Shirley Sheriff sits with her American Red Cross photo from the 1940s and her Normandy Hotel key from 1945. On Thursday, March 7, she was honored with a certificate of appreciation for her valuable contribution to the American Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces during World War II in France and Germany.
continued “They were skin and bones. The Germans had nothing to eat, therefore their prisoners had nothing to eat,” she said of the dying soldiers not much younger than herself. “They were half-alive. They actually smelled of death. So that really hit me.”
Although she had experience working in hospitals, she said it was the first time she had actually witnessed death.
“I felt, ‘This is why I’m here. This is what I had signed on to do.’ I was able to handle it fairly well,” she said.
Sheriff then moved onto an army hospital in Garches, a commune right outside of France, and worked with soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. She said she would take the GIs on walks and develop different games to ease their minds. Sheriff was in Paris on Victory in Europe Day, when France was liberated, on May 8, 1945.
In early 1946, Sheriff was reassigned to Amburg, Germany, where she began working as a club recreation worker at a former monastery. Although the war had ended, she said she knew very little about the Holocaust and the concentration camps. One of the biggest eye-openers for her while abroad was seeing a Holocaust survivor but thinking he was a Nazi because he was German.
“I realized at that moment that I was judging this human being. How can you just judge a person? That was another experience …. you can’t judge people. We’re all human beings,” she said.
After a year-and-a-half in Europe, Sheriff finally returned to New York. She said coming back home was “horrible” because the people around her had no idea how lucky they were.
“Everybody was complaining. They didn’t have a lot of stockings, they didn’t have all of these wonderful luxury items. I said, ‘My God, you have plenty of food,’” she said. “I couldn’t stand the people.”
Sheriff later returned to Europe as a tourist and spent the rest of her career in America working at recreational hospitals. Her fearless and confident demeanor did not diminish throughout her peacetime life and she made it a point to have experiences, including finagling her way into the O.J. Simpson trial while on a trip in California.
“I still have no fear of anything,” she said. “You’re a much freer person. Your life is more open to experiences.”