Dave Schmidt joined the Navy at 15, before World War II. He was a big boy for his age – 5-ft., 6-inches tall and 215-pounds.
“I was an out of control kid. My parents both worked and they decided the Navy was the best thing to straighten me out. They told the Navy recruiter my birth certificate was lost in a fire and I was 17-years-old,” the 86-year-old Port Charlotte man recalled almost seven decades later.
Eight weeks after he signed up, Schmidt finished boot camp at Great Lakes Naval Station, north of Chicago, and went aboard the light cruiser USS Memphis. He didn’t catch up to her until the ship returned from a voyage to South Africa and arrived in Miami.
“While I was in Norfolk, Va., waiting to get aboard the Memphis, the sailor in charge of our group asked if there was anyone who knew about running a sewing machine,” he said. “I told him I did and I got a job sewing crows on the sleeves of ‘feather merchants.’ These were guys who had some college who joined the Navy and they gave them a rating,” Schmidt explained.
“I charged ‘em nothing. But they’d give me a quarter, 50-cents up to a couple of bucks for putting insignias on their uniforms,” he said. “I was making some real money.”
He wasn’t on the cruiser Memphis long when they found out he could sew and made him the sail maker aboard ship. What does a sail maker do aboard an all steel ship with no sails?
“When the admiral held a dinners, I made the new white chair covers. I made muzzle covers for the big guns,” the old mariner said. “I was also the undertaker aboard ship. I sewed the canvas body bags for sailors who died at sea.”
He was 16 when he buried his first sailor over the side.
“I sewed two pieces of 36 inch wide canvas together to put the body in. Then I took a five-inch shell and placed it at his feet. I put the body on the canvas and sewed him in. I used my hooked needle to put the last stitch through the dead man’s nose and sew the canvass flap shut,” Schmidt explained.
It was January 1943 and he was still aboard the old four-stacker serving as sail maker when the light cruiser flew President Franklin Roosevelt’s flag during FDR’s voyage to the Casablanca Conference in North Africa. The president met with Prime Minister Winston Churchill to discuss the pending invasion of Italy.
“We knew the president was coming aboard when the Memphis sailed to Newport News, Va. to have an elevator installed so he could reach the admiral’s second-floor cabin,” Schmidt said. “I was one of the guys that helped bring 150 cases of “Old Granddad” whiskey aboard ship. We stacked it right on the starboard side of the ship a day or so later.
“There was a railroad track beside where the Memphis was docked. They brought Roosevelt in at 3 a.m. and none of us saw him. The next thing I knew we shoved off for North Africa,” he said.
The trip with the president was uneventful. When he was aboard ship he stayed in his cabin much of the time. When Schmidt returned to the U.S. with the president he was reassigned to the USS Quincy, a heavy cruiser being built at the Boston Navy Yard in 1943.
“Our first big mission aboard the Quincy was D-Day. We were two or three miles off Omaha Beach bombarding Cherbourg, France with our 12-inch guns,” he said. “We could see the flashes from the German guns firing at us. Twenty-seconds later there would be a splash from one of their shells near our cruiser.
“You had to hold your position, you couldn’t move because there were hundreds of Allied ships off shore and thousands of barrage balloons over head,” Schmidt said. “It was unbelievable. You just stayed there and held your breath.”
His battle station was on the bridge with the captain.
“I was the boatswain’s mate of the watch. The captain would say, ‘Pipe General Quarters!’ I got my boatswain’s pipe out and piped it over the ship’s loudspeaker. Then I’d waited for the skipper to give the next order. If he got it I got it,” the old salt said as he told his tale a lifetime later.
“We were too far off shore and couldn’t see the men going ashore, but we watched scores of landing craft go by us filled with soldiers headed for Omaha Beach. I watched them sail by from my station on the bridge. I felt sorry for the guys below deck who couldn’t see anything,” he said.
`After three days off the beaches of Normandy, Schmidt and the Quincy head south toward Marseilles and the invasion of southern France.
The war in Europe was finally over. V-E Day had come and gone and the Quincy and Schmidt were selected to take FDR to the Yalta Conference where the president met Churchill and Stalin to determine the ultimate fate of Western Europe after World War II.
