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Pearl Harbor just the start of Edmonds veteran's tale

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By Julie Muhlstein
Herald Columnist
Published:
  • Pearl Harbor survivor Ervin Schmidt, 93, of Edmonds.

    Pearl Harbor survivor Ervin Schmidt, 93, of Edmonds.

Ervin Schmidt gets up early and gets his exercise. He's 93, not an age when bouncing on a mini-trampoline is apt to be a daily habit.
The years don't stop Schmidt, who's up by 6 a.m. at his Edmonds condominium. He spends the first hour of each day on his little trampoline. Rebounding, he calls it.
During that morning ritual, Schmidt has time to pray. "The good Lord has been very good to me," he said Thursday. "I've had 64 years with my wonderful wife."
Schmidt and his wife, June, welcomed me to their home early Thursday. I had come to learn about another morning, a Sunday morning, 67 years ago today.
"My ship was the USS California," Schmidt said as he began his story of Dec. 7, 1941, and the long war that followed.
Since 1940, he'd been aboard the Navy battleship stationed at Pearl Harbor on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. The week before the Japanese attack, he'd been out on gunnery exercises. The USS California was back in port Dec. 7, moored near Ford Island with seven other vessels on Battleship Row.
"That Sunday morning, my shipmate and I were going to Honolulu. But we never got dressed," Schmidt said.
At five minutes to 8 a.m., as the color guard was about to raise the flag, a torpedo hit the bow. He and other men raced to battle stations, but when a second torpedo hit the ship, lights went out, oil gushed up, and Schmidt was among more than 20 sailors who passed out on deck from the fumes.
Others dragged them to safety. As most of the crew abandoned ship, some swimming to nearby Ford Island, Schmidt, a 26-year-old seaman 1st class, stayed behind with three young sailors. With burning oil drifting in the water, they feared a fiery swim.
Instead, he said, they hauled a heavy box of ammunition up through the dark ship to a secondary battle station 100 feet above the water.
"Those three boys had never fired a gun," Schmidt said. "We fired at the last six Japanese bombers at the end of the raid -- we didn't hit them."
After the raid ended, Schmidt remembers tugs coming with fire extinguishers and sailors returning to the ship. Hungry and dazed, he saw the USS Arizona ablaze and the USS Oklahoma capsized.
The USS California, which had been hit by at least one more bomb, didn't sink that day. Damaged and flooded, it took several days before it settled on the bottom of Pearl Harbor, according to the Department of the Navy's Naval Historical Center. Almost 100 men from Schmidt's ship died in the attack, according to the Naval Historical Center.
The ship was raised in March 1942, and repaired and returned to service by 1944.
For Schmidt and so many thousands of Americans, the attack on Pearl Harbor was just the beginning of years marked by battles, hardships and victories.
The USS Chicago, a heavy cruiser, had been at sea on Dec. 7, 1941, but within the week returned to Pearl Harbor. Schmidt was among about 150 sailors from the California to be taken aboard the Chicago, which was headed to Australia.
"The crew kind of resented us," he said. "We didn't even have clothes, and food was getting short."
His memories are haunted. After the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942, Schmidt said, "We buried 37 men in the Coral Sea one night."
Schmidt was ashore in Wellington, New Zealand, where U.S. forces were preparing to invade the Pacific island of Guadalcanal. "I talked to a lot of those young Marines," he said. He recalled seeing them practice for the invasion in landing craft called Higgins boats.
While Schmidt was asleep aboard the Chicago, a torpedo hit the cruiser's bow. "It hit amidships, and put a dent in the hull. I was sleeping one deck above, but the torpedo never exploded," he said. "I always thank the Lord."
Luck ran out for the USS Chicago in early 1943, when the ship was sunk by Japanese attacks during the Battle of Rennell Island. "I swam, and a destroyer picked us up and took us to Fiji," Schmidt said.
Still, his war wasn't over.
Sent to Treasure Island, Calif., for reassignment, he went on to become a submariner aboard the USS Torsk, which is now a museum in Baltimore, Md.
As the war drew to a close, Schmidt was aboard the sub in the Sea of Japan. "We sent four ships to the bottom. The last one was sunk a few hours before the cease-fire," Schmidt said.
He and June had met and married in 1944, and by the end of the war Schmidt was a father. They later settled in the Mountlake Terrace area, where June Schmidt's brother lived.
Schmidt worked as a salesman. He was leader of a Boy Scout troop. Years and decades went by happily. Memories of that day and that war are as vivid as ever.
"I thank God every morning, even on the rebounder," he said.
Herald Columnist Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460 or muhlstein@heraldnet.com.
Story tags » EdmondsHuman InterestNavy

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