When I first met Fred Scheer, I was impressed by his quiet, friendly demeanor. I had no clue, at the time, that he was a U.S. Army veteran who’d been deployed during the D-Day invasion, captured by the Germans and then sent to a labor camp, from which he managed to escape. What is also interesting is that Fred is Jewish and has retinitis pigmentosa (RP).
He’s published several books on his experiences as a World War II POW, the most popular being A European Sojourn, which is available on Amazon. Now 90 years of age, Fred lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with Gerry, his wife of 67 years. He has served as president of FFB’s Atlanta chapter in the past, is a member of Atlanta’s veteran service board and is a frequent invited speaker at schools and senior groups.
When did you find out that you had RP?
While stationed in Normandy, I was cleaning my gun one night and, while trying to remove the bayonet, accidently hit my head with it. The chief medic examined not only my head but also took a look at my retina and told me, “Your head is fine, but you have nightblindness”—which is the old medical term for retinitis pigmentosa. When I relayed the medic’s diagnosis to my commanding officer, he simply said, “Never heard of that. Back to the front lines.”
Did having RP affect your military duties?
Not really, as I was a 20-year-old who thought everyone saw things the way I did. Once, though, I was out on patrol with a bunch of soldiers, and we had to hike across a farmer’s field at sunset to get back to our camp. I stopped to tie my boot laces, and when I stood up, the closest soldier in line was about 40 yards in front of me. I started following him and noticed that he kept weaving to the right and then to the left. Surprisingly, when I caught up to him, it was not a fellow soldier but a sheep I had been following.
How did you get captured by the Germans?
Along with 17 other soldiers, I was asked to go to the “back lines” to retrieve unused ammunition. We walked along a long hedgerow and finally reached the ammo dump. All of a sudden, mortar shells started falling all around us. To escape the bombing, we crawled through a small opening in the hedgerow. As we emerged on the other side, there were about 30 German soldiers with machine guns waiting for us. They shouted, “Hands up in the air, boys!” We had no choice but to surrender.
As a POW, were you ever asked to disclose your religion?
As new POWs, we were put on trains and sent back to work camps in Germany. The soldiers told us that German law prohibited Jews from working, and the German soldiers requested that all Jewish POWs form a separate line. Because I was aware of the dire consequences, I did not step out of line and, when asked my religion, replied that I was Protestant. Unfortunately, Jewish POWs were horribly treated, and many did not survive the war.
Do you have any advice for young people with RP?
Yes. Don’t let your vision disability stop you from doing things you have done in the past or things you want to do in the future. You will just have to do them a little differently. The modern, vision-assistive technology can help tremendously in this regard. If you don’t try, you will never know if you could have succeeded.
Pictured, top: Fred Scheer as a private in the U.S. Army during World War II; and above: with his wife, Gerry, to whom he’s been married 67 years.