Robert L. Schmidt, 91
Residence: West Seneca
Branch: Marine Corps
Rank: Private first class
War zone: Pacific
Years of service: 1942-45
Most prominent honors: Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with four battle stars; two Presidential Unit Citations, Navy Unit Commendation
Specialty: Machine gunner
By Lou Michel
News Staff Reporter
Robert L. Schmidt soon grew bored working as a gofer in a machine shop at Linde Air Products Co. So the 17-year-old decided that his talents would be better put to use defending his country.
“I heard the Marines were the best, and that’s why I enlisted with them. Two of my buddies were supposed to join with me, but they changed to the Navy,” Schmidt says of the trio’s World War II enlistments. “One of their brothers was in the Navy, and I think that’s why they switched.”
The Marines fixed Schmidt’s problem with boredom – he fought four battles in the Pacific.
The first one was on a small atoll in the Marshall Islands.
“We landed at night. I was lucky. I never fired a shot,” Schmidt recalls. “I was in a foxhole and never saw any Japanese. Other Marines did, and in the morning, there were 19 dead enemy soldiers.”
After that battle, the 4th Marine Division caught its breath at a camp on Maui, Hawaii.
“That was a beautiful place, the tropical setting, the volcano,” Schmidt remembers. “The whole place was full of pineapples.”
But there was a war to be fought, and he was soon on a ship to the Mariana Islands to take part in the invasion of Saipan.
“It took two days to establish a beachhead,” he says. “The most horrible thing was that the Japanese told the civilians we would murder them. The women would take their children to the end of the island and jump off the cliff. That’s what I remember the most about Saipan, the suicides.
“It was terrible, hundreds upon hundreds. Some Japanese soldiers jumped. It was a numbing sight.”
Before invading nearby Tinian, U.S. forces flew planes over that island, dropping leaflets stating that civilians would not be harmed.
“We didn’t want more suicides,” Schmidt says. “We even had some Japanese soldiers surrender on Tinian, and that was unusual.”
With the Marianas secured, Schmidt’s division returned to Maui to replenish its ranks.
One of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific followed on Feb. 19, 1945.
Schmidt remembers the date well; he turned 20 charging the beach of Iwo Jima.
Did he think it might be his last birthday?
“That probably didn’t cross my mind.”
For many Marines, there would never be another birthday.
“About 7,000 Marines were killed and 16,000 wounded. That was tough,” Schmidt says. “When I landed, there were all kinds of Marines bloodied up and lying dead on the beaches.”
The island itself had the look of death.
“You had Mount Suribachi and beaches of black volcanic ash,” he says. “Most of the other islands had white sand.”
At night, a Navy destroyer shined searchlights on Mount Suribachi so the enemy was denied the cover of darkness. The tactic worked. The enemy lost the high ground. And in a moment of never-to-be-forgotten daylight, a photographer captured the image of six Marines raising a U.S. flag on the mountaintop.
The fight for the rest of the island continued, and Schmidt says he often looked up at the flag in the distance and found inspiration.
When Iwo Jima was finally taken, Schmidt’s unit, known as the “Famous Fighting 4th Marine Division,” again returned to Maui. For Schmidt, there were no more beaches to charge. He had accumulated enough service to be sent back to the States. And several months after the war was won, he was honorably discharged.
Back home catching up with his friend Paul Schmidt, no relation, they discovered they were battle brothers at Iwo Jima. Paul, one of the two friends who had joined the Navy instead of the Marines, was on the destroyer that had shone its searchlights on Mount Suribachi.
Their ties soon strengthened, and they became family by marrying a set of sisters.
“I married Bette Goodman and Paul married Isabel Goodman,” Robert Schmidt says.
A retired U.S. Customs officer, Schmidt is the only one of the two married couples still alive. “We used to bum around together, go to the beach, go on picnics,” he says.
It saddens him that he is the last one standing, yet he is philosophical about his long life:
“It’s not great to be old, but I’m happy to be here.”