What Does a Hero Look Like?

Two Local Men Exemplified the WWII Greatest Generation

By DAVID "BUD" DAVIES

When I was a teenager in the mid-60s, I worked for Jim Wynn (1925-2004) and Amos Shepard (1916-2009), partners in life and owners of Parsnip Hollow gift shop and The Owl coffee shop at Goodspeed Plaza. I had many conversations with Jim and Amos during my shifts after school, weekends, and summers. Living my adult life outside of East Haddam, however, I was largely unaware of how much Jim and Amos contributed to the preservation of East Haddam history and culture.

As legal and social norms have evolved in recent decades relative to military service, marriage, and civil rights in general for gay and lesbian soldiers and couples, I have sometimes found myself wondering about Jim and Amos’s own legacies, even within their chosen town, as members of “the greatest generation.” A little research established they had no siblings, no nephews or nieces to ask about World War II or perhaps to tell stories that veterans are usually reluctant to share.

Years of working with different families as an amateur genealogist have underscored the ease with which the contributions of childless aunts and uncles often quietly disappear, not part of an ongoing family narrative. Conscious of all this, and reflecting on my conversations with Jim and Amos, I decided it would be appropriate to help preserve something of their military service stories as part of an East Haddam historical tradition that they did so much to create and sustain.

Life partners Jim Wynn and Amos Shepard were proprietors of the Parsnip Hollow Gift Shop and The Owl Coffee Garden, which they opened in the early 1960s across the street from the Gelston House and Goodspeed Opera House. How Wynn and Shepard supported the East Haddam Historical Society is the subject of this excerpt from "The Story of Us," the history of the East Haddam Historical Society.

To be clear, it has been some 55 years since I last spoke to them or anyone who really knew them. To tell this story, I am relying on what I found on the Internet and from snippets of conversation from long ago. Persons with better or more personal knowledge are probably out there, in which case the following is a prologue.

But for those who knew the sophisticated antiquarian Amos Shepard or the expansive entrepreneur and former television production manager Jim Wynn, the contrasts with their wartime experiences as a B-17 bomber pilot or front-line infantryman can be unsettling.

Certainly, we teenagers at work in a Parsnip Hollow barn in 1965, shipping Jim’s Christmas Décor Chests for $1.25 an hour, had very little idea who they had been some 20 years before.  I had heard something about POW camps and asked Jim what it was like. He replied with one word: “Boring.” 

 

And that was pretty much all I knew until a few days ago when I started asking questions of Google and on genealogical sites.

 

James Ragan Wynn, born in 1925 and raised in Tampa, was an heir to military service.  His father Joe, a citrus products salesman, served in World War I as a private in a Chemical War Service battalion at the Edgewood Plant in Maryland, which loaded artillery shells with mustard gas.  His grandfather David was an Indiana carpenter who joined that state’s 12th Infantry, a unit that experienced the full brunt of Civil War battles in the West and South – Vicksburg, Chattanooga, Battle of Atlanta, and Sherman’s March to the Sea.

Jim’s draft card shows an 18-year-old finishing high school, signing the card “Jimmy.” A year later, he enlisted on June 1st, 1944.  One month later, his unit, the infantry of the 9th Armoured Division (the “Phantom Division”) landed at Normandy.  The process from boot camp to deployment in France moved quickly for the teenager.  So did exposure to full-scale combat.

From the U.S. Army’s history website:

The 9th Armored Division landed in Normandy late in September 1944, and first went into line, 23 October,

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Jim Wynn's draft card, issued in 1943.

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Interior of the Parsnip Hollow Gift Shop and Owl Coffee Garden, in the building that now houses La Vita restaurant. 

on patrol duty in a quiet sector along the Luxembourg-German frontier. When the Germans launched their winter offensive, the 9th, with no real combat experience, suddenly found itself engaged in heavy fighting. The Division saw its severest action at St. Vith, Echternach, and Bastogne, its units fighting in widely separated areas. Its stand at Bastogne held off the Germans long enough to enable the 101st Airborne to dig in for a defense of the city. After a rest period in January 1945, the Division made preparations for a drive across the Roer River. The offensive was launched, 28 February, and the 9th smashed across the Roer to Rheinbach, sending patrols into Remagen. The Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen was found intact, and was seized by elements of the 9th Armored minutes before demolition charges were set to explode on 7 March 1945. The Division exploited the bridgehead, moving south and east across the Lahn River toward Limburg, where thousands of Allied prisoners were liberated. The Division drove on to Frankfurt and then turned to assist in the closing of the Ruhr Pocket. In April it continued east, encircled Leipzig and secured a line along the Mulde River. The Division was shifting south to Czechoslovakia when the war in Europe ended.

