On this Memorial Day, it’s good to reflect on those who served the country and lost their lives in places like Yorktown, Shiloh, Meuse-Argonne, Salerno, Omaha Beach, Bastogne, Pusan Perimeter, Khe Sanh, Highway of Death and Desert Storm, Iraqi Freedom, and the ongoing fight in Afghanistan. For me, I will remember someone who never went overseas, but was called to active duty in two wars to defend our freedoms. He was a jovial man, who loved to laugh, loved photography and film, loved boating and loved his family.
A boy from Queens, NY
The story starts in College Point, NY. There a young man fresh out of high school is drafted into the Army Air Corps in March, 1942. Now, in March 1942, the outlook for the United States was not all that rosy when viewed in the spyglass of world events. We were in a world war and this one was on two fronts as opposed to how the First World War was fought. The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor and destroyed or damaged the bulk of the US fleet’s battleships while they were at anchor. They then went on a wave of conquest across the Pacific that advanced Japanese forces thousands of miles away from the home islands. Names like Singapore, Wake Island, Corregidor, Bataan Peninsula, Burma, Coral Sea and Midway were and would be household names in American living rooms over the next few months.
On the other side of the world, Hitler had invaded the Soviet Union in June of 1941, been repulsed in the snows outside of Moscow, but still held the cards for another offensive into the Caucasus and the city of Stalingrad in 1942. The British were reeling under the constant combat and defeats inflicted on them by the Desert Fox, General (later Field Marshal) Erwin Rommel in the North African Desert. Though small in number of troops, the Afrika Korps was a highly mobile and efficient force that utilized the desert surroundings to their advantage in many engagements. The U-boats were sinking supplies to Britain in the millions of tons per month, and the ability to keep the English in World War II was not a guaranteed conclusion. This was the world when Elwood F. Schmidt was drafted in 1942.
Let’s Win and Go Home…
My father fought most of World War II from Culver City, California. There his photography and movie skills put him into a unit where he acted in training films, and also worked on examining some of the bombing footage that came from the reconnaissance cameras on missions over Europe and in the Pacific. In this capacity he ran into many Hollywood stars including Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart. His commanding officer was a certain Captain Ronald Wilson Reagan.
As the war began to wind down with Allied victory more a certitude, government distrust of the relationship with the Soviet Union forced the military to leave large contingents of forces in Europe, while stripping the forces that were handling other duties internally in the United States for operations aimed at ending the war against Japan. In early August of 1945, Captain Reagan sent Corporal Elwood Schmidt for a physical with the base surgeon to see if he was cleared for overseas duty. On August 5, the base physician responded to Captain Reagan’s request, and cleared Corporal Schmidt for overseas assignment. On August 6, Colonel Paul Tibbetts flying the Enola Gay dropped the first Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima. Upon hearing no communication from the Japanese government, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9.
I consider myself the face of survival. The invasion of Japan would have claimed millions of lives, both Japanese and American (including, possibly, Corporal Elwood F. Schmidt).
National Broadcasting Company
My dad went on to be a Film Editor for NBC in Rockefeller Center for almost 30 years. In the summer of 1980, he was working with his friend Mark Goodson on a revision of To Tell the Truth. Unfortunately, Bill Todman had died in the middle of the planning in summer 1979. Dad had previously worked with Goodson/Todman on the short-lived game show Personality in the mid 1970s.
Watch the end credits for FILM EDITOR!
For one episode, they needed a man just about Dad’s age to be on the panel. The set-up was that an author had written a book on the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in 1945, the cruiser that delivered the first atomic bomb. Dad agreed to be one of the “liars” to fool Nipsy Russell and Kitty Carlisle. The taping went through, and the show was slated to air in early December, 1980.
To Tell the Truth, 1980
This is where the story is tinged with irony. The sinking of the USS Indianapolis occurred AFTER the ship had delivered the Hiroshima bomb to the island of Tinian. The ship was under orders to maintain radio silence, when a Japanese submarine torpedoed the ship, no one heard a distress message. If you want to get the full impact of what happened when the surviving crew went into the water, listen to Robert Shaw as Captain Quint in Jaws give the account of the shark attacks that savaged the men in the water.
Corporal Elwood Schmidt died on November 22, 1980 from Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia. On Tuesday November 25, he was buried and Thanksgiving was on Thursday (mom would not let us overlook Thanksgiving, and we had a meal with an empty seat at the table for the first time). His appearance on To Tell the Truth aired in early December, two weeks after his death. It was the most painful half-hour of television I have ever watched, but I am glad that I watched it. He was a patriot who I think about every year on Memorial Day. He didn’t fight, he didn’t win any medals for valor, but he was my dad and I miss him to this day.
Remember those who fought and died, and remember the vets, living and dead, like Technical Sergeant Elwood F. Schmidt (his last rank in military service) and those serving this Memorial Day!
Follow me on Twitter at: Donald Schmidt@thebookkahuna
Good Books for Memorial Day: