Vern Schmidt

San Antonio, Texas, Sept. 2, 1995

The 90th Infantry Division had the third-highest percentage of casualties in the European Theater of Operation. Vern Schmidt of Fresno, Calif., joined the division as a replacement in the 358th Infantry Regiment in February 1945.

Aaron Elson: Did you take part in both of the 90th Division’s crossings of the Moselle River?

Vern Schmidt: No, I was in the second. In fact, Tom Ridlehuber and I crossed that day in the engineer boats. They were metal boats if I recall right, powered with little outboard motors. We went across. I remember parts of my company; of course, I only remember 12 guys and those were the guys in my squad.

Aaron Elson: What kind of a squad was it?

Vern Schmidt

Vern Schmidt: Just a rifle squad. We had a B.A.R. man, we had a bazooka man, and then an assistant who carried three rounds for the bazooka. I did that for a time. But other than that, there was just the 12 of us. We had our own little war going on. You didn’t know what was happening except you just followed orders, and we followed our sergeant.

Aaron Elson: Who was your sergeant?

Vern Schmidt: Oh, you know, you should ask. I can’t even remember anymore. The first one I reported to became a second lieutenant; he received a battlefield commission. That was Sergeant Mueller. I met him in the pillbox at Habscheid, and for several days I never met anyone of higher rank than he was. They were so understrength at the time, and I came in as a Bulge replacement. As I said, I didn’t see too many officers for a number of days.

When we crossed the Moselle, which was the second crossing of the 358th Infantry Regiment, we had very little resistance crossing, but when we got to the other side, in the area of Hatzenport, the hills rise almost immediately pretty high, and we went up into the woods in there. It was probably late that afternoon, we were beginning to dig in, and we were fired upon, sporadic here and there. Then, as we got ready to dig in for the evening, it got pretty ferocious for quite a while. We learned later that these Germans were part of the 6th SS Mountain Division, and they were a tough bunch. We had quite a firefight up there, and spent the night.

I recall the night because it was miserable. The company jeep which carried our blanket roll never did show up; this was still in March, probably around the 15th or the 16th. The bedroll consisted of a blanket for each of us, and we normally buddied up so that we would share two blankets between two guys.

We began digging holes so we’d have maybe a place to be halfway safe if we took any shelling. I can recall digging that night, and the digging was tough. There were rocks and roots from the trees; it was real slow digging, and I got a hole probably 16, 18 inches deep and I could see water already trying to find its place in the hole, to find the lowest spot. I dug that out and it would start filling up, so I built kind of like a bench in there so I could sit on dry ground and then have my feet down in this hole, and as I kept digging a little deeper all the time, why, the water kept coming, it seemed like a little bit faster all the time. So I took my helmet off and every so often I just bailed this water out of there, to keep my feet halfway dry. It was miserable that night. It got cold, and my foxhole was getting soaked. It seemed like the water just flowed right through there.

It got real quiet that night, and we had to form a night-time perimeter guard. We used a code for identifying one another, we’d use a movie star’s name; we’d use the word “Gable,” and the other one reported “Clark,” and that’s how we identified us from the enemy. I remember that night I finally crawled out of that hole and crawled under a big old bush, probably five feet tall, kind of a shrubbery type bush. I thought, well, I’ll crawl under there and at least I won’t get soaked. I didn’t have a blanket but I did have a raincoat and I finally pulled it up and kind of made like a little tent in that bush. I lay under there most of the night, and what time it was I don’t know – time went awful slow at night – but the Germans came and began walking through our lines. And I was barely 19 years old, pretty naive, really; I didn’t know what to do. We knew they didn’t answer to our code, but they walked in and amongst us during part of the evening there, and I think they probably were just as scared as we were. They didn’t know how large a group we had. But we made it through the night, cold, we didn’t have anything to eat, nobody caught up with us for food or rations. It was pretty tough.

“You didn’t know what was happening except you just followed orders, and we followed our sergeant.”

