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Bert Shepard

Ballplayers Wounded in Combat

 

Date and Place of Birth: June 28, 1920 Dana, IN
Date and Place of Death:    June 16, 2008 Highland, CA
Baseball Experience: Major League
Position: Pitcher
Rank: First Lieutenant
Military Unit: 38th Fighter Squadron, 55th Fighter Group USAAF
Area Served: European Theater of Operations

It was through shear self-belief and determination that Bert Shepard played baseball after the war. He is the only person to appear in a major league game with an artificial leg.

Robert E. "Bert" Shepard was born in Dana, Indiana, on June 28, 1920. He grew up with his maternal grandmother in nearby Clinton, Indiana, and played semi-pro baseball as the local high school didn't have a team.

A hard throwing, left-handed pitcher, Shepard wanted to play professional baseball and headed to California. He got a job at a local tire retread plant and played sandlot baseball. He was scouted by Doug Minor of the Chicago White Sox and given a contract for $60 a month.

Shepard pitched for the Wisconsin Rapids White Sox of the Class D Wisconsin State League in 1940. Control problems plagued his performance and he was 3-2 in nine appearances, walking 48 batters in 43 innings, before being released.

He returned to Clinton to finish high school and then signed with the St. Louis Cardinals organization. He made three appearances for the Anaheim Aces of the Class C California League, and was 3-5 with the Bisbee Bees of the Class C Arizona-Texas League, contributing with his bat as a utility  first baseman and outfielder.

Shepard's baseball career began to take shape in 1942. He was a regular with the La Crosse Blackhawks of the Class D Wisconsin State League, appearing in 23 games for a 9-13 record and 4.45 ERA. If he could just overcome his control problems (122 walks in 172 innings) he could climb through the ranks of the Cardinals' farm system.

But there were other ranks that Shepard needed to climb through beforehand. He entered military service in March 1943, at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana, and attained his pilot's wings as a fighter pilot with the Army Air Force at Daniel Field, Georgia.

In late January 1944, Second Lieutenant Shepard crossed the Atlantic to England, on the Aquatania, to join the 38th Fighter Squadron of the 55th Fighter Group. The 55th was based at Wormingford, near Colchester, and was the first Fighter Group in Europe to be operational with the Lockheed P-38 Lightning - a distinctive looking twin-boom, twin-engined fighter plane that was used for bomber escort and ground attack over enemy-occupied Europe.

Shepard joined the 55th on February 13, 1944. "From then on it was a lot of flying," he recalled. He did, however, have some time for baseball. "In early May, we leveled off a field, laid out a diamond and started practise. Our first game was scheduled for Sunday, May 21."

Shepard had already flown 33 missions, and on May 21, opening day for the 55th Fighter Group baseball season, he volunteered for his 34th.

"While going in to strafe a German airfield northwest of Berlin," he explained later. "I was about a mile from the airfield flying at tree top level, wide open, approximately 380 mph, when my right foot was shot off.  I called the colonel, told him what happened and that I would call back later.  Evidently I was hit in the chin by flak, as I had about a one and a half inch wound, causing me to lose consciousness.  The next thing I remember is I'm about to crash at a slight angle so I horse back on the wheel but not in time.  I understand the P-38 crashed and burned but threw me clear.

Shortly after the crash landing, First Lieutenant Ladislaus Loidl, a physician in the German Luftwaffe, arrived at the smoking wreckage in time to save the injured pilot from a group of irate farmers on whose land the plane had crashed.

Loidl, with the aid of two armed soldiers, drove the farmers away and checked to see if the pilot was still alive. "He was unconscious, his right leg being smashed, and he bled from a deep wound on his head," recalled Loidl in 1993. "I recognized that the man could be saved only with an urgent operation. My emergency hospital was not equipped for that. So I drove the wounded man to the local hospital that was headed by a colonel. When he refused to admit the ‘terror flier’ as he called him, I telephoned the general on duty at the Reich's Air Ministry in Berlin and reported the case. Whereupon the general called the colonel and settled the matter. Lieutenant Shepard was admitted and operated on. A few days later I inquired about his condition and was told that he was doing fine.”

"I remembered nothing until I woke up in a German hospital in Ludwigslust hours or days later," said Shepard. "My right leg had been amputated 11 inches below the knee and a 2 inch square of bone above my right eye had been removed. 

"The amazing thing about the crash was that if I had not had the gunshot wounds and the gunsight to cave my head in I could have walked away from the crash for I had no other injuries except some scratches on my face and head.

After a long period of recovery, Shepard was transferred to a Prisoner of War camp. "The Germans provided the finest medical care to save my life," he reflected.

He was held at Ludwigslust, Wismar, Frankfurt, Meiningen and Annaberg-Bucholz. While at Meiningen, with the assistance of Doug Errey - a Canadian medic and fellow prisoner who crafted a makeshift artificial leg - Shepard was soon playing catch.

In February 1945, he returned to the United States on a prisoner exchange, as determined as ever to continue with his baseball career.

Whilst at the Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, DC, Shepard met with Under Secretary of War, Robert Patterson. When Patterson asked about his plans for the future, Shepard explained that he wanted to play baseball. Skeptical but impressed with the young flier's attitude, Patterson contacted Senators' owner, Clark Griffith, and asked him to take a look at the young pitcher.

Amid much publicity, Shepard arrived at the Senators' spring training camp at College Park, Maryland, on March 14. On March 29, he was signed as a pitching coach and pitched four innings against the Dodgers in a War Relief Fund game on July 10. Throughout the summer months he pitched batting practice for the Senators, and visited veteran’s hospitals, offering encouragement to other wounded soldiers. 

On August 5, 1945, he made his only major league appearance. With the Senators down, 14-2, to the Red Sox, Shepard came in in the fourth inning and struck out the first batter he faced, George "Catfish" Metkovich. He pitched the remainder of the game and allowed just three hits, one walk and one run.

Shepard remained with the team but was not used again. The Senators were in a pennant race with the Detroit Tigers and manager, Ossie Bleuge, was reluctant to use the rookie. He was at spring training with the Senators in 1946, but the camp was stocked with returning veterans.

He pitched for Chattanooga, Decatur and Duluth in 1946, but was released by the Senators organization. Shepard played semi-pro ball at Williston, North Dakota, in 1947, but further surgery on his leg kept him out of the game for 1948. He returned to the minors in 1949, as player-manager with the Waterbury Timers of the Class B Colonial League, making 20 appearances for a 5-6 record.

Shepard worked for International Business Machines (IBM) selling typewriters in 1950 and 1951, but made a brief comeback in 1952, with St. Augustine and Hot Springs. After returning to semi-pro baseball with Williston, Shepard ended his professional playing career, aged 35, with the Modesto Reds of the Class C California League in 1955.

Bert Shepard worked as a safety engineer for Hughes Aircraft in California. He took up golf and won the Shepard won the US amputee golf championship in 1968 and 1971. In May 1993, Shepard had an emotional reunion with Doctor Loidl, the man who had rescued him from the plane wreckage after he was shot down. Until that time, he had never known who had saved his life.

Bert Shepard suffered a stroke and passed away on June 16, 2008, at a Highland, California nursing home. He was 87 years old and is buried at Riverside National Cemetery in Riverside, California.

Date Added December 15, 2017

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