(Editor's Note: Kelly Schmidt has served his country in World War II, and in the past two weeks, he watched his granddaughter, Havana, graduate from West Point Military Academy. It moved Mr. Schmidt to share the following memories.)
In 1939, Hitler ordered his German armies to conquer Europe and take the island nation of England . I was a sophomore in High School at Peters Prairie School and felt the war would be over by the time I would graduate from Mason High in 1941. This was not meant to be.
After graduation I felt Dad needed me to help on the ranch, which now consisted of some 8 thousand acres scattered from Ranch Branch Creek on the west to the San Saba River on the North on Katemcy Creek to the east and the Llano River on the south. All the ranches were stocked with cattle, Angora goats, and some sheep, with the danger of screw-worms ever present waiting to kill any animal with a flesh wound, as well as other animal diseases and parasites that had to be controlled. Devastating diseases like Blackleg in calves, anaplasmosis in adult cattle with horn flies that made wounds to be infested by screw worms and ticks to spread disease throughout the cow herd were ever-present. Shear cuts on goats were a real problem. All of the livestock had to be seen once or twice a week to ensure they were healthy, consisting of some 300 cows and calves in the spring as well as 10 or 15 herd bulls and 40 or 50 heifer replacement females as well as some hold -over steers too young to market. 7 or 8 hundred Angora goats along with 2 hundred or so sheep needed attention for screw worms and stomach worms. Most of this was accomplished on horseback at each location without much help except brothers Werner and Harold, Dad and I.
The story of my part in World War II began when Japan destroyed our Navy in the Pacific at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941. On that fateful day, the men of our family were celebrating my Dad’s birthday on a hunting trip to our Bluff Creek ranch on the Llano river. In the fall of 1942 I could see that the war would soon include me, so I chose to attend Texas A&M to get used to being away from home as well as receiving some military training that could be of use to me in the military. At A&M I became a cadet in the military training
program there with the promise that I might remain in college. While I was at A&M an incident took place that shows how strange and unpredictable life can be. The students in the cadet Corp tried to attend all football games to root for the team. You did not hush or sit down during a game if you were a freshman. One Friday evening when A&M was to play SMU in Dallas Saturday, my cousin Travis Hofman and I hitched a ride to Dallas for the ball game next day.
There were lots of cadets in uniform on the road for rides, so you had to take whatever came by when it was your turn. Our vehicle was a truck loaded with lumber and no room in the cab. We climbed up on the lumber and held on to the chains holding the lumber down and headed for Dallas not far away. Upon our getting there, they had no rooms left in the Baker Hotel, where everyone stayed, so we attended the dance for the cadets, heard the song “White Christmas” by Perry Como for the first time, and slept on the carpet in the Lobby of the Baker to see the ball game Saturday afternoon.
On the trip back to school Sunday we caught a ride to Cameron, near Minnie ‘s home.
While we were sitting on the courthouse square a convertible with two pretty girls in it stopped, because we were in A&M uniforms, to ask where we would like to go and we told them, “Over to Milano at the road to Caldwell,” so they said get in. They let us out at the intersection where rides were plentiful and we made it back to school on time. Many years later when looking at Tabby’s pictures I saw two girls in a convertible and it just hit me, “I’ve ridden in that car.” Good grief, Minnie’s sisters Ella and Maxine with Minnie still at high school at the time, later to come to Mason to teach and end up as my wife in 1949 -that ‘s unbelievable .
When the war took a turn for the worse in Spring of 1942, we were called into the Amry for active duty and I had to report to Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio to be sent to Paris. TX. for basic military training the summer of 1942. It was a miserable three months. living in tar-paper- covered barracks meant for prisoners of war, with no air conditioning and a barbed-wire fence around it. The army was short on living quarters, clothes, and equipment. We were issued one extra set of fatigue overalls, socks, etc. At night we would get in the shower with on pair on to wash them for tomorrow, hanging them on the fence to dry.
