Shot Down <i> in the</i> Prime of Life : Bert Shepard, Who Pitched One Major League Game With One Leg, Searched for Years to Find Out Who Saved His Life
Bert Shepard fell 2,129 games short of tying Lou Gehrig’s previous record for consecutive baseball games played.
He never won a game as a major league pitcher. He even took a back seat to Pete Gray as a wartime baseball oddity.
Shepard is a record-book blip. On Aug. 4, 1945, more than a year after his right foot had been shot off while he was flying a mission over Germany, Shepard took the mound for the Washington Senators.
Boston had a lopsided lead over Washington when Shepard, fitted with an artificial leg below the knee, came in with the bases loaded. The left-hander from Dana, Ind., struck out George (Catfish) Metkovich and completed the last five innings, giving up one run and three hits.
He never pitched again in the big leagues.
“A very important 5 1/3 innings,” says Shepard, 75, now retired and living in Hesperia, Calif. “I got my name in the box score. Walter Alston got to bat once. That’s his history in baseball [as a player], batting once.”
It disappointed Shepard that he was denied another opportunity and that his place in baseball lore was overshadowed by a more famous amputee, Gray, also in 1945. But that disappointment paled in comparison to the question Shepard expected to carry to his grave.
Why was he still alive?
“This had been bothering me all my life,” Shepard says.
Everything after May 21, 1944, the day his low-flying P-38 fighter was shot down over farmland near Ludwigslust, Shepard considered borrowed time.
His life was always a puzzle, with one key piece missing.
U.S. Army Air Corps Lt. Shepard soared off that May day on his 34th mission, an all-out strafing prelude to the pending Normandy invasion. A good enough left-hander to have been signed by the White Sox before he was drafted, Shepard was also manager of his camp baseball team.
“That day was our opening game,” Shepard recalls. “I wasn’t scheduled to fly, but I said, ‘Hell, I can be back in time for the game.’ ”
The Germans had other plans.
After shooting up a few ground targets--a locomotive, a train, an oil tank--Shepard was headed home, flying about 70 miles northwest of Berlin, when he heard radio reports of enemy fire.
Shepard dropped his P-38 to 20 feet above ground and was vacating the area when he passed over a cluster of trees and felt something terrible, “like a sledgehammer,” pounding his right foot.
“I could tell it was off because I picked up my foot and felt it coming loose at the ankle,” he says. “I must have passed right over the gun.”
Shepard radioed headquarters. “There goes the ballgame,” he remembers saying just before another bullet clipped his chin, leaving him unconscious.
He woke up two weeks later, in a German hospital, with orderlies staring in stone silence as they awaited his reaction to a cruel discovery.
But Shepard already knew about his foot.
“So I pull the sheet back and there’s the leg,” he says. “I looked up at them and said, ‘Thank you for saving my life.’ ”
Shepard could not ascertain, though, who had saved it, or why.
American P-38 fighters were despised in the region where Shepard’s plane went down. Civilians were fed Nazi propaganda--some of it true, Shepard says--accusing American pilots of strafing civilians.
When your plane went down, if the crash didn’t kill you, a mob of angry farmers probably would.
Yet Shepard lived to spend the next eight months in prisoner-of-war camps. Not until he reached Meiningen, Stalag 9-C, did he consider baseball again. Dr. Don Erry, a Canadian prisoner, constructed Shepard’s first prosthesis out of scrap metal found around the prison camp.
Shepard started throwing.
“I was surprised how well I could get around on it,” he said of the leg.
Shepard says he was not abused as a prisoner, possibly because the commanding officer had a son who was being treated well at a prison camp in Canada.
In February 1945, after a prisoner exchange, Shepard sailed into New York Harbor. He remembers laughing at the song that blared from the docks.
“We’re coming back from prison camp and the song is ‘Don’t Fence Me In,’ ” Shepard says. “Funny as hell.”
