James H. Shaw

Shaw photo

James H. Shaw
US Army, 83rd Division, 331st Infantry
World War II (1943-1946)

James H. Shaw, 87, of Marinwood , California is a humble veteran of World War II.  Like many veterans of this era, Shaw views his service as something a man should do for one’s country.  Despite the hardships and dangers of battle which led Shaw from the beaches of Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge, James Shaw is proud that he never let his fellow soldier down.  He is thankful just to have survived. 

James H. Shaw was born on July 24, 1924 in New York City, New York.  Shaw grew up primarily in New Jersey and was the son of a prosperous engineer and businessman.  Shaw’s father was a World War I medic and his uncle and other family members served in the military, as well.  In 1943, at the age of 19, Shaw was drafted into the army.  Although his family supported his induction into the army, Shaw recalls that his mother was upset and told him, “if only you had done your studies you would be an officer candidate”.  Shaw was sent to basic training at Fort Dix in New Jersey.  He also completed additional training at Camp Van Dorn, Mississippi and Camp Atterbury in Indiana.  Shaw felt his training was “as good as could be expected and involved marching, exercises, crawling under barbed wire with machine guns firing and rifle range practice”.  He also did additional training with a ranger battalion.  Shaw was able to cope with the rigors of basic training due to his positive attitude and outdoors experience working in the woods. 

Shaw, a private, was assigned to the 83rd Ohio Division, 331st Infantry, 2nd battalion headquarters, ammunition and pioneer platoon.  He had a specialty doing rough engineering work and handling explosives and ammunitions in a pioneering company.  The 83rd Division was originally activated in August 1942.  Shaw’s Division left from Camp Shanks in New York for Europe on April 6, 1944 and landed in England on April 16th.  This Division had three infantry regiments, the 329th, the 330th, and the 331st. The 83rd Division spent 244 days in combat and suffered 23,980 casualties, 15,248 of which were combat casualties.  Of the 68 divisions deployed by the U.S. Army in the European Theater, the 83rd was ninth in the number of combat deaths.        

Shaw’s unit, the 331st Infantry, 83rd Division, fought five long campaigns in Europe from Omaha Beach to the Elbe River.  Overall, the 331st Infantry fought continuously for ten and a half months and traveled 1,406 miles from Omaha Beach in Normandy through France, Luxembourg, Belgium and Germany across the Elbe River.  The unit was credited with capturing 15, 958 prisoners and participated in every major battle in Europe.  This ongoing battle covered a mine-filled landscape and heavily defended European hedgerows.  The 331st Infantry succeeded in piercing one of the most powerful lines of resistance and played a major role in the breakthrough from Normandy to central France.  

Shaw’s primary duties with the Headquarters Company of the 331st Infantry were to support the infantry companies, participate in training with explosives and the deactivation of mines, and handle ammunitions and explosives.  When Shaw first arrived in England, he thought it was very interesting since he hadn’t been there for at least five years.  Shaw was delighted to be there and had several civilian and military friends in England.  It was wet and cold when he first arrived in England and Shaw slept on a straw pallet on the ground until he moved to a more permanent encampment.   As often as possible, Shaw would escape from camp to go out for social evenings with friends and young women in the British Air Force.  Shaw coped with being in the military by not thinking about it.  He and the men of his Division never thought about morale much.  “You had a job to do and you did it”, said Shaw.  Overall, the men in his unit and most of his commanding officers were good, but Shaw felt his immediate superior was “unfit to be an officer and couldn’t even boil a three minute egg.  Somehow he was in charge.”  From the beginning, Shaw had difficulty with his superior due to challenging and correcting his superior when he improperly calculated the levels of some explosives.  From that point on, Shaw’s life was made a little more difficult.   