Aaron Elson: Were they going back towards the Rhine?

Vern Schmidt: Yes. We were pushing. I think that’s called the Rhine-Moselle Triangle. We didn’t know it at the time, but we knew if we kept pushing east we’d eventually hit the Rhine, and that’s the direction we were moving. But when you’re in the woods you lose track of direction; you just go by a compass.

Aaron Elson: Nobody fired at night while these Germans were going through you?

Vern Schmidt: No.

Aaron Elson: Did anyone say anything?

Vern Schmidt: Other than we tried to — in our perimeter guards we always reported to the one next to us and passed it on down so that you could make a chain of command as far as who’s out there and everything being secure if that’d be the right word for 12 guys out there. And our other squads I’m sure were mixed in there somewhere because we formed a perimeter all the time as we moved forward; we moved like a marching line to some semblance.

Aaron Elson: Did anyone challenge the Germans?

Vern Schmidt: During the night? I don’t think so.

Aaron Elson: But you could hear them passing?

Vern Schmidt: Yeah. We could hear them walking. If we moved from one hole to the other we basically crawled and then used our code, but rather than try to challenge, if you knew it was a German, the best thing, or at least we felt that way, was hey, if he ain’t bothering us we ain’t gonna bother him. But once it became daylight, we could see what we were doing. The next day we spread out into the forest, and I spotted a German soldier there in the woods. I hollered at him and he started running. I challenged him to halt and he kept on running. I fired a number of times with my M-1. I don’t know if I hit him or not.

A couple of days after that we were right near Bingen, which is mentioned pretty much in any of the history books of the 90th Division. We were still in the woods. It seemed like we just fought in the woods all the time, which is real tough. There were deer there that would come crashing through, and you’d swing your M-1 around and get ready to fire, you didn’t know what it was. One day a deer was leaping through there and we were in kind of a sitting, relaxed position. I had my M-1 pointed upwards, I had my hand holding on the wooden stock, and this deer was leaping through and he knocked the M-1 right out of my hand; his hoof hit the stock and broke part of the wooden stock. But just before we reached the Rhine, we were up in the woods overlooking the Rhine and we were held up for an hour or two. Then we moved out, and we went down into the town of Treftinghausen, which is near Bingen, right on the water. We learned that we had a guide there. He brought us down to the town and assured us that there were no Germans in town. But as we got right downtown, there was a railroad track there and we could see across the Rhine,. There was another railroad track on the east bank, and we could see Germans over there, and they could see us.

We flushed out the town; we didn’t find any soldiers. They had all gone across as this guy had told us, and we occupied the town and stayed overnight. I remember sleeping between white sheets with dirty old muddy shoes, but it was kind of a neat thing to lay down in some white sheets.

Aaron Elson: You kept your shoes on when you slept?

Vern Schmidt: Oh yeah. We didn’t dare take them off. If you were attacked and were in a state of undress, especially with your shoes off, you were in bad trouble. I never took my shoes off for, well, from January until March the 12th I never had my shoes off. I never had a shower. Never had a bath.

In 1964, I went back for my first time to visit. I took my wife along, and we went back into this little town of Treftinghausen. We were walking along, and I was trying to point out that somewhere along here is where we slept overnight. And here was a guy and his wife just leaning out the window. It was a sunny day in July, and they were standing at the window, with the veranda open, and I said in kind of halfway German, “Good day. How are you?”

And he spoke back in English.

Vern Schmidt's story is included in "9 Lives"

I said, “Oh, you speak English?”

“A little bit,” he said. Then he said, “Who are you?”

I said, “We’re Americans. We’re touring here.”

So we start talking, and I said, “I was in this town as an American soldier back in 1945.”

And he said, “Is that right?”

And I said, “We came into this town about, probably the 16th, 17th, something like that of March.”

“No. No, you’re wrong,” he said. “The Americans didn’t come here till April.”

And I said, “No. We were here about the 16th of March.”