It was good to be home. Home meant baseball. Summers in Indiana for Shepard meant shagging balls for the local semipro team and impressing anyone he could with his formidable curveball.
While awaiting a new artificial leg at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, Shepard was one of four servicemen summoned for commendation by Robert Patterson, then undersecretary of war.
Patterson asked Shepard what he wanted to do with his life.
“I’d like to play professional baseball,” Shepard said.
“You can’t do it with a leg off, can you?” Patterson asked.
“I think I can,” Shepard answered.
Patterson called his good friend, Clark Griffith, owner of the Washington Senators.
Shepard had his tryout.
“Well, Mr. Griffith was not going to say no to the undersecretary of war,” Shepard recalls.
Shepard received his “new” leg on March 10, and was in a Senator uniform March 14. Washington Post sportswriter Walter Haight drove him to the stadium.
Shepard pitched batting practice and soon the place was crawling with news hounds and photographers. Shepard had not yet even been reunited with his parents, who before his repatriation had been tortured for months by the “missing-in-action” telegram they had received.
His parents could not afford the train trip to Washington, but a theater owner in Clinton, Ind., allowed Shepard’s mother to sit all day and watch newsreel footage of her son, the war hero-pitcher.
Shepard, naturally, was paired for publicity pictures with Gray, the more famous one-armed player for the St. Louis Browns.
So why would history remember mostly Gray, who had lost his right arm in a childhood truck accident?
“Pete Gray’s handicap was visible, and you’re aware of it every moment,” Shepard explains. “I’ve played ballgames and people didn’t know I had an artificial leg.”
Yogi Berra found out.
After the Senators signed Shepard, they shipped him out to pitch a series of exhibitions, one of note against Berra’s Navy team at New London, Conn.
Two years later, in 1947, Shepard reminded Berra of the game.
“I remember you,” Berra told Shepard. “You looked like a pretty good pitcher. Too bad you lost your leg.”
“Well, I had it off then, Yogi,” Shepard told the catcher. “And he said, ‘No . . . !’ ”
The Senators added Shepard to their roster in July. He gave up two runs in four innings against the Brooklyn Dodgers in an exhibition, then got his one official call on Aug. 4, two days before the bombing of Hiroshima.
Because the Senators were in a pennant race--eventually losing to Detroit by a game and a half--Shepard was not used again.
He planned a return in 1946, and spent the winter of ’45 barnstorming with an American League all-star team. In a series against Bob Feller’s team, Shepard said, he held Stan Musial hitless in four at-bats and got two hits against Feller.
Shepard said his leg was never a problem.
“My being a southpaw, that was the best leg to have off, as far as the follow-through. No problem at all.”
In November, though, Shepard returned to Walter Reed to have more of the leg removed, from 11 inches below the knee to seven.
“It should have taken six weeks,” Shepard recalls. “I was in and out of there for 2 1/2 years.”
It took five operations to get it right, and by that time, Shepard’s big league hopes were doomed. He mounted another comeback, but injured his throwing arm and called it quits.
In 1949, Shepard went to work for IBM, selling typewriters.
If anyone knew how Shepard had survived the plane crash at Ludwigslust, it figured to be Hanns Scharff, an interrogator for the German Luftwaffe. The day Shepard was shot down, five other U.S. pilots were downed with him and captured.
Some wanted the Americans tried as war criminals, which, Shepard says, would have surely led to their deaths.
But Scharff convinced Field Marshal Hermann Goering that the five pilots were not guilty of atrocities, and they were treated as POWs.
After the war, Scharff came to America to testify in a case of an American pilot accused of stealing a plane in Italy and landing it in Germany.
Scharff liked what he saw of the United States, returned as an immigrant and ended up settling north of Los Angeles, near Tehachapi, becoming a mosaic artist of renown. He set up shop not far from Hesperia, where--lo and behold--Bert Shepard moved in the 1960s.
Shepard sought out Scharff years ago.
“How can I find out who saved my life?” Shepard asked.
But to his regret, Scharff was no help.