Fortunately for Shaw and the 83rd Division, they did not arrive at Omaha Beach in Normandy until the initial onslaught was over.  Shaw and his Division were caught in a terrible storm in the English Channel.  Arriving the day after the infamous D-Day at Normandy, Shaw was greeted by the gruesome sight of floating dead soldiers along the shoreline.  It was certainly a bloody sight and he was “thankful not to have been part of the first wave that landed”.  Shaw and his Division landed across Omaha Beach and took over defensive positions near Carentan, where they relieved the 101st Airborne.  While on the front line handling ammunition and explosives, Shaw was buried under a rain of dirt when an ammunition box was hit and exploded.  As a result of this close range explosion, Shaw was rendered deaf for days.  According to Shaw, this was one of the scariest moments of his military career.  He still suffers a high range hearing loss today.  Shaw did not receive any citations or medals for his service in Normandy or his injury.  The 83rd Division left Carentan and moved south toward Sainteny, where they encountered a six-day battle claiming over 1,400 casualties in the first 24 hours. By the time Sainteny was taken that number multiplied to 3,264.

On the first day, the 83rd jumped off along the Carentan-Periers road, with the entire division artillery in support.  The assault against the German 17th SS Division and 6th Parachute Regiment was slow and costly.  The German’s attempts to organize tank-supported counterattacks were shattered by the 83rd’s field artillery battalions. Shaw and the others in his Unit picked their way through mine fields and booby traps to clear the way and supply routes were blasted through the hedges. Tanks, tank destroyers and armored infantry aided the attack.  In July, the 83rd Division took Hotot, then advanced toward the Taute River and fought through hedgerows to the village of Auxais, where the 331st Infantry captured Sainteny.

In late July, the 83rd Division had a front row seat to the largest air-ground operation ever attempted by American forces. Operation COBRA began on July 25, 1944 and over 1,500 heavy bombers dropped 3,300 tons of bombs.  In addition, more than 380 medium bombers dropped 650 tons of high-explosive and fragmentation bombs, while 550 fighter-bombers dropped more than 200 tons of high-explosive and napalm. Operation COBRA occurred only 1,500 yards in front of the American line.  On July 26th, the 83rd Division entered the fight and encountered heavy combat.  The 83rd crossed the Taute River and forced their way into Le Mesnil Vigot.  In August, the 83rd Division moved out of the Cotentin Peninsula and turned west into Brittany. The roads were strewn with German tanks, trucks, and often with dead Germans. Along the Brittany coast, the 83rd Division received orders to capture the port towns of St. Malo and Dinard.  St. Malo was the main port on the northern coast of Brittany.  Intelligence estimated between 3,000 and 6,000 German troops occupied St. Malo. Actually 12,000 Germans defended the walled city.  It took two weeks of fighting to raze St. Malo. In early August, the Germans were forced back to the Citadel at St. Servan and to Dinard.  After days of fighting under thick smoke, artillery fire, and fighter-bomber attacks, the Germans surrendered.  The fall of this German stronghold led to the taking of Dinard, Fortress Poulo, St. Lunaire and St. Brieuc.      

Shaw’s unit, the 331st Infantry, then moved down to the Loire River to protect the right flank of the 3rd Army as it moved across France.  Shaw’s duties still consisted of hauling ammunition and explosives to the front line, removing and deactivating mines and booby traps, and generally plotting out paths through the minefields.  While serving in the Loire Valley, Shaw recalls finding a motorcycle and being the first American soldier to arrive in the region and received a nice celebration from the villagers.  At St. Nazaire on the Brittany Peninsula, Shaw’s Unit met the German troops again and gained control of the entire region.  The 331st Infantry was responsible for one of the longest sectors in Europe from Angers through Nantes to Redon for a total of 93 miles.  From this region, Shaw’s unit moved into Luxembourg and cleared the west banks of the Moselle River prior to moving into Germany.  In Luxembourg, the men were greeted by banners proclaiming “Welcome to our Liberators.” The people still seemed surprised at the sight of American soldiers in their city.  The 83rd Division was able to stay in the comfort of the city for a short time and enjoy good beer, music, and dancing. The men finally had some time to relax and reenergize before entering the battle waiting across the Moselle.  Shaw’s unit, the 331st, was the first regiment in the 83rd Division to see action in Luxembourg. They captured Greveldange with little opposition, moved toward Remich, and occupied the towns of Remerschen, Assel, and Bous. The only Germans encountered were patrols. Later, a German counterattack, supported by machine guns and mortars struck from high ground southeast of Greveldange, but the 331st Infantry quickly gained control.  According to Shaw, the morale of the 331st Infantry was good and the living conditions in an abandoned golf country club were better than most.  This good morale would quickly evaporate with the coming onslaught of the Battle of the Bulge.  To combat the stress of the situation, Shaw would participate in pranks including the dropping of emptied grenades with the pins pulled.  According to Shaw, this didn’t make him very popular.

