By Gale Fiege Herald Writer
EDMONDS — Ervin Schmidt is a patriotic man who served in the Navy in the first battle of World War II, and what was one of the last. He doesn’t hide the thrill he expects today at noon when he serves as the grand marshal of the Independence Day parade in Edmonds.
It likely will be the last time he wears his prized “digger” or bush hat, which honors the U.S. Navy’s allies from Australia and New Zealand in the Pacific during World War II. He also plans to wear a vest decorated with his Navy medals, ribbons, pins and patches from all the veterans groups to which he belongs.
Schmidt, at age 97, is one of the few remaining survivors of the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. It’s a day he remembers with remarkable clarity, unsettling sorrow and deep thankfulness for his life.
War should never be glorified, he said, but its history must be kept alive.
“Or we’ll never learn how to avoid war. The Lord can’t help us get rid of war,” Schmidt said. “If people weren’t so greedy, we could settle things without war.”
Schmidt is a 65-year member of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8870 in Edmonds. For many years, he’s talked to school groups around the county, helping young people get a better picture of the history he can share.
More than 2,400 sailors were killed at Pearl Harbor and about 84,000 survived. Today fewer than 1,000 of those survivors are still alive. “Our numbers are plummeting,” Schmidt said.
At age 7, Schmidt emigrated with his family from Germany through Ellis Island and on to Wisconsin. When he landed in the hospital last month with a prostate problem, a nurse noticed that he was born in Germany. She spoke to Schmidt in German and he responded right back in his native language.
As a young man, Schmidt served three years in the Civilian Conservation Corps in Wisconsin. The corps gave him a sense of duty, he said, and so he joined the Navy at age 24.
“I knew the United States would be involved shortly in the war in Europe and in the Pacific,” Schmidt said. “I thought we should be prepared.”
Schmidt proudly displays his class photo from 1940 when he completed basic training at the Naval Training Station at Great Lakes, Ill. He then was assigned to the warship USS California. On the morning of the Japanese attack, it was docked on battleship row at Pearl Harbor.
Shortly before 8 a.m., Schmidt was still in his bunk several levels below deck. He and a buddy planned a shore-leave outing to Waikiki Beach that day. Instead, the California was hit by torpedo fire and one of his bunkmates was killed by the blast.
“We knew then that our war with Japan had started,” he said.
Schmidt and 26 of his fellow sailors tried to make it to their battle stations, but, overcome by smoke and fumes from the ship’s oil tankers, they passed out. After a second torpedo strike, the ship began to list and the captain ordered his crew to abandon ship. Schmidt didn’t hear the order. Had other shipmates not discovered Schmidt and his group and pulled them to fresh air on the main deck, they likely would have drowned, he said.
“So guys were diving into the water to swim to shore,” Schmidt said. “I noticed three young sailors who were shaken and confused. They admitted they couldn’t swim. I decided to stay with them. Instead of panicking, we went below to get some ammunition to fight back.”
The men went below deck in the dark, carried up a heavy wood box filled with shells and climbed up to the anti-aircraft gun above the ship’s bridge. “We found energy for this task that we didn’t know we had,” Schmidt said. “We fired at as many Japanese bombers as we could.”
Schmidt and the three younger men were rescued after the bombing had stopped and before the battleship sank. (Three months later the USS California was raised and went to Bremerton for repairs and refitting.)
In the confusion of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Schmidt was listed as killed in action. Six weeks after his family held a memorial service for him, they learned that Schmidt had survived and was serving aboard the USS Chicago. The Chicago was in the Coral Sea backing up Australian and New Zealand forces in fierce fighting there. One night they buried nearly 40 sailors at sea.
When the Chicago was sunk off the Solomon Islands, Schmidt swam away. He was rescued by a destroyer and sent back to San Diego where he then volunteered for duty as a radio and sonar operator aboard the submarine USS Saury, which later sank nine Japanese ships. Near the end of the war, Petty Officer 1st Class Schmidt served as a radioman on the submarine USS Torsk, working among the mine fields laid at the bottom of Tokyo Bay and the Sea of Japan.
At one point, Schmidt remembered, the Torsk surfaced to pick up seven survivors of a Japanese ship the submarine had destroyed.
“The youngest was only 14 years old,” Schmidt said, his voice cracking. “We fed them, clothed them and took care of them until the war ended 30 days later.”
On the Torsk, Schmidt participated in the final Navy battles of World War II. The Torsk crew sunk four Japanese ships, the last one as the U.S. bombed Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and the Japanese surrendered.
Schmidt and his wife, June, moved to Washington state after the war, living for a time in a rustic shack on Lake Serene and eventually settling in Mountlake Terrace, where their four children attended school and where they worshipped at First Baptist Church.
Schmidt, who worked as a barber before joining the Navy, and June ran their own beauty shops for a time and he worked as a sales representative for Paris Beauty Supply in Seattle. After retirement, they visited Pearl Harbor. Later they lived in Edmonds before moving to south Everett before June’s death earlier this year.
The members of Post 8870 were proud to honor Schmidt as their nomination to serve as grand marshal for today’s “Edmonds Kind of Fourth” parade, said fellow VFW member Ron Clyborne.
“We recognize Erv’s great service to our grateful nation,” Clyborne said. “We think the world of him. He is amazing.”
Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; firstname.lastname@example.org.