Kenneth Roger Shaker
Captain, United States Army
a contemporary press report:
When Kenneth Shaker was 16, he hopped a freight from his home town of Springfield, Massachusetts, to San Francisco and stowed away aboard a ship bound for Shanghai.
When he was 20, he sailed off to fight in the Spanish Civil War.
Later he would see combat as an Army paratrooper in Italy, France, Belgium and Germany during World War II (winning the Silver Star for bravery in the process), seek out fields of fire around the world in the 1960s and '70s, then parachute into the D-Day 50th-anniversary ceremonies in Normandy seven years ago at the age of 78. He made his last jump two years ago at 83.
Yesterday, those trailing his flag-draped casket
to his grave in Arlington National Cemetery included a brother and nephews
in yarmulkes, a Dutch woman honoring Shaker's martial service to her country,
and a former nun and peace activist whose
"He was just sort of born for adventure," said his brother Ted, 80, of Bloomfield, Connecticut. "There were four of us in the family and he was the oldest boy and always reading these Wild West and adventure magazines. I guess he came to believe them."
There are 27 burials a day at Arlington National Cemetery, each with its own life story. Kenneth Shaker's is only one from this week before Memorial Day; like the others, it has its particular resonance.
At the time of his death May 3 in Kearny Mesa, California, Shaker was the senior member of the Return to Normandy Association, a brotherhood of geriatric paratroopers who stage jumps around the world in remembrance of airborne comrades who were killed in particularly horrific numbers in World War II.
In the five years after the Normandy commemoration, he jumped as part of celebrations in Russia and the Netherlands, injuring his leg in one jump in which the next man out of the plane plunged to his death. His final jump, two years ago in the Netherlands, marked the 55th anniversary of an Allied airborne operation aimed at seizing key Rhine River crossings. But it was only one brief chapter in a lifetime of restless wanderlust.
When Shaker ran off to sea in 1932, his brother Ted said yesterday, he wasn't fleeing from anything. He was heading for Shanghai to witness conflicts between the Chinese and the Japanese. He ended up in Singapore instead. "I had intended at first to stow away on a boat going to Honolulu, but . . . stowed away on a ship bound for French Indochina," he wrote in a letter home. "Why I am at a loss to say myself."
The British ship captain who discovered him wrote his parents that young Shaker would be kept safe but made to work hard. Eventually the ship returned to the States, where the family chipped in to pay Ken's bus fare back to New England. He returned as something of a celebrity, his brother remembers: "the Lowell Thomas of Weaver High School."
But after finishing high school, he was off for Spain. He fought for 18 months, becoming one of the few non-Communist division commanders in the famous Soviet-backed International Brigades.
"I always thought that was funny, because he was a pretty conservative guy," said Everett Hall, 82, of North Kingstown, Rhode Island., Shaker's one-time sergeant in the 509th Airborne. "But he was always proud of that. He said he got the promotion because he was a damn good soldier. And he was."
Shaker was living in New York when he joined the Army after the outbreak of World War II, and was among the first to land at the Anzio beachhead in Italy. There, he led a 40-man unit in the capture of 140 German prisoners. He later parachuted into southern France and fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
At the end of the war, he left the Army as a captain and began selling insurance to servicemen. In 1958, he landed in Beirut within 24 hours of the Marines and soon was peddling policies to leathernecks digging foxholes.
He spent 18 months as a civilian in Vietnam during the war there, leading Hall and others to accuse him frequently of being an agent with the CIA. The real explanation, Shaker said, was that he "always wanted to see what was happening in interesting parts of the world."
So why did Berty Nendels, a short-haired, blue-eyed woman of 58, come all the way from Eindhoven, the Netherlands, for Shaker's funeral?
The explanation, she said, is not easy.
"I was born in 1943 and when do you have awareness of the war? Maybe 10 years old? I knew nothing, even in Holland, until I was almost 20. Then I married a Jew. And then [understanding of] the war began for me. I visited the people who hid my husband through the German occupation. I understand how many Americans died for us and what it meant. The reality of what the war had been became overwhelming."
In addition to her work as an operating room nurse, she said, she found herself getting more involved in World War II commemorations and activities. She joined the Airborne Association, whereby French and Dutch families welcome returning veterans into their homes. She joined the yearly celebration in which runners and cyclists carry a torch from Bayeux in Normandy to Eindhoven to honor and commemorate the liberation of their countries and its enormous cost.
"Two years ago Ken Shaker stayed at my house with other veterans, and he was special to me because of the kind of human being he was and because of what he had done. So when I heard he had died, several people said don't try to come to Arlington because the ceremony will be over in a few minutes. But I wanted to come, to honor all this [that's] so hard to explain. So Sunday night I buy a ticket and here I am."
Smiling beside her was Shaker's petite longtime sweetheart, Mary Earley, 71, of West Palm Beach, Florida, with whom he maintained a 30-year bicoastal romance.
"We went back and forth between California and Florida all the time, but it wouldn't have worked any other way," she explained. "We were both too independent and I'm as hardheaded as Paddy's pig."
What was the attraction between the globe-trotting man of war and the Irish Catholic pacifist?
"That was it! Opposites attract! My God, the arguments we had! He was so much fun."