And he started arguing with me, kind of in a friendly way. Then he went and got his wife in the back room. He asked her in German, “Frau,” he said, “when did the Americans come in this town?”

She said, “Between the 15th and 17th of March.” Well, he shut up. He knew he had made a mistake, and those people, they hate to be wrong. But anyway, we got acquainted that way, and he said, “Would you like to join me? We’ll go down to the pub and have a drink together.” So we went down there and sat around the table.


Aaron Elson: You were saying that you got your first bath in March, before you crossed the Moselle?

Vern Schmidt: March the 12th. And I never got another one till about the third week in April. That one on March the 12th was just about a 10-minute shower in cold water. We were on a hillside and they said we’re all gonna get showers and clean clothes, and I said, “Man, that sounds fantastic!” So they took our platoon, again, just us 12 men. We entered this tent; it was on the side of a hill. We walked in and they said, “Take your clothes off.” I don’t know if I should tell this in a mixed crowd – well, from March the 12th back to January I had never had my clothes off, and the food we ate – we had mostly K rations but once in a while you would butcher something along the way that probably loosened up the bowels – I had a good case of GIs for quite some time, when they said, “Take your clothes off.”

I thought, “Uh-oh, I’m gonna be embarrassed here.” But I’d found a German knife, it had one blade in it; if you opened it up it looked almost like a butcher knife, it was big and long. I opened it up, and I started to take my underwear off, and it wouldn’t come off, due to the GIs. So I had to use that knife and literally cut my underwear off my body.

Then we got clean underwear, and that was all. We still had our other stuff. And I got clean socks. That was on the 12th of March. Then about the middle or latter part of April we were held up in a town overnight, and I had acquired lice by that time from sleeping in hay. We’d slept in so many places where the Germans had just left – in barns and in foxholes that had straw in them — so we acquired body lice. They don’t bother you until you get real quiet and warm, and because we wore long underwear, that woolen stuff, it had a lot of thick seams on it. You’d lay there real still and try to be warm and you’d feel one start over here, and it would go clear across that seam of your underwear, clear across the back and over to the other side, and pretty soon one would start around the bottom part of your underwear and he’d go around your belly or around the back.

A number of us were pretty lousy at that time. So we were held up in this town just long enough to get some fresh food, and one of the guys came and said, “Hey, we’re gonna have a delousing deal here. We’re gonna bring some tablets and delouse clothes.” So we went down to a barn, and it was at nighttime. They closed the doors and put a candle there and lit it – no electricity – there were two tubs of water, and there was a sergeant, there was a corporal, and I was a Pfc. So you know who got in the water first. The sergeant got in that water. He washed his body with soap and then he stepped in the next tub and rinsed off, and meanwhile, his clothes went into a big garment bag and they stuck a bomb in there that was supposed to delouse your clothes.

Then the corporal took all his clothes off and stuck them in another sack and he put the bomb in there, and I was still waiting, kind of anticipating what was happening. The corporal crawled in that same tub of water and he washed off. He stepped into the next tub and rinsed off. And I thought — at home, when we were raised, on Saturday night you took a bath in a big tub in the kitchen. We didn’t have running water at that time. So I thought, “Holy smokes, they don’t change the water here! My mom used to do that; she’d change the water for you.”

I got up there and the guy says, “Take your clothes off, Schmidt.” So I undressed. I hesitated … I was the third guy to crawl in that tub of water. It wasn’t even hot anymore. I washed off, and I kept thinking, there’s two guys been here scrubbing all their selves in there and I’m getting that same water.

I got in the other tub and rinsed off. That was kind of humiliating, but when you’re 19 I guess you don’t care too much, or you didn’t have time to think.

Half an hour later they said, “Your clothes are okay now.” We got nothing clean at that time. We put that same underwear right back on again, the same socks, but supposedly our clothes were deloused.

I had been given a care package and it had a wool scarf; we’d wrap it around our neck at night time, or pull it over that little cap that we wore, we’d wrap the scarf around our ears to kind of keep your ears warm. The guy told me to throw the scarf away, and I said, “No. That’s kept me warm.”

