‘Normandy is crying, they lost a hero’

With reenactors around him, George A. Shenkle Jr. poses in his assigned third seat inside the C-47A Skytrain that transported he and his fellow paratroopers on D-Day. (Delaware State News/Andrew West)

DOVER — George A. Shenkle Jr. was special to Normandy.

His daughter, Rebecca Shenkle Goff, witnessed it in recent years when the World War II paratrooper returned to France.

And, it overwhelmed her when expressions of sympathy poured in after they got word of his death on April 9.

The love inspired her to write “Normandy is Crying.”

Normandy is crying, they lost a hero

A man his family couldn’t understand

But then how can we

We know not heroes

How can Normandy cry,

they hardly knew him,

But then again, maybe they did

And it is we who failed to see

The poem speaks to the lasting gratitude extended to the soldiers for the country’s liberation from the Germans and ties it to the world’s current war on a pandemic.

“When we’re over here, we’re heroes,” Mr. Shenkle said once during a trip to France. “When we go back home, we’re just old.”

Mr. Shenkle, who was planning another trip to France this year, died of complications of COVID-19 in Southeastern Veterans Center in Chester County, Pennsylvania.

He was 98.

“The war couldn’t get him,” said his daughter, Rebecca Shenkle Goff, “but the COVID did.”

Ms. Goff said she planned to accompany him on the trip to France in June for the fourth time.

Last year, he was on a stage, seated behind President Donald Trump, during a 75th anniversary ceremony.

In recent years, Ms. Goff said she began to better understand him.

“He wasn’t always easy,” she said. “With his family, he was not the warm fuzzy he was with the public. But I had the opportunity to witness him in all this glory the last three years.”

***

In Dover, Mr. Shenkle’s connection is to the “Turf and Sport Special” – a restored C-47A Skytrain that is the centerpiece of the Air Mobility Command Museum and the very one that carried him on June 6, 1944.

In the late 1980s, Mike Leister, then director of the museum, contacted him to see if he was the George Shenkle listed on the D-Day manifest for the plane. Reluctantly, he came to Dover to see it and reunited with several men who were on that flight.

“The museum’s volunteers brought this down from Pennsylvania when it was scrap and spent hours restoring it,” Mr. Shenkle told this editor in a 2015 interview. “Up to then, I was never interested in anything to do with it and I was glad to get out of the service.”

Said Mr. Leister, “George was every bit the paratrooper even in his later years – a bit brash but full of confidence and ability. He liked people and was justifiably proud of what he and his buddies accomplished.”

In 2015, he was invited back to tour the plane and see additional authentication results, including the installation of jump seats. He assumed the same seat he had on D-Day, surrounded by young soldiers.

“You could see his pride,” said Mr. Leister. “When he looked at the re-enactors in full battle gear sitting in the seats next to him, he was remembering his buddies and he had to take a few moments before he could talk.”

At a 2015 gathering at the Air Mobility Command Museum in Dover, George A. Shenkle Jr. spoke about the medals on his Army Airborne jacket. They include a Bronze Star for his time in France and the Purple Heart he earned in the Battle of the Bulge. Another is a Legion of Honor medal he received from French President Francois Hollande in a ceremony at the White House. “What do you think these things are for,” he said with a laugh, “Like Napoleon, give me enough ribbon and I’ll conquer the world. You’ve got to give a boost to the ego.”

Bob Leicht, a retired U.S. Army colonel who committed countless hours to bringing the C-47A back to its D-Day look, was thrilled that two of the paratroopers, Mr. Shenkle and Joe Morettini, were able to see it.

“What drew me to the museum was the chance to help restore an aircraft that had dropped members of the 82nd Airborne Division into France on D-Day,” said Col. Leicht. “Since both my son and I are vets of the 82nd, the opportunity to connect to this piece of history was something I had to do.

“I’ve seen a lot of warbirds, and met a lot of WWII vets, both my parents included, but to be present when George and Joseph visited ‘their’ aircraft was priceless. The aircraft couldn’t talk, but George and Joseph sure could.”

***

In his 2015 appearance at the museum, Mr. Shenkle recounted the story of landing near St. Mère-Église, France, where his unit was tasked with securing bridges to keep the Germans from the beaches.

“It was OK until we hit the coast and then the flak starts coming up,” he said. “We hit a cloud bank and when we came out of that, it was panic. We got scattered all over the peninsula and most of our regiment was dropped on the incorrect side of the river.”

Mr. Shenkle, a communications corporal during that time, was among 18 men who jumped from the C-47A.

“It’s funny how things come back to you,” he said. “I can remember being dropped and coming in and landing backwards. I remember it like it happened yesterday.”

