by James Rada, Jr.
James E. Shankle
James Shankle of Woodsboro began life behind the eight ball, as they say. He was born in Frederick on November 21, 1925.
“My mother abandoned me on the streets of Frederick,” Shankle said. “I was found by a policeman and taken to the hospital.”
The police officer took the baby to Montevue, which served as the city’s hospital at the time. An advertisement was placed in the newspaper, seeking a foster family for James. Mildred Roddick answered the ad and took the child home to live with her and her husband in Montgomery County.
Shortly after, Mildred’s marriage broke up, and she moved back in with her parents who lived on MD 550, north of Woodsboro. James suddenly found himself with a larger family, as Mildred’s mother, Minnie Nichols, became his primary caregiver. She would be the woman that James would come to call his mother.
He lived happily as Minnie’s foster son until the Children’s Aid Society got involved in James’s life. The organization, which was established to take care of foster children and assist with adoptions, had other ideas for James.
“That wasn’t very good,” James said. “They farmed us out to work.”
At the age of eight, James was told he would have to get up each morning at 4:00 a.m. and walk to a nearby farm to milk the dairy cows. After, he would hurry home to eat breakfast and go to school.
When James was twelve years old, a fourteen-year-old boy named Bill showed up from Thurmont and told James, “I’m your brother.”
James also learned that he had three sisters, that not only had he never met but didn’t even know he had.
“Two weeks later, after meeting him (Bill), my sister got killed on a farm,” James said.
James’s siblings had also been farmed out to work, as he had been. His sister, Betty, who had been sixteen years old at the time, had been working as a cook on a farm in New Market. Part of getting the cook fire ready each morning was to add coal oil to the stove.
“She got up late one morning and picked up the wrong can,” James said.
Betty picked up a can of gasoline and added it to the fire. The resulting explosion burned the girl over 80 percent of her body, killing her.
It was only at her funeral that James first met his mother, Edith Shankle. He never did meet his other sisters, Alma and Gladys.
When James finished the seventh grade—all the schooling required by the State of Maryland at the time—he wanted to go to high school. The Children’s Aid Society didn’t want to allow this, but James persevered. Finally, he was told that he could attend Walkersville High School, but he had to “earn his way.” He began doing any and all jobs that would pay him, such as setting up pens and mowing. When he turned sixteen, he got a job at a bakery in Walkersville, where he worked after school until 11:00 p.m. each evening.
By the time he turned seventeen, the United States had been fighting in World War II for nearly a year. James tried to enlist in the Navy. Since he was underage, he was told that he would need a parent, not a foster parent or guardian, to sign his enlistment form.
So, James set out to find his father, Irving Shankle. During the search, James discovered that his father was “a drunk and a criminal.”
“I found him in a bar someplace on West Patrick Street,” James said.
He told his father what he needed. The man was a WWI Veteran, so he had no problem signing the enlistment form. James then bought his father a beer and left.
While James had been working to enlist, his brother Bill had been drafted into the Army.
“I saw him off at the train station on a Sunday, and I left by bus on Monday,” James said.
He reported to Bainbridge Naval Base at Port Deposit, Maryland, in 1943. The base was on the bluffs, overlooking the Susquehanna River. Originally a boys’ school, it had become a Navy training camp only months before James had enlisted. During WWII, 244,277 recruits trained at the camp in ordnance and gunnery, seamanship, firefighting, and military orders. When it was discovered that James had lifeguard training, he was given a job of training other sailors to swim.
During his basic training, he recalled once having to jump off a 70-foot-tall tower into a pool while wearing a life vest. Another training exercise was held in a repurposed theater. A large screen was set up, and planes were projected onto it flying in different directions. Recruits got behind a special .50-cal. gun connected to the screen. They were given 1,000 shots each, and they had to see how many times they could hit the planes.
“I scored 800 and something,” James recalled.
His accurate shooting earned him his first assignment. He was sent to North Carolina to patrol the coastline in a blimp, searching for enemy submarines. When he would sight a submarine off the coast, which “looked like a big cigar underwater,” he would notify the Coast Guard. James would track the submarine until a Coast Guard ship arrived to drop depth charges on the U-boat.
Once, a U-boat surfaced, and a small boat left filled with men. “They picked the guys up when they hit the beach, and we sunk the sub,” James said.
Landing a blimp was not easy. It involved a lot of men grabbing onto cables dropped from the gondola and pulling the blimp down to the ground. During one landing, a storm was approaching and brought with it high winds. The winds made it too difficult to land, and the order was given for the men to release the cables.
One serviceman got caught in the cables, and the wind lifted him and threw him across the landing field into high-tension lines. He was electrocuted.