At the grave site after the rifle salutes and bugle call of taps, Ted Shaker thanked the 30-odd friends, family members and old paratroopers for coming.
"Here I am 80 years old, and I still think
of him as my big brother," he said in a voice husky with wonder and emotion.
"He still makes me proud."
During WWII he was commissioned after graduating
from Officers Candidate School and rose to the rank of Captain of the 509th
Parachute Infantry Battalion. He received The Silver Star, two Bronze Stars
with Oak Leaf Clusters, the Purple Heart, plus other decorations for acts
of valor. At the 50th Anniversary of the Invasion of Normandy he parachuted
again in France. Arrangements are being made for his burial at Arlington
National Cemetery . He is survived by his sister, Mildred and brother-in-law,
Irving Blumenthal of Del Ray Beach, Florida, their children, Barry Winters,
Donald Blumenthal, and Lynne Marder; his brother Theodore and sister-in-
law, Bernice Shaker of Bloomsfield, Conn., their children, Howard and Steven
Shaker. He was predeceased by a sister, Shirley La Bonte, who leaves two
daughters, Debbie La Bonte and Donna Mazur. He also leaves his longtime
beloved companion, Mary Earley of North Palm Beach, Florida, as well as
many relatives and close friends.
Inspired by an ageless affection for adventure, Kenneth Shaker made his last jump from an airplane at 83.
To those familiar with his past -- stowing away on a ship at 16, fighting in the Spanish civil war at 21 -- it was no great leap from the norm.
"Ken did it his way and lived the life he wanted," said his brother, Theodore. "One of the reasons he never married was the he didn't feel it would be fair. He might have an inkling to just take off and go."
Mr. Shaker, the senior member of the Return to Normandy Association and a decorated World War II paratrooper, died Thursday at Sharp Memorial Hospital in Kearny Mesa. He was 85.
The cause of death was a heart attack following a stroke he suffered last month, said Richard Mandich, president of the Return to Normandy Association.
With fellow members of the Return to Normandy Association, which today numbers about 36, Mr. Shaker took part in 1994 in a jump marking the 50th anniversary of the Normandy invasion.
For Mr. Shaker, who took his first jumps in World War II with the 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment, the Normandy re-enactment marked a born-again passion for parachuting.
During the next five years, he jumped as part of celebrations in Russia and the Netherlands. When he turned 80, he jumped as a birthday present to himself. Same thing when he turned 82.
"To some extent, it's to see if you still have the right stuff," he told The San Diego Union-Tribune. "As long as I'm still healthy, I'll keep doing it."
His final jump, two years ago in the Netherlands, marked the 55th anniversary of an Allied airborne operation aimed at seizing key Rhine River crossings.
In 1994, five months after jumping at the Return to Normandy celebration, Mr. Shaker was among several participants in the re- enactment who were invited to the White House for dinner.
While in Washington, he visited the Russian embassy. Thwarted in his efforts to set up a jump in Russia to mark the end of World War II, he began contacting parachute schools in Moscow.
With permission to jump, Mr. Shaker was the first one out of a plane. Upon landing, he broke a bone in his right leg.
The man who followed, Florida veteran Ron Duff, plunged to his death.
Undaunted, Mr. Shaker joined four other ex-paratroopers in conjunction with another end-of-the-war celebration in Sydney, Australia. This time, though, he stayed in the plane, heeding advice to protect his injured leg.
Mr. Shaker, a native of Springfield, Mass., dropped out of high school to pursue his first adventure. Seeking to get in on the fighting in Shanghai, where the Japanese and Chinese were engaged in hostilities, he hopped a ship in San Francisco.
He ended up in Singapore, then made his way back to Massachusetts to return to high school in Springfield.
As a young adult, he spent 18 months fighting with the loyalists in the Spanish civil war in the late 1930s. "I was isolated behind enemy lines twice, captured once and then escaped," he later wrote in an account of his life.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, Mr. Shaker joined the Army. As a company commander in Italy, he led a unit of 40 men in the capture of a German radar station, taking 140 prisoners.
Mr. Shaker's unit was among the first to land at the Anzio beachhead. He later fought in the mountains north of Nice in France and in the Battle of the Bulge in Bastogne, Belgium.
He earned a Silver Star in France for assembling survivors of a platoon dispersed by heavy enemy fire and directing defense of a former enemy stronghold with 50 men during a five-hour battle.
Leaving the Army as a captain in 1945, Mr. Shaker began a career selling life insurance to military personnel. The job involved worldwide travel, including landing in Beirut 24 hours after the Marines arrived in 1958.
Among his first clients: Marines digging foxholes.
During the Vietnam War, Mr. Shaker spent 18 months in Vietnam as a civilian. "I've always wanted to see what was happening in interesting parts of the world," he told a reporter in 1996.
He settled in San Diego in 1978 and retired from the insurance business about 20 years ago. In 1994, he joined the newly formed Return to Normandy Association and, at the time of his death, was its oldest member.
He had been looking forward later this year to a reunion of the 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment in Cincinnati.
Survivors include a sister, Mildred Blumenthal of Del Ray Beach, Fla.; and a brother, Theodore Shaker of Bloomfield, Conn.
Services are pending at Arlington National
Silver Star Medal