His son, Peter, said his father found himself separated from the rest of his unit.

In the darkness, he remained quiet, confused by odd noises around him. When daylight crept in, he realized he was in a cow pasture.

It was three days before Cpl. Shenkle met up with the rest of the unit.

“He took pride in telling the stories as accurately as he could – down to the details of what it felt like, what it was like with the flak in the sky,” said Peter. “He made you feel like you were there.”

***

It wasn’t always that way. Mr. Shenkle was not one to talk with his family about the scar on his shoulder. He took a bullet in the Battle of the Bulge.

Ms. Goff remembers him being secretive about the Purple Heart.

Mr. Shenkle also jumped during Operation Market Garden in Holland in September 1944.

“I remember sitting at the table and asking him about the war, and little bits and pieces he’d share,” said Peter Shenkle. “He did tell me more as years went by.

“Over the last two years at the vets center, I had a couple of purposeful conversations. He would fill in gaps. I was very grateful for that.”

***

Mr. Shenkle lived in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, before his final two years as a resident of the highly rated Veterans Care Center.

After the war, he worked for Alan Wood Steel in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, starting as a clerk in the mill and retiring as an assistant secretary in the company.

Mr. Shenkle’s wife of nearly 60 years, Dolores, died in 2005. He is survived by four children — David, Peter, Rebecca and Victoria. along with 10 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

He was preceded in death by a fifth child, William.

Peter Shenkle said his father enjoyed traveling in the years that followed and he regularly attended gatherings of the 82nd Airborne.

It was difficult, at first, for the “free spirit” to move into the Veterans Care Center.

The center has been hit especially hard by COVID-19. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported a few days ago that at least 26 residents have died there.

Ms. Goff and her brother both said they were grateful for the care he received. The center, they said, was among the top rated in the state.

“He was on a floor in a building that was impeccable,” said Ms. Goff. “He was blessed the last days of his life to be there.”

The family learned Mr. Shenkle had a fever and pneumonia on Friday, April 3. Test results came back on the following Monday and revealed he had COVID-19.

“He fought until the end,” said his son, Peter.

Two days before his father died, he asked center staff if he was alert and could talk.

“They took a cell phone in, in a baggy,” he said. “He was confused, on morphine and on oxygen. But it was a great couple of minutes I had with him.”

Ms. Goff said the nature of COVID-19 is especially difficult for families.

“The real sadness is that people can’t hold their hands and say goodbye,” she said.

The family said a celebration of life service will be held at a later date.

***

Among the final lines of her poem, Ms. Goff wrote:

Normandy, keep crying, keep crying for the world

The world needs tears, we have to feel the pain

We have to learn what horror looks like

Because you have not forgotten

***

Editor’s notes:

  • Mr. Shenkle’s obituary.
  • The full poem from Rebecca Shenkle Goff appears below.

Normandy is Crying

In Memory of George Shenkle
By Rebecca Shenkle Goff

Normandy is crying, they lost a hero.
A man, his family couldn’t understand.
But then, how can we
We know not hero’s

How can Normandy cry,
they hardly knew him,
But then again, maybe they did
And it is we who failed to see

Normandy, teach us to open our eyes
To the magnificence of gratitude
To the humility of breaking pain
Tears flowing, hearts open, arms wide
To embrace what we cannot see

We Americans are blind to hero’s
Because we hide our suffering
Normandy knows suffering, then liberation
Those Hero’s saved them

Those hero’s came back to America
and were not understood
They were forgotten,
and this country never saw
what Normandy saw
This country never felt what Normandy felt
This country never felt at all

We turned our backs on the hero’s
The hero’s suffered in silence
The hero’s are tucked away,
So we cannot see the suffering

Now the hero’s will be dying
As their bodies are breaking down
Not forgotten, because they never were seen
As hero’s, just old men.

Normandy, keep crying, keep crying for the world
The world needs tears, we have to feel the pain
We have to learn what horror looks like
Because you have not forgotten

Blessed Normandy, St. Mere Eglise
You honor our veterans
You helped them to rise to the skies again,
You brought them up, and held them high
For the world to see, what hero’s are.
You kept your hearts and souls full of Love
And have showed the world what we need
Don’t turn your backs on hero’s
Don’t idolize them, simply Love them
And rise the energy for all the world to see

Thank You Normandy, we need you more than ever
As now another World War embarks
We have to save humanity
And not crumble, escape, or harden
God Bless Normandy, and The World,
And especially America, because we need
The tenderness, gratitude, and Love more than ever.
We Love You Normandy!


Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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