Television viewers may recall that the “Band of Brothers” unit was the 101st Airborne. Episode 6 dramatized their stand at Bastogne, digging in under frigid conditions to withstand constant shelling and attacks. The series also focused on the untrained teenage replacements being sent forward.  Jim experienced all that.

 

Film buffs may also remember the 1969 production, “The Bridge at Remagen,” starring George Segal, Ben Gazzara, and Robert Vaughn, where 9th Armoured heroics captured the last remaining bridge over the Rhine before it could be demolished (unlike the Allied failures to capture key bridges shown in A Bridge too Far (1977).

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Jim Wynn in 1991, when the East Haddam Historical Society moved its museum to the Amasa Day barn in Moodus. Wynn was at various times president of the historical society and its museum director.

At some point in all of this, Jim was wounded, suffering lacerations to his face and hands from artillery shell fragments. Because of a 1973 fire that destroyed Army records in St Louis, I couldn’t establish where and when these wounds occurred.  A record exists that he was treated at a military hospital in April 1945, presumably at the end of the war.  This late treatment raises the question about whether he was captured and imprisoned at some point.  As mentioned above, he once confirmed being a POW in a quick conversation, and I must have heard this from someone else before asking him. Whether he got to Remagen or was wounded and perhaps captured (as many were) in the defense of Bastogne is unknown but regardless, he saw some of the most extreme combat experienced by American forces in Europe.

 

According to Wikipedia, the 9th Armored Division was cited for extraordinary heroism and gallantry in a 1944 battle in the vicinity of Waldbillig and Savelborn, Luxembourg. For six days, December 16 to the 22nd, they repulsed constant and determined attacks by an entire German division. Outnumbered five-to-one, with its infantry rifle companies surrounded for most of the time, clerks, cooks, mechanics, drivers and others manned the five-mile-long final defensive line.

Supported by the outstandingly responsive and accurate fire of its artillery battalion, this widely dispersed force stopped every attack for six days until its surrounded infantry were ordered to fight their way back to them. This staunch defense disrupted the precise German attack schedule and thus gave time for the United States III and XII Corps to assemble unhindered and then launch the coordinated attack which raised the siege of Bastogne and contributed to saving much of Luxembourg and its capital from another German invasion. They were awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for their heroism.

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Amos Worthen Shepard Jr. was nine years older than Jim, the only child of a prosperous Boston-area insurance executive who in turn was the son of the owner of a Maine hay-and-grain store, who in turn was the son of a Down East “pauper”/laborer with many children. Amos’s great uncle served in the 17th Regiment of Maine Infantry, which was seemingly in every major battle east of the Appalachians, including a key role at Gettysburg.  Amos graduated from Bowdoin College and went to work at his late father’s firm. Then came Pearl Harbor and the Nazi declaration of war.  Amos joined the Army Air Force on May 2, 1943, and began training as a B-17 bomber pilot. He joined the newly activated 457th Bomb Group in Washington state.

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Amos Shepard's 1940 draft card (top) and his military portrait.

Most young men in most countries, given a choice, wanted to fly, as opposed to cowering in foxholes or suffering ocean waves. But along with the dashing imagery came horrific casualty rates. On any given heavy bomber mission, one in 10 would not return. Often the loss rate was two in 10.  All had to go on at least 25 missions, which was a plotline of the movie, “The Memphis Belle.” That number increased to 30 and then 35 at the end of the war.

 

The average life expectancy for a B-17 crew member was 11 missions.  The B-17 was sold to the Air Force as the “Flying Fortress.”  It wasn’t. In daylight raids, German fighter pilots and flak gunners considered it easy pickings.

This was the reality understood by senior officers but not really advertised to flight crews. The crews, however, could count.