“That’s East Germany,” he said. “And the Russians don’t keep very good records. I don’t think it’s possible.”
Bert Shepard went on with his life. He married, raised four children and held numerous jobs, mostly in the security business.
The loss of his leg apparently didn’t slow him. He played semipro ball until he was 40. He once walked 52 holes of golf in a day and played to a four handicap. Now living in Hesperia with his son, he still plays golf five days a week.
Shepard also became an advocate for amputees, and is still searching for a better prosthesis. He has worn out dozens since the one Dr. Erry fashioned for him out of scrap metal at Meiningen. Shepard says he hasn’t had one as comfortable since.
He has lobbied Congress, complaining that the engineers who design high-tech artificial limbs for athletes can’t help the average Joe.
“What most amputees want is to be able to walk all day comfortably,” he says. “Engineers, salesmen, machinists, people who just walk to make a living. And they’re totally forgotten about.”
Shepard also has fought 50 years of stigma. When IBM interviewed him in 1949, they doubted he could haul typewriters around town with one leg. Shepard bet the guy $100 he could outwalk any of his other employees.
He got the job.
When Shepard sought employment at Hughes Aircraft in 1955, the man doubted he could make it around the plant.
“I walked 15 holes of golf Saturday and pitched nine innings on Sunday,” Shepard said. “If you have to be in better shape than that, maybe I can’t, but I’d sure like to try.”
He got the job.
But long after Shepard’s 70th birthday had passed, the great mystery remained unsolved.
Hanns Scharff, at 84, died Sept. 12, 1992, and there seemed little chance that Shepard would ever learn the identity of his rescuer.
Three months later, though, Shepard received a remarkable wake-up phone call one Sunday morning.
It was from a total stranger, an Englishman named Jamie Brundell.
“You Bert Shepard?’
“You wake up in a hospital in Ludwigslust, Germany, 1944?”
Shepard almost dropped the phone.
Brundell, a businessman, had been on a hunting trip in Hungary in 1992 and had met an Austrian doctor named Ladislaus Loidl. During a casual evening chat, the subject turned to the war, when Austria had been under Germany’s thumb. Loidl wondered aloud what ever had become of a young American pilot he had dragged from the wreckage of a P-38. A pilot named Shepard.
Could Brundell find out?
Brundell said he would make a few calls and, with help from the U.S. military, eventually tracked Shepard down in Hesperia.
Forty-eight years after Ludwigslust, Loidl came forward with the missing puzzle piece.
In a letter dated Nov. 1, 1992, the doctor wrote: “I was ordered to the place where an American airplane had been shot down by an anti-aircraft unit in order to rescue the pilot. As it later came out, it was you, Mr. Shepard.”
Loidl explained that Shepard had not ejected but crashed with the plane.
And indeed, the locals had wanted to attack the wreckage.
“I had to hold back the farmers at gunpoint until you were placed in the ambulance,” Loidl wrote.
And, Loidl added, the local hospital accepted Shepard only after Loidl had called the German high command.
Loidl also admitted taking Shepard’s parachute, out of which the doctor’s wife made a dress.
Shortly after rescuing Shepard, Loidl was transferred.
Shepard read the letter in disbelief.
“The Gestapo questioned him later on, ‘Why did you help that American?’ ” Shepard says. “And Dr. Loidl said, ‘Because he’s a human being.’ ”
Shepard knew he had to see Loidl.
“I wanted him to know that it was appreciated,” Shepard says. “That I’d become successful. I hadn’t become a drunken bum.”
On May 21, 1993, 49 years to the day after he was shot down, Shepard and Loidl were reunited in Vienna. They returned to the farm town where Shepard was shot down and later visited and sipped wine in Loidl’s house.
Shepard, at last, could close the book on his life.
“As I was leaving, he put his arm around me and I said, ‘By God, those are the same arms that pulled me out of the cockpit,’ ” Shepard says. “It was a very strange feeling, and I really broke down.”