“We sailed for Egypt and Great Bitter Lake. Roosevelt had his daughter, Anna, with him on this trip,” he said. “She saw the Pyramids and went shopping for souvenirs. She put her recently acquired treasures in an old leather suitcase that had a broken handle.
“The executive officer of the Quincy called me and told me to put on my dress blues because I was going to the president’s cabin and fix the handle on Anna’s leather bag. He reasoned because I was a sail maker I could fix anything,” Schmidt said with a smile. “Off I went, accompanied by a Marine guard, to FDR’s cabin. He was sitting in a wooden chair wrapped in a couple of blankets. Anna was standing there when I came in.
“She was no beauty queen, but she was pleasant. Anna watched me sew the handle back together. As I finished she said to her father, ‘Look what a nice job he’s doing.’
“‘Very nice,’ was all FDR said.
“When I completed the work, Anna handed me two matchbooks she got from her father. They were covered in royal blue material with an embossed sailboat on one of the covers spelling out his initials, FDR, in its billowing golden sails.
“I’ve got one of the matchbooks here on the table and the other is on the wall in my study.”
During their trip to the Middle East, Schmidt said all the big shots came aboard.
“I piped Churchill, King Farouk of Egypt, Emperor Haile Sellassie of Ethiopia and King Iban Saud of Saudi Arabia aboard the Quincy to meet Roosevelt,” he said. “While we were at Malta a destroyer tied up to our ship. King Saud must have been aboard the smaller ship.
“He proceeded to slaughter a couple of sheep aboard ship. He hung their carcasses to bleed out from ropes attached to the destroyer’s main stern guns. He pitched his tent on deck and was in the process of building a fire on the bow of the destroyer to roast his mutton,” Schmidt recalled.
The purpose of this conference with the Middle East leaders aboard ship at Malta was to allow Roosevelt to make a deal for Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves that the U.S. wanted to tap into. He was successful.
“Too bad,” Schmidt observed more than six decades later.
After returning the president to Newport News, the Quincy headed for the war in the Pacific and Okinawa. It was the biggest battle in the Pacific during World War II, but it was just about over when they arrived. They missed the kamikaze attacks against American ships off the 60-mile long island
The Quincy sailed on to the Japanese home islands and took part in the shelling of Ryukuus and the iron plant at Kamaishi, Japan before getting the word to flee with the rest of Adm. Bull Halsey’s fleet for some unexplained reason.
“That’s when President Truman authorized that the Atomic Bomb be dropped on Japan. There was total confusion and a lot of rumors going around the fleet,” he said. “It wasn’t long afterward we sailed into Tokyo Bay for the surrender.
“Japanese sailors were standing at the rails of their ships in white uniforms uncovered with their heads bowed. The guns of their ships were pointed down. It was unbelievable. Chills went through you,” Schmidt said.
They anchored off the Battleship Missouri about 500-feet for the surrender ceremony.
“I was up on the bridge with the captain. I could see what was going on pretty good,” he said.
A few days later Schmidt sailed for the USA and was discharged from the Navy as a Boatswains mate 1st Class in November 1945.
He got several civilian jobs working for big corporations up north: Salada Tea Co., Ford Motor Co. and others before he went to work and eventually owned the Atlantic Awning Co. in Melrose, Mass. that he ran for almost 40 years. Schmidt and his wife moved to Port Charlotte in 1981 and opened the Atlantic Awning and Canvas Co. that he ran for a decade.
He became involved in local politics and ran against incumbent Charlotte County Commissioner Franz Ross in 1985 and won. He served one term as a commissioner from 1986-90. After his wife died some years ago, he says all he does is tinkers with antique cars and sews grocery bags for his relatives.
Name: David Henry Schmidt
D.O.B: 3 June 1924
Hometown: Michigan City, Ind.
Current: Port Charlotte, Fla.
Entered Service: August 26, 1941
Discharged: 5 November 1945
Rank: Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class
Unit: USS Quincy CA71
This story was first printed in the Charlotte Sun, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Thursday, July 1, 2010. It is republished to the web with permission.