Training here consisted of the use of military discipline in all of our activities. Physical conditioning to stand up to the rigors of mock war activities consisted of timed obstacle courses to run through, with walls to climb. ditches to manage, water to cross by swinging ropes or hand- over-hand ladders with rifles and packs on our backs. Rolls of barbed win close to the ground had to be manipulated on your stomach. This was the foot soldier \.\< ho had to learn to exist in
the woods or cities and come face-to-face with the enemy for rifle, bayonet or knives, in hand-to- hand combat. The temperature hovered around 100 with rain every week. In all of this you had to not take life too seriously, like letting go on the ladder over water to get drenched on a terrible hot day or hitting a stream near the Red River between Texas and Oklahoma to get soaked and drink your fill of outlawed water when you were dying of thirst . You had to carry only one canteen of water for Yi day to toughen you for hard times to come. Perhaps you would find a lightni ng bug on a night march with no light so you would stick the bug on the back of the guy in front of you to tell you where to go on the trails. Rifle use and marksmanship were a vital part of our training to help us survive in war. All of this took place in woods and fields infested with snakes, red bugs, ticks, mosquitoes, and poison ivy which I was very allergic to and acquired every time we went on maneuvers and war games, along with prickly heat over our bodies because of poor conditions in our barracks sleeping quarters.
During this period we were not allowed out of camp or to have leaves to visit home.
I made one trip home during basic training on a weekend pass for 50 miles, taking a taxi to the highway south from Ft. Worth to catch a ride to Brownwood, with another taxi to the Brady Highway South. By now it was getting late with traffic very slow, but someone who lived toward Winchell took me to where his road turned off to the north to Brookesmith. Sometime after dark a guy, who had too many beers, in an old Ford car stopped and asked where I wanted to go. I told him Brady, wondering if he’d make it there in his condition. Evidently he lived close to there so he said, “Okay, hop in.” After a hair-raising 25 miles, about midnight we got close to the airport at Brady which was being used by the U.S. Air Force to train pilots. I asked him to stop and let me out because at this time of night guards at the base would check on traffic coming by, and I was illegal. He said “Okay,” turned around and headed home - hope he got there. I got out in the pasture without a light and walked around the base to where taxis were still running to Brady, away from the base entrance. I got the taxi to take me through town by the last house near the highway. With no one on the road, I rolled up my jacket for a pillow and lay down on the lawn in front of the house and slept until daylight when cars would be coming by. I was quite sure that guardian angels come in many different shapes and sizes to take care of us. I caught a ride to Camp Air, called home, and Dad picked me up for a short visit before I was catching rides back to camp on time Sunday.
Sundays were usually a day off with makeshift church conducted by men who had strong religious backgrounds, with scripture, hymns, and prayers, held in the barracks with us seated on the floor. “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was our favorite marching song.
When we completed basic training in the fall of 1942, the Army decided to send us to college for training in engineering, and other fields needed for wartime use. Most of us were enrolled at A&I in Kingsville down near Corpus Christi. This was an enjoyable time for a year, of wonderful climate, cool sea breezes, and very little cold weather. We lived in dorms at the college campus but were still in the Regular Army with military activities in addition to our studies. We made many friends here and some fellows married girls they met in college. The college president had an orange grove with delicious fruit to eat.
In the spring of 1943 the war in Europe was taking a tum for the worse, so we were taken out of school and sent to military units for overseas combat training for the European War and conditions over there. I ended up going back to the same area where we spent the summer of 1942, to Camp Howze near Gainesville in Texas along the Red River next to Oklahoma.
Conditions were better at the camp with training much the same as before. Emphasis would now be on the things you would experience in combat for overseas duty, with maneuvers using live ammunition, nighttime marches, digging in for a night ‘s stay and living in the field regardless of the weather. Physical condition was No. 1, with my weight going from 135 lbs. to 165 lbs. of muscle in 3 months’ time, with the ability to carry 100 lbs. of equipment and supplies in the field on foot. We were attached to the 105th Infantry Division getting ready to go overseas in October 1943. Since I grew up on a ranch and was a hunter, I was made a Browning Automatic gunner. My gun weighed approximately 20 lbs., with bullets in a 20-count magazine that could be fired single or automatic with tripods or shoulder-held capacity on range up to 1,000 yds. My buddy Bradley Hawley from Sweetwater was the ammunition bearer and Max Hoddinott from New Jersey, my best army friend, was the assistant gunner. They each carried an M l Army rifle and I taught Max to shoot both guns. We worked as a team much like a machine gunner would, but the Browning Automatic could be hand-held from the hip.
