FORT MYERS, FLA. -- It has become routine to watch military personnel introduced before athletic contests. The Twins have a flag-raising with a military representative before every game at Target Field.
There was a reminder on Sunday, before the Twins played the Cardinals at Hammond Stadium, that the back stories can be fascinating – particularly for the World War II vets.
I have to admit to generally standing and joining the applause more out of respect than from listening to the details of service.
The soldier being introduced Sunday was Bob Shelato, and there were mentions of Utah Beach and the Battle of the Bulge, and when you hear of those events, you know the gentleman was in the middle of it.
Bob and his wife, Beverly, received robust applause from Sunday’s full house – consisting of more than 50 percent of fans wearing Cardinals red – and then made their way up the steps and into the seats above the aisle.
It was a long climb for Bob, now 90, and his wife, and along the way he received many handshakes.
“This is the first time I’ve been introduced before a ballgame,’’ said Shelato, once he made it to his seat. “I’ve been introduced at a few other events through the years, and was at the 70th anniversary of the Normandy Invasion last year where President Obama spoke to us.’’
Shelato’s service in the European Theater led to a Silver Star from the U.S. Army, a Knight of Honor Medal from France and a Medal of Honor from Luxemborg.
“I was in the 249th Engineer Battalion … we built bridges in front of Patton’s Third Army,’’ Shelato said. “I had an unusual job: I was in security, had a jeep and a driver, and we went to many places where not many of our soldiers had yet traveled.’’
Shelato said he met Patton three times and talked to him once. “He asked for my advice,’’ said Shelato, laughing at the joke he told his fellow soldiers 70 years ago.
“I was a 20-year-old smart aleck and we were out in front of the advance, checking a road for land mines,’’ Shelato said. “I saw the jeep coming up from behind, saw the stars, and knew who it was.
“Patton got out of the jeep and asked me, ‘How many miles have you cleared on this road?’ I told him, ‘Two, and we haven’t found anything.’ He asked, ‘Do you think the road is clean up ahead,’ and I said, ‘I don’t know, sir.’
“He went back to his jeep, and then three jeeps tore up the side of a high hill and came under artillery fire. Patton hunkered down, looked through his field glasses for a while, then the jeeps came back down and took off.
“My buddies said, ‘What did he want?’ and I said, ‘General Patton wanted my advice, of course.’ ‘’
Late in the war, the Allies blew up a bridge over the Hour River to stop retreating Germans. A few days later, Shelato’s unit was assigned to rebuild the bridge for U.S. troops.
“The area was supposed to be cleaned out of Germans,’’ Shelato said. “We got to the site in advance and there were two pillboxes on a hill. I looked up there and said, ‘I’m not sure about those.’
“I walked up there and shouted into one pillbox the German phrase for, ‘Out with you,’ and six soldiers came out with arms raised. The German in charge said if we weren’t going to harm them, the men manning the other pillbox would come out, too. I said, ‘OK,’ and seven Germans came out of there.
“They put up a marker at the site, commemorating the surrender and what took place there.’’
Shelato was asked if he was a baseball fan and said, ‘’Of course.’’ Asked for his favorite club, he nodded toward the field and said, “Twins.’’
He came from a small town in Indiana and settled in the Thousand Islands area of Upstate New York. How did he become a Twins fan?
“I worked many years for Ralston Purina, and I was in Minnesota with my job for one year,’’ Shelato said. “It happened to be 1965, the year the Twins went to the World Series. I got in to see the last game of the Series, with a standing room ticket, and the Twins lost to that great pitcher with the Dodgers.
“What was his name? Sandy Koufax. That was it.
“Being in the Twin Cities that year, the enthusiasm for the Twins … I adopted them as my team.’’
Shelato now lives in Fort Myers in the winter and goes back to the Thousand Islands in the summer.
“I still play golf with friends once a week,’’ he said. “I’m down to nine holes.’’
Nine holes at 90. Even George Patton would give a soldier a pass on that.