From 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
militancy cost her six months in prison. Family members said she was the
great love of his life: He picked her up 30 years ago at a lunch counter in
Manhattan. They never married -- he never married anyone.
"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
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
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
"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
"That was it! Opposites attract! My God, the arguments we had! He was so
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."
SHAKER, KENNETH R. Kenneth Roger Shaker, 85, of San Diego,
California passed away following a brief illness on Thursday May 3, 2001.
Son of the late Barney Shaker and Rose Shaker Shanberg. Born in Springfield,
Massachusetts in 1916, he was a 1935 graduate of Weaver High School.
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
May 5, 2001
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
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
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
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 Cemetery.
Grave marker for Kenneth R. Shaker in Section 60, Site: 6640
of Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington (Arlington county), Virginia.
Although not mentioned amongst his other
awards cited in the obituaries, [then] Lt. Shaker received a commendation
from General [Mark W.] Clark in 1944. Specifics are unknown.
Kenneth is listed in 31 July 1932 aboard a
ship from Calcutta, India but the manifest image is not available.
Kenneth's next trip occurred on 21 Aug
1933 when he entered Canada, unaccompanied, to visit a friend (see line 3).
On 7 December 1938 Kenneth was listed as a
(line 28) on the SS Paris which departed from Cherbourg, France arriving New
York City five days later. The sailing perhaps reflects his return
from his adventure fighting in the Spanish civil war which lasted from 17
July 1936 to 1 April 1939.
1940, Kenneth Shaker was a member of
crew for the SS American Seaman as it sailed from Havana to St. Petersburg,
Kenneth enlisted in the Army at Hartford,
CT on 23 January 1942. His enlistment document states that he had
completed one year of college at the time. How and when he earned a
commission is unknown.