Max and I made one last visit to the ranch before going overseas, on a weekend pass where you were supposed to stay within 50 miles of Camp Howze. We took a bus to Ft. Worth on the highway south towards Mason to hitch a ride. A nice middle-aged man and wife in a new-model Cadillac stopped and asked where we were going. We said Mason, Texas, 200 miles to the south, and they said “Get in.” We got in the back seat and they took off, with us soon falling asleep. When they reached Mason County they woke us up to ask where we wanted off. We told them at Camp Air where we could call Mom and Dad to pick us up. It was the best ride we ever had and we were quite sure they gave us a special ride home because we were soldiers. After spending the night at the ranch, we spent Sunday catching rides back to camp before evening roll call.
Upon completion of our overseas combat training, we were sent back to Ft. Sam Houston at San Antonio for shipment overseas the first part of October. A troop train loaded us up with our backpacks and duffel bags. The trucks, Jeeps, guns, and other equipment we needed would follow. We traveled by way of Chicago, then on to the port at New York to wait for shipment.
While there we worked to get everything ready to be sent on boats to follow us. One trip was allowed into town to see the sights and get to go up to the observation deck of the Empire State Buildi ng for a view of New York and the harbor there. People below looked like a group of ants, but it was an impressive sight of man’s accomplishments . After a week or so, we set sail for the Mediterranean Sea in Europe right past the Statue of Liberty, and waved goodbye to her from our crowded luxury liner-turned-cruise ship. The trip took seventeen days, partly because we encountered a small hurricane in the North Atlantic. For three days we didn't go anywhere except to stay afloat with waves higher than the deck on the ship. Most of us became very seasick, unable to keep any food in our stomachs. Out of the storm, I felt better with steak for lunch but soon I lost it all overboard. In training our meals were rotten , so bad at ti mes that you would go by the wastebasket to scrape off your plates what you couldn't stand, such as pork chops six weeks straight. Here on the boat there was good food with some beef, but we were too sick to enjoy it. There was plenty of time for card games and visiting , with not much room to do anything but rest on our bunk beds stacked two high with only a little aisle between them.
Sundays we’d get some time on top deck, where we’d have a simple church service conducted by our chaplain, our favorite time. I never dreamed there was this much water in the world , with no land for weeks.
The latter part of October, we sighted land near the Rock of Gibraltar, headed for Marseilles , Frances. The port there had sunken ships from the invasion of our troops from Africa earlier, to get to the Germans. We landed there with some of our equipment at the damaged dock to load our packs on our backs and to take a 10-mile forced night march up into the mountains so the enemy wouldn't see us. Rains made it very uncomfortable with only our little tents for protection and a raincoat and small blanket for our bed. We stayed several days here, going down to the port by truck each day, assembling everything to get ready for the train trip to the battle-front some 400 miles to the north.
While working at the Port of Marseilles, we learned to like the French lunch-bread and wine. One day in a drizzling rain in an open Army truck, we got caught in a traffic jam downtown for several hours. Soon everyone was needing to use the restroom , but we weren't allowed to get off the truck. The French had urinals along the street where you could see the head and feet of the person, but we couldn't use them. Some guys just stood up and urinated on the street but I didn't want to do that so I waited. That was a mistake, because by the time we reached our destination, I was hurting so bad I couldn't hardly go at all ... but managed to survive.
The French take a much more liberal view of such things. One day several of us wanted a bath so we went to a public shower. While we were bathing, a lady, the keeper of the shower, came in to mop up the floor while several of us were buck-naked. She never blinked an eye, tended her job, and left, to our amazement. The army had advised us to beware of the harlots and the men in cloaks from Africa who were known to carry knives under their cloaks to use on someone. Walk in the middle of the street, in groups, and not at night.