 

The 457th arrived at an improvised airfield near the village of Glatton in Cambridgeshire, today about two hours north of London. On February 21, 1944, the group flew its first mission.  Amos’s B-17 flew seven missions up to April 9th. On his eighth mission statistical probability caught up with him and his crew. 

A large-scale attack was launched against the FW-190 eastern complex of aircraft factories in north central Germany and Poland. Twelve Combat Wings were airborne for the deepest penetration to date.

 

From the 457th Bomb Group Association's website:

The 457th’s target was an aircraft factory, situated at Rahmel, seven miles from the center of Gydnia, that produced FW-190s. The 457th comprised the 94th A Combat Wing, and led the Wing. U. Col. Henry B. Wilson was Air Commander with pilot Lt. J. L. Smith. In addition, the 457th supplied two squadrons for the high box. Major Fred A. Spencer as the high box leader, with Lt. Jerome E. (Jerry) Godfrey as pilot. The flight route took the Group in a northeasterly direction over the North Sea, across Denmark and the Baltic Sea, and to the target area. Bad weather, which had hampered the Group in England and over the North Sea, caused seven planes to become lost and abort the mission. In addition, four more were lost from the high box and two, having failed to assemble with the Group, aborted when the Group they joined abandoned the mission. The weather had cleared by the time the formations reached the IP.

 

A good formation produced a good bomb run, and bombing results were good, in spite of enemy fighter attacks along the run. Flak was moderate over the target.

 

Immediately after leaving the target, the formation was attacked by waves of FW-190s and Me-109s, coming in from the nose and from the tail. Aircraft piloted by Lt. Amos W. Shepard and Lt. Robert K. Walker took direct hits, with both being shot down. One member of Lt. Shepard’s crew and three of Lt. Walker’s crew, including Lt. Walker, failed to survive. The aircraft piloted by Lt. Stuart James took a direct hit, claiming the life of one crew member.

 

The attacks continued over the Baltic Sea, where Lt. David P. Parks was shot down and seven crew members lost their lives. The attacks continued over Denmark. Lt. Donald G. Karr crashed his badly damaged aircraft at Woodbndge, an English base near the coast.

 

Gunners from the 457th received credit for three enemy aircraft destroyed, one probably destroyed and one damaged. The mission required 11 hours. The bombing results drew a commendation from the Division Headquarters.

Amos parachuted into enemy-controlled Poland and became a prisoner of war.  AAF and RAF officers were typically sent to their own POW camp run by the Luftwaffe.  NCO’s and enlisted men were sent to other, usually rougher camps. 

 

Amos arrived at Stalag Luft 1 at Barth on the north coast of Germany, today some seven hours away from where he was shot down. For the next year, Stalag Luft 1 was Amos’s home, along with a fascinating assemblage of other prisoners. See Wikipedia for a list of his notable fellow residents. For more information on life in Stalag Luft 1, go to the excellent 392nd Bomb Group website.

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Stalag Luft I, a German WWII prisoner of war camp, where Amos Shepard and other captured Allied airmen were held.

Fast forward to the mid-1960s in East Haddam. The usual assortment of Nathan Hale-Ray High School teenage boys would be working and talking in the big red barn at Parsnip Hollow, sometimes about their bosses in the antique-filled colonial house next door.  They knew and shared something about Jim and Amos’s WWII service, which tended to slightly counterbalance what was said among the guys about their colorful and untypical identities in East Haddam at that time.

Had we known more,  had we connected them to “The Great Escape” (1963) or “The Battle of the Bulge” (1965)

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WWII heroes Jim Wynn (left) and Amos Shepard impacted the town of East Haddam in numerous ways.

or even “Twelve O’clock High” (1949) — had we learned something of what they risked and endured, we would have been a little humbled, our adolescent arrogant cynicism put on hold. 

 

Like most veterans of that time, Jim and Amos put those experiences in a private compartment and got on with life. 

But since the circumstances of their lives left them without descendants or close family to remember, it seems appropriate that the East Haddam Historical Society, for which they did so much, should be a repository for some of their stories of service to their country.

WWII veterans Jim Wynn and Amos Shepard started Parsnip Hollow, a popular gift shop across from the Goodspeed Opera House