Don Schmitt of Maple Leaf Estates, Port Charlotte, Fla. was trained as a combat engineer and sent to Okinawa during the final days of World War II. He was a corporal who served with the Army’s 47th Engineers in the Pacific at the close of the war.
After being trained as an electrician at Fort Lewis, Washington state, his unit went aboard ship at Seattle and sailed for the war zone.
“We went over in a converted luxury liner, HMS Everly. It took us 24 days to reach Okinawa. By the time we go there the war was over,” the 87-year-old former soldier recalled.
“On the way over in the ship, I was singled out and trained to be a cook. It worked out pretty good because when I got to Okinawa my first job was stringing telephone lines. Since they had no telephone poles we strung the lines from tree-to-tree,” he explained.
“Just before we arrived the Everly went through a big typhoon while we were still at sea. Our ship would ride up on the waves and come splashing down. When she went down her props would come out of the water. spin and vibrate the whole ship,” he recalled.
“When we reached Okinawa there were no docking facilities. We went over the side into LSTs (landing crafts) and were taken to the nearby beach. We waded ashore.
“When we were out stringing phone lines Japs would shoot at us. When this happened we’d bail out of there in a hurry,” Schmitt said. “Then we’d call the engineers. We’d pinpoint where the shots were coming from and the engineers would take a satchel charge and blow up the cave where the Japs were shooting from.”
He spent a good bit of his time on the island working as a cook to begin with. It was a lot safer job than being a telephone line stringer and being shot at by the remaining Japanese soldiers who hadn’t put down their arms.
Schmitt brought a Brownie box camera with him. In order to obtain film and developing chemicals he swapped food for the items he needed to take pictures and print them showing life on Okinawa at war’s end. By the time he left he had a couple of scrapbooks of pictures of day-to-day life in the battle zone. He gave the books away to a friend years later, since he and his wife, Audrey, had no children.
He finally got to put his electrical knowledge to work. Schmitt was one of several soldiers assigned to keep the electric on for the base and surrounding area. They were in charge of running three, 50-KW Caterpillar generators that provided the lights.
“I had a couple of Japanese POWs who worked with me at the power plant. They did a lot of things. In some cases they were more knowledgeable about the equipment than we were.”
“We’d run the generators two on and one off. A couple of us who were running the equipment slept right there,” he said. “Nobody knew we were there unless the lights went out. Then we’d have more brass standing right there than you could shake a stick at.”
Toward the end of his service, Schmitt was transferred to another base where he became part of a construction crew building Quonset huts for the American officers’ families who were relocating to Okinawa.
“We had Okinawan natives working with us to get these Quonset huts fixed up. The local natives would go up in the hills and get branches to use as measuring sticks. They couldn’t read a ruler,” he explained. “instead they used their measuring sticks. They had a measuring stick just the right length for every piece of lumber we cut, so they knew exactly the proper size.”
While working on the Quonset huts Schmitt and his buddies went through another typhoon. It was smaller than the one they experienced on their way over, but it was still dangerous.
“It took pieces of lumber we had stacked up and scattered them all over. Sheeting boards flew off those piles of building material like torpedoes. These sheets would blow right through our tents where we slept,” he said.
On the way home to the States, Schmitt spent 27 rough days at sea aboard a troop transport with thousands of other servicemen who were headed home.
“The food was horrible and we all got seasick. When we sailed into San Francisco Bay, looked up and saw the ‘Golden Gate,’ that was a real experience after that rough ride.”
From there he took a slow train to Great Lakes Naval Processing Center outside Chicago where he was discharged. It didn’t happen immediately.
“They spent three weeks trying to get us to join the Army Reserve. We all refused.”
Schmitt was only 20 when he was discharged. He took the G.I. Bill, got some education and went to work for a corporation that made parts for aircraft, appliances and the automotive industry. He stayed with the firm for 25 years until it changed hands and he was let go. By then he was the plant supervisor.
“For the next 22 years I was building manager and secretary of the Scottish Rights Masonic organization in Cleveland, Ohio,” Schmitt said proudly. “We had a building with over 400,000 square feet. It was seven stories high with a 2,300 seat auditorium, banquet hall and restaurant.”
After he returned, he and Audrey moved to Maple Leaf Estates two years ago.
Name: Don Schmitt
D.O.B: 1 Sept. 1926
Hometown: Willoughby, Ohio
Currently: Port Charlotte, Fla.
Entered Service: 17 Feb. 1945
Discharged: 25 Nov. 1946
Commendations: Asiatic Pacific Theater Ribbon, Army of Occupation medal, Japan; Good Conduct Medal, World War II Victory Medal
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Wednesday, July 23, 2014 and is republished with permission.
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