The accident so scared James that he decided he needed to transfer someplace else. The amphibious force had been formed and was recruiting. James didn’t realize that it was a forerunner to the Navy Seals. He and his friend just wanted out of the blimp patrol.
“We jumped out of the frying pan into the fire,” he said.
He trained in Little Creek, Virginia. At the end of his advanced training, he left Boston Harbor on a landing ship tank (LST). It was a ship built for amphibious assaults because it could carry tanks, vehicles, and cargo. It had a large door on the bow that could be lowered and used as a ramp to unload or load whatever was aboard. It was not a fast ship, though, and James traveled across the Atlantic at 6 knots, which is just under 7 mph.
His ship took part in the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944. More than sixty years later, he still teared up as he told how his ship lost 110 men out of a crew of 180 to land on Omaha Beach.
Following that mission, he transferred to another LST that was tasked with delivering tanks to the French Riviera. His ship was one of three to be sent in to make a landing on the beach. The other two ships snagged on sandbars, but James’s ship not only hit the beach, when the ramp lowered, the tank was able to roll right out onto a road.
Germans, who were about 100 yards away, peppered the tank with small-weapons fire. The tank turned and went after them. A few minutes later, thirty-five Germans came back to the ship, running ahead of the tank with their hands over their heads.
James served on thirteen missions in Europe and the Mediterranean. They weren’t all troop movements. On one occasion, his ship had to deliver mules that were needed to take supplies over the Alps.
He was part of a mission to deliver supplies to a station in Italy, where PT boats were repaired. He only found out afterward that his ship was the fifth to attempt the mission, but he could believe it. U-boats torpedoed the other four ships. However, James’s captain had removed everything from the boat that he could so that it sat higher in the water.
James was manning a 20-mm. gun during the mission; he saw torpedoes glide toward the boat only to pass beneath it because it was sitting too high in the water for the torpedoes to hit.
They were also lucky because there was a dense fog that they could hide in so that U-boat periscopes couldn’t see the ship.
On his last mission in the Mediterranean, his ship was severely damaged. It was sent back across the Atlantic as part of a 300-ship convoy. His ship only had one working engine and screw, though, and it limped across the Atlantic at a snail’s pace, unable to keep up with the convoy.
They eventually made it to Norfolk Naval Base, only to be hit by a Liberty ship while they were at anchor. The crash damaged the ship’s magazine, and James and his fellow crewmates had to dump their munitions rather than chance fire setting off an explosion. Then the shipyard refused to repair the ship, telling the captain that the ship had to go to New Orleans for repairs.
James did get a thirty-day leave in New Orleans, and he returned home for a visit. When his leave ended, he was assigned to a different ship and sent through the Panama Canal to San Diego, California.
From there, his ship began traveling to various ports: Hawaii, Guam, the Philippines, Russia, Alaska, and Iwo Jima.
He took part in one of the later landings to wrest control of the island from the Japanese. He could see the pillboxes where the Japanese holed up and fired on the Marines.
“I don’t think they would have taken that island if it wasn’t for flamethrowers,” James said. The flames could penetrate where bullets couldn’t and forced the Japanese into the open, or they died in the pillboxes.
One night, the Japanese launched an air raid. Five planes tried to sink James’s ship. Four were shot down, but the fifth did a lot of damage. That attack also injured James, who was manning a 20-mm gun. The concussive force of an explosion threw him face first into a bulkhead. He had broken ribs and shoulders, but he also needed to have his nose rebuilt. Unfortunately, the ship’s doctor didn’t have any anesthetic. James had to endure the 15-minute procedure in excruciating pain, being held down by other sailors.
After Iwo Jima, his ship was sent to Saipan to prepare for the expected invasion of Japan. It was a scary time. James could tell by the training exercises, “When we hit the beach, we were probably never getting off.”
However, on August 6, 1945, the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. When word reached the sailors at Saipan, “You could have heard a pin drop,” James said. “All day long, nobody was talking.”
After the war, he went back to work in Woodsboro, learning to be a Mason, but it didn’t interest him. He used the G.I. Bill to attend York Technical Institute and study electronics. However, he couldn’t find work in his field at first and had to take a job at a sawmill.
He married June Bostian in 1951, and they were together for fifty-six years.
James eventually found work at Fort Detrick as an engineer and worked there for more than thirty years until he retired in 1987.
James died at age 83 on June 24, 2009. He is buried in Rocky Hill Cemetery.
Note: This spotlight is based on an oral history collected by members of the Frederick County Veterans History Project. The group is interested in interviewing any local Veteran for inclusion in the Library of Congress Veteran History Project. If you would like to volunteer to help or know a Veteran who could be interviewed, contract Priscilla Rall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 301-271-2868.
James Shankle, 1943
James Shankle, 2006