenberg
Photo by Mike Price
Courtesy of Boca Raton Magazine

September 2001-- “Surviving war has nothing to do with being a good or bad soldier,” Ralph Shear says. “It’s all a matter of luck.” 

    Shear ought to know. He was an infantryman who fought in five major
European battles, starting on D-Day. 

    “We were the third wave to hit Omaha Beach, and when the Coast Guardsman bringing us to shore saw all the bodies in the water, he tried to let us off too far out,” Shear recalls. “We threatened to blow his head off if he didn’t take us closer, so he did and we jumped into water up to our knees. 

    “Nobody knew what was going on. I was 20 years old and scared to death. Omaha Beach was the worst of the landing spots because the Germans were entrenched on top of the cliffs and were zeroed in on us, picking us off like flies.” 

    Shear managed to survive by hunkering behind a seawall. The son of a
Brooklyn tailor, he’d been trained to be a navigator in the Army Air Corps. But Uncle Sam needed more grunts than navigators, so he was sent to the front lines of the big invasion as a replacement soldier. 

    After D-Day, Shear was assigned to the 35th Infantry Division. He fought his second battle at St-Lo, then hooked up with Patton’s Third Army. 

    “We rode across France on the top of tanks,” he says. “And when we ran into opposition, we eliminated it.” 

    What might sound glamorous, wasn’t. 

    “It was so bad, guys shot their toes off to get out,” he says. “The only way out was to get wounded, captured or caught.” 

    Any one of those things might have happened to Shear at various times. Once, during a driving rain, a 155 mm shell landed five or ten feet from him but just stuck in the mud without exploding. Another time, he was ordered to fetch more mortar ammo and unknowingly ran right through a minefield. Then there was the time he was sent to fix a severed communication line and got caught by German artillery. 

    “I ran zig-zagging back with shells popping all around me,” he says. 

    At Bastogne, his company was decimated. “When you see the first few guys killed, it’s horrific,” he admits. “But you see it, say ‘thank God it’s not me’ and move on.” 

    Remarkably, he kept moving on, and the tide of the war turned. 

    “On January 30, 1945, my wife gave birth to my first son,” he says, “but I was occupied at Venlo taking Holland back from the Germans.” 

    He was also with the group that stumbled upon the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where Anne Frank had lost her life. 

     “Nobody ever told us things like this existed and when we sent back the information to headquarters, the guys didn’t understand what we were talking about,” he says. “Twenty or thirty thousand bodies were stacked up like cordwood, and the live ones looked like the living dead.” 

    After more than ten months of combat, Shear was finally shipped home – so he could start preparing for the invasion of Japan. 

    “Some people criticize Harry Truman for dropping the bomb,” Shear says. “But he saved my ass.” 

    Shear had a bad case of shell shock after the war, but he fought through it just as he’d fought his way through Central Europe. He found work as butcher and eventually became the owner of a meat market in Yonkers. Now, he’s 78 and retired, living peacefully in Boca Raton’s Century Village. An officer with the Jewish War Veterans, he volunteers a lot of time with disabled veterans, taking them fishing, or to the movies, or on some other outings. 

    “My wartime experience gave me a love of country and love of liberty because there’s no place on Earth as free as our country,” he says. “But the memories of war never leave you. They become part of your soul.”

Next: Lou Goldbrum: Jap POW
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