POINT PLEASANT — “You’re not hungry until you haven’t eaten in days,” 91-year-old World War II veteran Don Shearer told an audience of Point Pleasant High School students on Friday morning.
Shearer told the students that his experiences as a prisoner of war taught him, among other things, not to complain about daily life. He spent nine months in Buchenwald, a German concentration camp, and the hardships he and his fellow prisoners endured there taught him the meaning of being free.
Veterans Day is more than a holiday, Shearer told students, more than parades. It is a time to think about the cost of freedom, and of the 410,000-plus Americans who never came home.
Shearer, a Charleston, W.Va. native, became a gunner in 1944 in the 391st Bomb Group, 573rd Bomb Squadron. After his plane was shot down over France, two Frenchmen took him to a farmhouse and gave him food and shelter.
He was subsequently taken to Paris, where he and two other soldiers were picked up the next day, ostensibly to be taken to England.
“The people in the car turned out to be German,” Shearer said, adding that he and the others were taken to a camp were they were confined to a bare room with just a pile of straw on which to sleep.
“Then one day came with a lot of confusion,” recalled Shearer, “We could hear gunshots. The Germans evacuated the prison, and we were marched onto a train.”
His car held more than 70 men, said Shearer, crowded together and struggling to remain on their feet for days. Some were shot attempting to escape. The train was headed for Buchenwald.
“It was a death camp,” said Shearer, adding that when the train arrived at Buchenwald some people were trampled, stepped on by German soldiers, or punched in the face.
“One man had his walking stick kicked out from under his arm,” Shearer said.
Shearer spent two days outside in the rain and cold, with only the ground for a bed, before he and the others were taken to a building with stacked beds. The food, he said, was usually bread made from mostly sawdust, grass and leaves, and a thin soup.
“The soup had worms in it,” said Shearer. “After a while, you just ate the worms, too.”
The end of the war approached, and Shearer and other soldiers were moved again to the comparative luxury of an officers’ prisoner of war camp. They received food parcels with dried fruit, instant coffee, chocolate, cigarettes and Spam.
In April 1945, after being moved again, Shearer and the other prisoners were liberated. He knew the war was over, Shearer said, when he saw the American flag instead of the swastika.
“I knew I was free, that I was going home,” Shearer said.