Thereafter, the 83rd Division captured Schengen after facing heavy German artillery fire and finally took Remich on September 28th.  In early October, the 83rd advanced in heavy combat to the West Wall across the Sauer where they took the city of Echternach on the Sauer River.  In December, the 83rd moved by truck to the Hurtgen Forest west of Aachen to relieve the 12th Infantry.  Later they relieved the 4th Infantry Division and cleared the west bank of the Roer.  Thereafter, the 83rd Division took Strass and Gey, the most strategic points in the network of German defenses protecting the vital approaches to Duren.  For three days the Germans poured reinforcements into the town and the 83rd fought through artillery, machine gun and small arms fire.  The 83rd moved along the high ground with the support of tanks and artillery, and pushed through enemy mine fields covered with snow to capture the west bank of the Roer River south of Duren only five days after the initial attack from the Hurtgen Forest.  During this battle, Shaw received a ten inch gash to his head while diving into the trenches while under heavy fire.  He merely sprinkled sulfur powder on his wounds and moved on.  Shaw’s days were spent sweeping for mines and ferrying ammunition to the front lines.  At night he would use probes in the minefields and white tape to mark the mines, so the Unit could navigate safely.  Overall, his morale was good.  Shaw enjoyed camping and liked the outdoor life.  Except for the few times when he was really scared or in tight situations, he didn’t mind serving in Europe.  Living conditions varied from town to town.  Shaw sought refuge in root cellars where he slept on piles of roots, bombed out buildings, farmhouses where he slept with the cows, and other times, he slept in a hole in the snowy ground covered with just a tarp.  At all times, Shaw was bitterly cold.     

In the harsh winter of 1944, the 331st drove through Holland and Belgium and attacked the Northern flank of the German army at Ottre to beat back the German Bulge.  Shaw’s duties at this time encompassed sweeping for mines and hauling ammunition.  He was regularly exposed to open fire and blasted on occasion.  The Ardennes campaign was not any ordinary battle.  The men of the 83rd Division were subjected to daily snowstorms and near-zero temperatures which made the efforts to push the Germans back even more difficult.  Besides the physical difficulties of fighting in the winter, there was trouble with frozen weapons, equipment and even food.  According to Shaw, it was the coldest ten days of his life.  He experienced frostbitten feet which trouble him today and he had inadequate clothing to protect him from the cold.  Shaw recalls having to go to an aid station where he found bloody mismatched boots.  Shaw was thrilled to find some boots that fit and gladly wiped the blood off.  By this time, the morale of the unit was “unenthusiastic”.  Shaw and his unit continued to fight and pushed the German tanks and infantry from the town of Petite-Langlir to the edges of the St. Pierre-Hez Forrest in Ardennes.  The unit established its bridgehead and enabled armored divisions to advance through the Ardennes and cut off the Houffalize-St.Vith highway, a vital last supply route for the Germans at the western end.  The 331st then proceeded to capture town after town from the Roer at Julich across the Reich.  On one occasion, Shaw recalls being caught alone near a farmhouse as the Germans approached in a counterattack.  Shaw hid his jeep in the haystack and hid inside the farmhouse attic.  Luckily for Shaw, a flight of Americans flew over and “tore the Germans to pieces”.  At the time, Shaw didn’t know whether to hide, surrender or attack.  He chose to hide.  After a few hours, he pulled his jeep out and drove away a very fortunate man.  In sum, it only took 48 hours for the 331st Infantry to gain control of the Rhine River Bank at the southern tip of Neuss.  Shaw’s unit was the first American unit to reach the last wall between the American armies and the heart of Germany. 

