John Schoell of Port Charlotte, Fla. took part in the first combat jump involving American paratroopers since World War II. He was as a member of the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team, and jumped on Oct. 20, 1950, near Sunchon, North Korea — just over the 38th Parallel dividing the North from the South.
He was trained as a replacement trooper on a 57 mm recoilless rifle and sent to the 4th Platoon, 3rd Battalion, Company K of the 187th.
“We climbed aboard ‘Flying Boxcars’ (C-119s) at Kimpo Airfield in South Korea early in the morning and jumped at 1,000 feet into an open field,” Schoell said. “Quickly we moved east into an open ditch to avoid incoming enemy fire.
“I started off being a loader for a recoilless rifle. It would fire a mile and hit whatever you were looking at through the scope,” he said. “It was extremely accurate.”
Their objective on their first jump was to cut off a North Korean retreat, which they successfully completed in three days. It wasn’t without thousands of killed, wounded and captured American servicemen. Schoell and his airborne buddies were delayed from making their combat jump for 10 days because of rainy weather. This is one reason, he said, why so many Americans were lost in this battle.
At the same time, the 187th captured thousands of enemy soldiers during the three-day engagement.
“The day after the drop, Cpl. Jim Reeves, my gunman, was hit by a piece of shrapnel next to his eye. A piece of shrapnel the size of the tip of a teaspoon lodged in the skin next to his left eye, but didn’t damage his eye. I used my jackknife to extract the piece of steel. I used some cherry herring liquor I had in my canteen to flush out his wound,” he recalled.
Schoell took over the recoilless rifle and Reeves became his loader.
“Eight-hundred yards in front of us was a line of enemy mortars. I could see them fire and I hit them with six white phosphorous shells. We didn’t get any more incoming mortar rounds,” he said.
The 187th pulled out of the line the following day and flew back to base in South Korea.
His regiment made their second combat jump at Munsan, North Korea, the following year. A contingent of Marines was surrounded by the enemy and the 187th was dropped in to cut the enemy’s stranglehold on the “Leathernecks.”
At the end of the Korean War, Schoell decided to make the Army a career. He stayed in the service and found himself working in Covert Operations.
“In 1953, my boss sent me to Vietnam to find out what the French were doing at Dien Bien Phu, North Vietnam, and why they need so much equipment and supplies,” he said. “I flew in a C-47 and made a jump to reach the French stronghold.
“I was dealing with the French Foreign Legion, who were comprised of a number of former German soldiers from World War II. Right after I arrived, I went on a patrol to check out a Vietnamese village. Immediately after we arrived the Legionnaires had the villagers fall out in line.
“They went down the line inspecting each one of them. If they found grease or oil on their hands, they shot them. They cut the clothes off the women with their knives. When they reached the end of the line, there was this woman they cut the clothes off,” Schoell said.
“‘Let me have her,’ I said. “She grabbed my hand and I pulled out my .38 caliber pistol I was carrying and took the woman on down the road with me. When we got out of hearing distance I told her, ‘I know you understand English.’ With a perfect Boston accent she said, ‘These Legionnaires are bandits. They are killing my people.'”
He shot a chicken that wandered by with his .38, handed the dead bird to her and told the woman to get lost.
The next day, he flew out of Dien Bien Phu back to Washington, D.C., and reported to his boss at the National Security Council about the French Foreign Legion’s problem in Vietnam. Two years later, the French surrendered to the North Vietnamese at Dien Bien Phu and the American government took over in their stead. Thus began our decades-long involvement with Vietnam.
A year later, Schoell returned to the same village in Vietnam, exploring conditions on the ground for the French once more.
“The village seemed empty until the French began burning the huts. I saw this hand come out of the hut and motion to me to come closer. This woman in black showed me a .38-caliber casing she was wearing around her neck on a string. It was the casing from the bullet I used to shoot the chicken the year before. It was the same woman.”
He would later learn that Don Ho Bin, the woman in black, was an American citizen who grew up in the Boston area. She graduated from Wellesley College with a degree in nursing. She was working for the National Security Council as a covert agent, like he was.
“‘You’re leaving tomorrow, will you take some orphans with you?’ she asked. I told her I knew nothing about my travel arrangements, but I would be happy to take some Vietnamese orphans. The next morning I left on a C-47, and before I left, they were throwing bundles of babies on board the plane. When she showed, up I threw her on the plane, too,” he said.
They flew back to Japan and eventually on to the United States. She took the six little orphan girls on with her to America. Ho Bin adopted all of them and named them January, February, March, April, May and June. When they grew up, they all served in the U.S. military.”
Before that happened, she filled out the paperwork for her recently adopted Vietnamese children and gave the information to Schoell. President Dwight Eisenhower heard the story about the American woman of Vietnamese descent who snatched a half-dozen orphan baby girls from a perilous life, at best, adopted them and wanted the children to become American citizens.
Schoell presented the president with the babies’ naturalization papers, which Eisenhower then personally signed. The babies became instant Americans.
“I spent eight-and-a-half years in covert operations in Vietnam working for the National Security Council,” he said.
During this period, he attended Officers Candidate School. Schoell retired in 1981, after 31 years of service to his country. He was a lieutenant colonel in the Army.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Sunday, Oct. 28, 2007 and is republished with permission.
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Born May 21, 1934 and passed away on Thursday, Nov. 27, 2014.
John was a resident of Port Charlotte, Fla. at the time of his passing.
He is survived by his wife Edith.
Cremation will take place at Charlotte Memorial Funeral Home, Cemetery and Crematory. Services are to be arranged at a later date.