Franklin’s Schmidt recalls harrowing WWII days amid Pacific islands

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Like many young men in Franklin during World War II, when young Robert Schmidt turned 18, he was eager to join the fight.

Despite health problems, he tried enlisting in 1941, but “I didn’t weigh enough,” he said.

Schmidt went to work putting on weight and tried again. On Sept. 28, 1942, he “caught a ride to Nashville” and got on a train bound for San Diego and Navy basic training. The train was full, so Schmidt and a few others ended up riding in a Pullman car.

After 28 days in boot camp, he was sent to Norman, Oklahoma, for advanced individual training as an aviation mechanic. Schmidt was later sent to San Francisco, where, on Easter morning 1943, he was “shipped out” to the Central Pacific.

“After we shipped out, I got a bad sinus infection,” he said. “I was really sick.”

The ship stopped at Pearl Harbor and he was taken off on a stretcher. Schmidt was sent to a mobile hospital in the mountains, where he had a “procedure” that opened up his sinus cavity. Schmidt remained in Hawaii until September. He was sent across Koneohe Bay to Oahu and put on a four-engine amphibious “seaplane.”

“There was a hole in the back of the plane and water came in, so we had to stop,” Schmidt said.

The plane landed on Johnston Island at a naval refueling station about 750 miles southwest of Hawaii for repair. Schmidt spent the night and was sent off the next day in a supply cargo ship. The trip went slow due to stops at Parama, Canton, Samoa and Wallis Islands.

Along the way, Schmidt came down with Dengue fever, a mosquito-borne virus, and had to be treated on Wallis Island before catching another supply cargo ship. Schmidt finally reached his destination, Tarawa Island, just days after the bloody Battle of Tarawa, where nearly 1,000 Marines and more than 5,000 Japanese soldiers and Korean laborers were killed in 76 hours of fighting.

The Naval air base that Schmidt would call home for the next year was completed by the Navy Seabees on the east end of the island in 24 days and the first planes arrived on Dec. 20, 1943. Schmidt was witness to the carnage still evident on the island in the Central Pacific as he flew on patrol flights around Tarawa and neighboring islands in the atoll.

In the months after the battle, there were a few time when the Japanese flew over and dropped bombs.

“When we got bombed, you could only jump in a foxhole and grab your knees,” he said.

Schmidt, a petty officer 2nd class by then, was assigned to the VS66 Scout Squadron sub spotters. He held two key positions: rear gunner on the SBD-5 dive bomber and primary aviation mechanic.

“He was the only enlisted man that had a jeep,” said Schmidt’s son, John. “He needed it to get to the planes as soon as they landed.”

Schmidt often flew alongside the pilots during training runs to access the plane’s mechanical health and stay abreast of problems.

“We lost five planes and four men,” he said of his time on Tarawa. “One time I thought we were going to crash, but we made it.”

Schmidt flew on 50 combat sub-search missions from the base on Tarawa.

On Dec. 1, 1944, Schmidt returned to San Francisco and, after 27 months, was granted a 38-day leave. He returned to the NAS Corpus Christi.

“I learned how to fly a little,” he said with a chuckle. “If we just went straight, I knew what to do.”

Schmidt was discharged on Nov. 15, 1945.

“I was on the list to go to Japan, but when the bomb was dropped, that was canceled,” he said.


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