He said, “There’s a lot of lice in there, but I think we got ’em killed now.”

So I kept the scarf.

It wasn’t long before we had lice again.

That was in April. The war was over May 8.

The day after the war in Europe ended – we were in Czechoslovakia – a couple of us went and found a swimming hole, and we just peeled all our clothes off – we didn’t have any inhibitions – we all jumped in this water, and a couple of gals came walking down there. Well, we thought, we’ll just go out a little bit farther where they can’t see us. But you know, they crawled in too, it didn’t matter to them.

So the next day we found an irrigation ditch; let’s just go to the kitchen and get us a bar of soap, and we’ll really scrub down. We took our underwear, we stripped down naked, went in this irrigation ditch, lathered up with soap, man it felt so good just to watch soap ooze through your fingers, and to wash your hair again; your hair was just stiff and matted, and it just felt good to take a bar of soap and wash your head.

We’re sitting there, three of us guys on the bank here stark naked, and we had meanwhile taken our underwear and we’d gone in the ditch. We’d scrub the soap on to hopefully kill the lice, so we had laid our underwear along the bank, and while we were halfway through washing, and I start taking my long flannel underwear, and I thought, “I’ll look and see if there are any more lice.” And I turned the seam inside out – man, there were 18 inches across and there were six or seven of them. So we sat there and we cracked them with our fingernails. We sat there for hours just killing lice.


“It felt so good just to watch soap ooze through your fingers, and to wash your hair again; your hair was just stiff and matted, and it just felt good to take a bar of soap and wash your head.”

We didn’t get rid of them all until we could actually get into a routine where we could bathe on a halfway normal basis, maybe once or twice a week. And then finally they brought us new clothes – we used to get clothes I’m sure that came off of dead guys or people who went back home who were wounded. A truck would stop by our headquarters just loaded with clothes. We’d crawl up on the pile and look through it ’til we found our size.

Aaron Elson: Everybody must have had lice.

Vern Schmidt: Oh, I’m sure. I don’t think everybody admitted that they had them, but I know I had them because when you could sit there for an hour and crack them and find them in the seam of your clothes, why, you know you’ve got lice.


Aaron Elson: Did you actually get into the village of Buchholz, or you just passed through the woods?

Vern Schmidt: I wish I could answer that. When I came back, in ’93, we stopped there, and I had read enough of my history, I said, “This is where we met that 6th Mountain Division, where we had a real firefight.”

Aaron Elson: The 90th Division history books refer to the SS troops who fought between the Moselle and the Rhine as fanatical. When I met some of their veterans, they didn’t like the word fanatical; they said they were fanatical in their loyalty to each other because they had been on the front lines together so long, rather than fanatical in their loyalty to Hitler.

Vern Schmidt: I recall – it could have been the same SS if they survived, because the next large town was Mainz, and they were in the town of Mainz. We approached it by the suburbs, and slowly came into town. We were in an apple orchard, and coming off of a farm I related to that. It was sandy ground, which made it nice that we didn’t have to dig. But we were coming in this apple orchard and we could see that we were approaching a village because there were houses here and there. And we barely got in this orchard – of course artillery shells were going over back and forth, both ours and theirs – and all of a sudden we got opened up on with machine gun and small arms fire, and we all hit the dirt. I never was so happy to find a furrow that you could actually lay. Then we stood again because we knew we had to take that perimeter of homes. And before we got up into a marching fire, an SS trooper came out of one of the houses and he came running toward us, and one of our guys fired on him. I don’t know whether he was hit but he lost his balance and fell, and he lost his machine pistol. And one of the guys to my right – it could have been my sergeant – said, “Shoot the bastard!”