Time to head for the battlefront by train, with cattle-cars the only thing available. The 400 miles took several days, with damaged roads and bridges along the way. Things like medical supplies, our duffel bags, Jeeps and such would follow, along with food supplies. Even drinking water was in short supply; most French water would make us sick without us using chlorine tablets in it. Nights were cool so we’d pick up a little wood in the villages and vineyards along the way. The only food we had one day was green pear and raw potatoes which gave us the stomach-ache; we had no way to cook them. One cold night, we camped near a vineyard on the hill close by. We had run out of wood for a fire, but found some empty wine barrels which we rolled down the hill and burned to keep warm. The French vineyard grower was very angry, but you do what you have to do to survive. Most of the French were really nice to us and helpful to speed us on our way.
Our destination was the reserve area away from the battlefront, where we could hear the big guns and the bombers and fighter planes in the distance. Then came the move up to dig in where our large-caliber long toms were firing periodically day and night at strategic targets up to twenty miles away. We dug holes in the ground, and cut trees to cover them, with snow on top, to help keep us warm at night as well as to provide protection from enemy fire if they learned we were there. No fires, no lights, only C-rations for food which consisted of spam meat, cheeses, dried fruits, and powdered eggs and drinks, all in our backpacks with a change of clothes, a blanket, and a raincoat. The insulated clothing and boots we were promised for winter never arrived. It was now November , with a light snow cover and the temperature near freezing there in the Voges Mountains, a branch of the French Alps. I wrote Mother a note on a postcard,
saying that “We are going hunting the first day of Texas Deer Season, November 16.It got by the censor.
We were there several days with the big guns shaking the ground and blowing the flaps on our tents. Then the message came down to us that we were to attack a mountain where the German army was dug in with extensive gun placements covering an open area several hundreds of yards wide between us and them. No one had been able to take this area for several weeks; it was now our tum to use the skills and the mindset we had been taught, to accomplish that mission. As a part of the 105111 Infantry Division, our company of several hundred would be at the forefront in this area. Packs on our backs with gun and ammunition in hand, we moved to the attack area with our Division commander at the roadside with our flag to wish us well as we walked and drove by. Our mission was to drive the Germans from their fortifications and take back the town of Dijon.
At daybreak the morning of November 16, 1943, our planes and artillery threw everything they had at the mountain for several hours, silencing the gun placements . Then the order cam to attack, and the battle was on, with our artillery and machine guns laying down fire above us to keep the German army in their holes. This tactic worked to get us across the open field, but when they had to lift the firing to avoid hitting us, all Hell broke loose . .. but God was there too. When 2/3 of the way across the open country, while running with 120 lbs. of gear, I stumbled with one foot in a shell hole filled with water. I fell flat with a leg twisted under me. Enemy rifle fire was covering the area along with constantly exploding mortar, and the devastating 88 artillery shells all around us. As I fell, I heard the deadly whine of a bullet overhead, striking a fellow soldier behind me with a deadly thud. The fall had saved my life - “God said No.” I forgot about the leg, jumped to my feet, and headed for the small creek near the protection of the woods. Hitting the creek, going full blast with water flying everywhere, you dare not stop, diving into the brush for safety, facing the area I had come from. About that time a soldier from our company, hesitating at the creek, was hit by a bullet in the leg, and went down crying for help. No way could I go to him, exposed to enemy fire they’d get me too, so I called to him to get the next man by to help him up. Just then, when I would have had time to get to him, he took a direct hit from a whistling German 88 artillery shell which cut him to pieces -”God said No.” If I would have gotten up to go it would have been over for me.
It would soon be getting dark, so those of us who survived crossing of the open country must move up the hill and dig in for the night. About that time, 2 young German boys, both wounded, with hands up, appeared wanting to surrender. Some of our men wanted to mow them down, but we wouldn't let them kill wounded, unnarmed men. I tried to tell them in my broken Texas German to keep their arms around each other as well as overhead with a white flag, and to head back to our troops at the aid station area. I have often wondered if they got there alive, but hope they did.
