Hugh Shearin is not the average UNC cancer patient. He has a history. Shearin was a newly wed and newly trained Army private when he landed in Germany on December 16, 1944, after arriving in England on December 1. He did not know that his first battle would also be one of the largest battles in World War II: The Battle of the Bulge.
Shearin served with the 106th Infantry, Company A, 424 Regiment, First Battalion. He was sent to the front line the day the battle began.
“The Germans were shelling us all day long and into the night. We had established a 27-mile front, but the Germans drove through the middle of us, separating nine of us from our group.
“We hid in the woods until first light and then saw Germans vehicles, tanks and soldiers on the road, so we crawled into a ravine to stay away from them. When we could move, we had to cross an open field and a 15-foot wide creek. The chest-level water left us soaked, and the weather was extremely cold. We stopped to rest, and five men in our company walked on ahead. We later found them all dead.
“That night, we went deep in the woods away from the artillery fire and built a fire to warm us and dry our clothing. We then walked all night, guided only by a compass, holding the belt of the soldier in front of us.
“The next morning we made our way to the 9th Armored Division and found them eating breakfast. We hadn’t eaten in three days, so were glad to be offered food. Several inquiries were made on our behalf to find our unit, but no one could, so we were told to stay with the 9th to guard the tanks.
“The Germans attacked again, and my group of four was pinned down. The Germans were so close we could clearly see their faces. Then they began firing mortars at us, and a blast from one hit me in the face, leaving a piece of steel in my eye and several embedded in my face. I put my hands up to my face, and when I held them out in front of me, they were covered in blood.
“My squad leader, lying on the ground ahead of me, was hit in the leg and a bullet pierced his helmet, but did not injure him. My ammunitions assistant, lying to my left, was hit in the lung. A medic made it to us despite the heavy fire and got us to the field hospital where we were treated for our injuries.” By the end of the Battle of the Bulge, over 76,000 Americans had been killed, wounded, or captured.
Shearin’s toughness and gratitude have sustained him through two bouts of cancer. He is currently undergoing treatment for colon cancer. He and his wife, June, live in Rocky Mount. They have three children: two daughters, and a son who died of cancer in 1999. They are proud grandparents of 10 and great grandparents of 7.
Shearin says, “Most people live day to day. When you’re in a war, you live second to second and are grateful for every one. You develop a toughness. You’re sitting in the wet and cold, and there’s nothing you can do except keep going. I guess that’s what has allowed me to live to the age of 86.”
Shearin has kept in touch with his fellow soldiers over the years and participated in the Flight of Honor in October 2010 to Washington, DC to see the World War II Veterans’ monument.
Shearin died from his illness in April 2011.