There were four or five guys who were closer to him than I was, and the sergeant kept yelling, “Shoot that guy! Shoot that guy!” And that SS guy stood up and cursed us, “Amerikanisch swine!” And to just prove how difficult it is to shoot someone in cold blood when you see their eyes – it takes a lot of guts. I told you about shooting at this guy in the woods, I didn’t see him other than his body. But this guy we were close enough you could see his eyes. And finally one guy just went and took him prisoner, and he cursed us again. I couldn’t believe a guy could be so close to death and still be defiant and curse you like that. But there were several SS, and they were keeping the fire coming to us from the regular German GIs on the edge of town.

Aaron Elson: What happened to the SS trooper who was captured?

Vern Schmidt: They just took him to the rear.

Aaron Elson: They didn’t beat him up?

Vern Schmidt: No.

Aaron Elson: He was still cursing?

Vern Schmidt: Yeah. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. And my sergeant was to the left of me there in this furrow, and he took a sniper shot – he was laying prone in this furrow and the bullet entered in his left cheek and went right straight through it.

We went into a series of little buildings, they looked like chicken coops, and the roar of the artillery barrage was getting so loud – ours, you could hear them whistling over, and theirs was kind of arcing and landing behind us – and we kept moving forward hoping we’d get out of their fire. And in this building which I called the chicken coop I met a forward observer from the artillery, or the air corps – I don’t know which – but he had a radio on and a whip antenna and he was directing artillery fire, or he was talking somehow to aircraft because they were strafing with P-47s just in the next block over. I was standing right next to him. He had to be from New York, he had a heavy accent, and he had big dark coke-bottle glasses on. He hadn’t shaved, he was just black on his face, and whoever was calling to him on the radio was asking, “Whose fire is that? Is that enemy or is that friendly?”

And he said, “Sir, I believe it’s half and half.”

We got out of there and we went into marching fire, just leveling our M-1 about hip-height and firing to more or less harass them to keep them down. We got into the first row of houses, and my B.A.R. guy, a big tall guy, was right alongside me and we start flushing out this house. We didn’t see anything on the first floor, so we went upstairs. And as we came up to the second floor and went to the first window and looked out, right across – probably no more than 20 feet away — was another house, and in the second-story window right across from us were two big Germans looking right at us. And what do you do? Well, the first thing you saw them do was duck, and I figured they probably thought, “Well, these guys don’t know we’re here.” So they went out, they went downstairs apparently and came around and came out through a cellar and were gonna crawl into the cellar of our house. And this B.A.R. guy and I, we leaned out the window, and he said, “Watch me, Smitty.” and he laid that B.A.R. right out the window there and he got both of them. They never made it to our building, but I swear, had he not gotten them they’d have come in there and got us. You hate to say you were out killing anybody but one thing we were taught in our IRTC training was, you either kill or you be killed.

Aaron Elson: What was IRTC?

Vern Schmidt: Infantry replacement training center. Mine was done in Camp Roberts, Illinois. And the guys that trained us were Rangers and guys that had come home from Normandy, and they said, “Hey, it’s either kill or be killed, which one do you want? Do you want to come home in a box? If you do, then don’t pay any attention to what we’re telling you.” So you kind of make an instant recall, but you know you’d better remember what those guys said. This B.A.R. man knew exactly what to do. These guys came out of there and man, he just pointed that down and twenty rounds come out of there in about three seconds.

It took us all day to take that city of Mainz, and by dusk there were three of us, we were going down one street and we flushed out 54 Germans. They became our PWs, German soldiers. They were all just plain GIs, there was no SS. We talked to them. They said, “The SS kept us up here until they knew they could get out, and then they left.”

Aaron Elson: The SS trooper who came running toward you, do you remember what he looked like and how old he was?