The first wave of our men did a great job silencing the rifle and machine gun fire with the silent mortars and the whistling 88 shells continuing to fall on the open country below. The Germans didn't know that we were now in control of the mountain. After getting reorganized and finding out who was missing, we chose to dig in amongst the trees on the mountainside with the Germans not knowing where we were. My ammunition bearer Bradley Hawley and assistant gunner Max Hoddinott both survived the day okay. I didn't get to see Max but Bradley came to help me dig in for the night on the side of an old terrace to give us a good view of the area in case we were attacked. When our hole was about 2 ft. wide 6 ft. long and 3 ft. deep, an 88 shell screamed overhead. I turned to Bradley in the other end of the hole and said, “Bradley we've lost 14 guys - we better dig before we make it 16.” We bent over to dig when ‘Barn’ right above, a small mortar shell exploded showering us with fragments and knocking us flat in the hole - “God said no.” If we would have been standing our days would have ended. Some of our guys came running from their holes to see if we were okay and found two beat-up guys lying in a hole. They pulled Hawley out, after recovering from the shock of the shell hit, and took him back to our aid station. I was wounded more seriously with mortar shrapnel in my back, neck, and arms. The medic who came to help split my jacket open to see how bad it was. I’ll never forget what he said: “God have mercy on his soul,” not good. He feared the back injuries had gone through into my internal organs and felt I shouldn't try to move. They placed me in the bottom of my foxhole for warmth and safety for the night. We had to remain scattered because of the shells. About dark a guy in my outfit named Hurlow came by to see if I needed anything because no one could move after dark. (In later years, this guy and his old Army buddy were vacationing in Florida when they called to see if I might want to join them. I told him, “No way, too far, have a good time.”) The night would be cold, around freezing, with my only cover being the small Army blanket and the light raincoat. My socks were wet from the creek, so I asked Hurlow to get my dry socks from under my coat and put them on my feet to help warm them. He did that and probably saved my toes because my feet and hands suffered frostbite that night, permanently damaging the circulation in them. It was a long dark night with the pain subsiding and occasional shells overhead; the enemy didn’t know we were on the hill. The guys assured me that they would send word back as to my location and wounds, with the medics coming to pick me up. Our company would continue to attack any enemy placements still intact at daybreak, for we had the Germans on the run. A few feet from my foxhole lay a dead German soldier, a big stout guy old enough to have a family back home, perhaps a professional Army man probably killed by our first wave up the hill. My feelings about him were mixed, with me being glad he was no longer able to destroy us, but sad that his young life had to end like this. Feelings about myself were also mixed, with the knowledge that I was lucky to be alive, hoping that I could recover, but sad that my buddies had to continue on without my help. Max Hoddinott took the Browning Automatic as 1st gunman. A Sargent named Altergott from Chicago took my pack; he had lost his in the day’s battle. We later got word that he was killed in the continuing battle, with Max taking a gun placement, killing 5 German artillery men by himself, firing from the hip. Any of these guys would have traded places with me if they could have, hoping to survive in this way; I was the lucky one.
I slept fitfully during the night, drifting between the reality of my predicament and dreams of the future, wondering what God’s will for my life would be, my concern being not so much for me but for Mom and Dad, my brothers and their families back home, if I didn’t make it. How would they manage if I did not survive? I could move my arms and legs so my spine was okay. My inside body felt pretty normal so maybe my internal injuries were not too bad. A shrapnel had cut my dog tag’s identification chain with it being down in my shirt, but the neck was okay; both elbows were hit but no bones broken , some ribs were cracked but none broken. It appeared I was the lucky one. My dreams of being Dad ‘s right hand man, of finding a beautiful girl for a wife, and raising a family of my own, to support my church as well as my community, might still come true. War is chaotic, so much so, that I feared no one would remember to come look for me, a needle in a haystack on the side of a mountain, lying in a hole. About the middle of the next morning on Nov. 11, I heard footsteps passing by. Be it friend or enemy I had to have help so I called out “Here I am” as loud as I could. If the steps were German it would mean certain death - it was a chance I had to take. I got an answer: “Where are you?” in wonderful English. Two or three medical corpsmen peered down into my hole to see what shape I was in. I’m quite sure they were pleasantly surprised to find me conscious and alive. They lowered a stretcher into the hole, and pulled me up on it to bring me out, without bending my body. I was stiff as a board. With someone on each end of the stretcher they took turns carrying me down the mountain across the open country to an old French home, bombed out but in one piece, built of rock with a basement, where the aid station was put for safety from enemy fire. They slid my stretcher through a window into the basement, a warm and safe place. An old French couple, possibly whose home it had been, were helping to care for the wounded. I was so happy at being found I must of slept most of the time while I was there for I cannot remember anything about what took place for the few hours I spent there.