After only 13 days, the 331st Infantry along with the 329th Infantry moved 213 miles into the heart of Germany to establish the only permanent bridgehead across the Elbe River in Bavaria.  This feat was accomplished with much effort and flanks that were completely exposed.  In fact, at one time, the combined units spanned 80 miles as they bypassed 65,000 enemy troops.  The 331st final triumph against the Germans was at this very bridgehead which they held after strong counterattacks by the Germans.  Shortly thereafter, Shaw’s unit encountered the Russians.  On May 6th, 1945 the 331st Infantry gave the bridgehead to the Russians two days before V.E. Day and moved back to Bavaria to assume occupational duties.  Shaw and his unit were happy when the war ended and that they had survived.  Their victory was a costly and difficult struggle.  Although the victory was glorious, every step of the battle was filled with hardships, danger and bloodshed.   In its five campaigns from Normandy to the Elbe River, the 83rd Division fired 103,379 rounds of 105 mm. shells, 51,680 rounds of 155 mm. shells, 6,974,050 rounds of small arms ammunition, 158, 958 rounds of mortar, threw 57, 607 hand grenades against the enemy and launched 24, 507 anti-tank rifle and rocket grenades.  

After returning to Bavaria, Shaw and a few men were sent to protect a barrack of Polish women that were forced to work in a factory.  Shaw was then sent to Pocking, Germany to help reinforce the U.S. government presence and help with the installation of a new phone system.  Shaw had few duties at this time and was free to do as he pleased in this area of U.S. occupation.  Shortly thereafter, the 331st Infantry was broken up and Shaw was sent to the 69th Division in Sulzbach-Rosenberg, a municipality in Bavaria.  Shaw bided his time for a month until he returned to Fort Dix, New Jersey and was discharged in 1945.  In honor of his service in the 83rd Division, 331st Infantry, Shaw received five battle stars, a good conduct medal and the usual citations awarded to military personnel fighting in Europe.  Shaw’s highest rank, however, was only that of private.  According to Shaw, he “just chafed at the discipline” and had a difficult time dealing with unfit superiors.   After his discharge, Shaw returned to college at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey and obtained his degree in mechanical engineering in 1949.  Shaw remained on the East Coast, married and worked as a maintenance engineer in a small company.  Later, Shaw would move to Marin County, California where he works as a real estate developer. 

The toughest part of serving in the military for Shaw was dealing with his unfit superior officer.  The constant harassment by this superior made the military unpleasant at times.  Although Shaw enjoyed most of his service and was not generally scared, he did experience a few tense moments when he was caught alone in a German counter attack, and on the occasion that an ammunition box exploded and buried Shaw.  Other than a few sprays of phosphorous shells, Shaw feels he escaped relatively unscathed in comparison to most in the 83rd Division.  No particular memory of the war in Europe stands out for Shaw and he does not feel that his military experience changed his outlook on life or had an effect on him.  Shaw felt he was “able to take anything handed to him without any lasting effect”.  Shaw does want people to remember, however, that for every man on the front line, there were twenty men behind him providing support.  If he were to advise his grandchildren today of anything, it would be to be one of the twenty, not the one on the front line.   Shaw also felt that his sacrifice in the war was justified and that we had to fight for our own survival.  Shaw was quite pleased to have been engaged in it.   

Interview by Nicholas Elsbree on June 24, 2011          




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