Vern Schmidt: No; I’d say he was probably in his twenties. But you could tell on the uniform that there’s SS insignia. And they were fanatics. Why someone from our outfit didn’t just shoot him in cold blood I don’t know; I just know, as close as you and I are sitting to one another it’s pretty hard even if you had an order to do that. One on one, eyeball to eyeball is pretty tough. We had one guy, back in the Siegfried Line, he didn’t believe in prisoners. He wore a tanker’s cap. We called him Red because he had a very pronounced red mustache, and he was always chewing tobacco, and you’d see it drip out the side of his mouth. He was an unkempt looking guy, especially when that beard would grow; he had a red beard and when that tobacco juice went down he had two long brown lines. They’d get a prisoner and he’d say, “Give him to me.” And he’d march him off. You’d hear him yell at the prisoner. Then you’d hear a couple of rounds go off and he’d come back and say, “Well, I got rid of them.” That was contrary to the Geneva Convention, but a few of those guys had like brothers or maybe an uncle or a close relative that had been killed either in the time of the Bulge or from Normandy, in a brutal way. The 773rd Tank Destroyer Battalion that was with us, one of the tank commanders, if you wouldn’t press me here I could give you his name, I can see him today. He had lost a brother in Italy, and he’d lost a sister who I believe was in the nurse corps, and he didn’t have any time for the Germans. He said, “You shoot first, and then you ask your questions later.” And if we were ever attacked coming into a town, he’d just bring one of those TDs up there, and he’d sit up there right on the turret with that .50 and blast away and just take a house at a time and put a shell in it. And he said, “I’m getting revenge for my brother and my sister.” That might not have been right, but he might have saved a lot of lives, too. You know, war is hell, and who’s to say. My brother was a POW of the Germans. He came out 98 pounds, a big 6-foot-1 guy like myself, now he didn’t get skinny eating steak every day. And he helped bury a lot of guys in his concen – or in his POW camp.

Aaron Elson: Where was he captured?

Vern Schmidt: He was captured in Hatten, which is a little town near Strasbourg. He was with the 42nd Rainbow Division. There’s a French lady in the town of Hatten, she was just a young girl, she has written a book of this fight, and it is outstanding. My brother has met her. They brought her to the States and she spoke at one of their reunions. Of course the 45th has written several articles on that winter, there’s a Bucher, do you know him? He tells more of the capture of Dachau. The 42nd and the 45th and the 442nd Japanese, that regimental combat team, all three of those outfits apparently participated in the liberation of Dachau. However, the 45th claims that they were the first ones. Now in ’93 we were there; there is a plaque on the wall, a bronze plaque, mentioning the 42nd. Have you been to Dachau?

Aaron Elson: No.

Vern Schmidt: Okay. It’s large enough, I’m sure, that it had several gates, and was probably approached from several angles. This guy that writes the story about the 45th Thunderbird Division tells it from his point of view and pretty well says that he was under orders from I believe it was Eisenhower to specifically take Dachau. Now the 442nd, which was a Japanese regimental combat team – the ones in “Go for Broke,” I went to one of their original meetings in Fresno where they’re so predominant, that’s where most of them live today – and they say they shot the lock off the gate. Well, maybe they did. So all three are actually claiming in various books that they captured Dachau. And it’s conceivable that all three of them could be right. This guy that writes the one about the 45th says the people were ordered to allow no one inside except their people. And my brother remembers the commanding general from the 42nd, his name was General Linden, he came up in his jeep, and this corporal or whatever he was of the 45th said, “Sir, you can’t go in.”

And he said, “What do you mean?”

He says, “I have orders from General,” I forget the guy, it was the 45th, “to allow no one to go inside other than what’s inside now.”

General Linden reached to his holster and said, “By God, you’re gonna let me in.”

And this corporal lifted his M-1, he said, “You ain’t going in or you’re going in dead.”

And General Linden I guess asked his name, he says, “I’ll have you court-martialed.”

Anyway, they were politicians, but I think they got together later and kind of squared the thing away. But it’s pretty vivid reading in that 45th book telling about this incident. So I passed it on to my brother. I said, “I thought you guys went in there, and he says you didn’t.” But yet there’s a plaque there stating that they participated in the initial deal.