From here we were loaded into Army ambulance vehicles, along with the German wounded, for the trip towards Dijon to a field hospital for further evaluation of our needs and condition. I overheard the doctors discussing my case as to whether they should operate to see if I had internal bleeding or to wait and see since I was doing quite well. The decision was made not to operate.
It was hilarious to see big stout heroes of the war hide under the bed sheets from the nurses coming with needles to give shots.
I developed an infection in my left side with a pocket of pus between the outer and inner muscles - not in the body cavity. They cut it open, put in a drainage tube, and filled me full of antibiotics. They were so busy they never got around to sewing up the cut. Several of the fragments just under the skin were removed but those deep in the muscle were left alone unless they caused a problem , which was not the case. X-rays showed something like 30 pieces of mortar shell remained in my body . The frostbite on my feet and hands was secondary, not life threatening , with swelling and blood blisters but improving so that I might soon be able to walk. The twisted left knee had been forgotten until I tried to walk and that leg didn't work very well - then I remembered the fall in the shell hole that saved my life.
My condition had improved to the point where I could be evacuated to a General Army Hospital in Southern Wales, UK, by way of Paris, France, to cross the English Channel by boat. The trip was made on my stretcher in Army ambulances, flat on my back, so I saw none of the countryside on the trip. I was in the trench foot, internal injury ward at the Welsh hospital.
Being ambulatory I could help with those less fortunate, such as men missing toes or feet, or those having their bowels move on their stomachs to let their intestines heal. Some of these guys never came home I’m quite sure.
Christmas in Wales was very special with some snow and our bombers flying high overhead, leaving long vapor trails in the sky, heading for the battle areas. Hedgerows fenced the fields where Suffolk black-faced sheep played in the snow and cattle grazed . War seemed far away. Some visits to the local pubs were fun with fish and chips, along with hot tea laced with milk and sugar, to be enjoyed. The Welsh, unlike the French, were beer drinkers, of dark lager beer out of glasses, from barrels. The local young ladies were friendly and helpful; the young men were involved in the war activities away from home.
After three months in Wales, the good news came. Some of us were going home, our injuries preventing us from returning to the battle front where the Battle of the Bulge was raging. Mason lost one of its finest young men there, Homer Stengel, president of my senior class and a close friend of mine.
Around March 15,1944, we set sail on a hospital ship, lying in our bunks, for Newport News, Va. After a couple of weeks through the rough waters of the springtime North Atlantic, riding on top of the small ship propeller , lying very still to avoid seasickness, with a boatload of beat-up guys the happy day came when the U.S. mainland appeared. Columbus couldn't have been more excited.
From Newport News we were loaded in a hospital car on a train headed for San Antonio, TX. The trip was great through the Smoky Mountains with bunks situated where we could see out of large observation windows the beautiful spring countryside. Our good food was brought to us on trays by young pretty nurses who were most gracious. The battlefield nurses were the heroes of the war to us, enduring the evils of war to put us first in their lives. After several weeks in the hospital at Ft. Sam Houston we were allowed a weekend pass to go home and I made the trip by bus, with the green mesquite leaves of Spring (late March) being a beautiful sight to our eyes. The homecoming to see Mom and Dad and all our family was a high point in our lives. After returning to the hospital in San Antonio for about 4 months, I was given an honorable discharge, and awarded a Purple Heart for being wounded, to go with my combat ribbons, Expert Marksmanship medal and Good Conduct medal. There were lasting memories and lessons learned in 2 Yi years of wartime experiences. There was never any doubt in our minds as to why we had to go to war in a faraway land. It was to save our country from being invaded and dominated by a power-crazed fanatic dictator who had dreams of ruling the world with the greatest army the world had ever seen. He had to be stopped now, and we had our small parts to fulfill in that activity, which we had now completed. The war came to a successful ending in 1944.