WASHINGTON — Edward J. Shames, the last surviving member of the 56th Combat Aviation Battalion of the U.S. Army, which became a pivotal force in the World War II-era uprising against Nazi Germany and Japan, died at his home on Monday. He was 99.
He was a horseback rider and a bison hunter, and also a writer, financial adviser and avid hiker who devoted much of his time to teaching and accompanying others on adventuring. He hosted a radio show called Up-Close and Personal, and founded a hiking club for older people. He was a former Washington Post reporter who had served as assistant to the defense secretary for climate and military affairs in the Clinton administration.
Shames served as the only soldier among 26 men from the 56th to emerge from the Battle of the Bulge alive.
“When you step back and look at the lives that we’ve lived, it’s unbelievable,” he told the Post in 2001. “I lived through a golden age for Americans — in the ’50s through the ’70s. We were at the start of a very sweet, golden age. I was there when it all started to turn.”
A key player in the rebellion against Nazi Germany in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the 6,500-member 56th had been promoted in World War II to the rank of infantry. It launched a guerrilla campaign in the German town of Dechow and freed many prisoners after the village was surrounded by the Luftwaffe and the SS.
When it merged with an Army division and landed in Italy in December 1943, the 56th was part of a brigade commanded by Gen. George S. Patton Jr. during the invasion of the island of Iwo Jima.
Patton called his men “The Bulge 66” in wartime tongue and style, and they became a vital part of the Allied victory over Nazism.
Led by Maj. Anthony Vance, the then-boyhood friend of a president, the 56th also led the military campaign against Japanese forces in France in August 1944 and beyond.
In 1946, all of the members of the 56th became eligible for the congressional Medal of Honor, bestowed upon civilians who served honorably while on military duty. It took 47 years for Shames, a private from Indiana, to be admitted to the pantheon.
“I was never aware that anyone I’d served with had been awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor,” he told The Post in 2001. “Being called that for the first time in my life was like being named to the Hall of Fame.
“My favorite part of the Medal of Honor is the way it talks about those who died in the line of duty,” he said. “No special effort was made to capture their names. Everyone just got it. They got it so that their names and other people’s names could tell their story.”
He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor.
As the White House ceremony approached in 2002, Shames was in Washington with his wife, Corrina, and other family members. But then Shames had a “terrible” day: “I watched the White House in total darkness,” he said. “I could not get an electric charge.” The Bush administration blamed an electrical problem for his blackout.