I’ve been to Dachau twice and it’s a large camp, and it’s conceivable that it probably had four gates, maybe one on each side. We liberated Flossenburg, the leading elements of my division. The I&R actually liberated my brother on Easter Sunday; he was in Bad Orb. I knew he was a POW for about two weeks; I had been under the impression he was missing in action because that’s all the information that was fed to me, so I didn’t really know he was even in that particular POW cage until he got home and wrote back to me and we talked about dates and places that we were involved in.

Aaron Elson: He was liberated Easter Sunday?

Vern Schmidt: Easter Sunday, 1945. In January, February, March, I think April 5, ’45, was Easter I believe. So in roughly four months he went down to 98 pounds. He buried a lot of guys there that didn’t make it.

He tells a story; there was a water trough outside and of course the winter being so cold it was frozen, and he said that they’d chip ice there and get a chunk of ice and then put it in their helmet and heat it inside for shaving or washing. He said, “We’d even melt it and drink it.” He said, “Of course that water tasted terrible, but survival was the name of the game.” And he said, “One day, we noticed that the water was thawing. When it thawed, there was a Russian soldier who had frozen to death laying in that trough.”

He said, “I guess that’s why that water tasted kind of bad.” But you know, they were talking today about drinking water that was flowing through, we had those halizone tablets, and we’d drink it out of the streams all the time and then put halizone tables in. You’d walk upstream a ways and here was several horses that were used in pulling artillery pieces laying there with their legs stiff, probably shot for several days, or weeks, who knows, from aircraft probably. Bloated. It was just survival, if you didn’t know it was there you didn’t worry about it. Hell, we fished with hand grenades. You’d see a stream with fish in there, you’d just toss a hand grenade in there and that sucker would go off underwater, and the fish would come right to the top.

Aaron Elson: You said you were from a farm. Where did you grow up?

Vern Schmidt: In and around Fresno. Worked on a farm during my off time from school. My father was a farmer by trade, and he was also a farm labor contractor.

Aaron Elson: Would this have been “Grapes of Wrath” time, or is that before your generation?

Vern Schmidt: Well, my wife, whom you’ve met, she came to California and could relive the story of “The Grapes of Wrath.” Her parents had been farmers in Texas and Oklahoma and the dust storms that came there, they were cattle farmers, and the sand, I can’t believe this but she tells me and I believe her, the sand that drifted back and forth got into the lungs of the cows to where they couldn’t even breathe, and they’d just either die a slow death, or they killed them, and they just abandoned their farm. At that time they had five children, 1935, had a two-wheel trailer and a ’29 Chevrolet car, loaded everything up including two dogs, and the trailer loaded with their whole earthly possessions. They had two big trunks, and they didn’t have a mattress on top like you saw in the picture, and it took them nine days to get to California. She just laid her mother to rest last week, and we of course told this story, how they came to California. They left on my wife’s birthday, which was August the 1st, and got here on her mother’s birthday, which was August the 9th. So it took nine days to get to California. Her father had a dollar and 37 cents in his pocket when he got there. Kind of like some of the people we meet here from overseas, they said, “I came to America because I was sponsored here” – well, they weren’t exactly sponsored to California but somebody knew them out there. And they drove to their place and said, “Here we are,” and they said, “Well, you go inside, we have the table already set,” and here this family of five kids, and mother and dad, seven of them, set them all around the table, and they said grace, had their meal, and my father-in-law said, “Well, we’ll sleep someplace here on the floor and tomorrow we’ll go out and find a job.” And he did. He got a job. And he knew it was going to take something to find a house, so he went to a distant relative, and he said, “I’d like to borrow fifteen dollars so I can get in a house. I’ll pay you back.” And he put most of the kids to work, my wife was nine years old at the time, and they went on up to 14 years old, her oldest brother, so they all went to work in the fields picking grapes and making a few bucks. He comes back to this guy and says, “Here’s your fifteen bucks,” paid him back in full. And he never lacked a day for aggressively looking for work. There was no welfare system. The people had a will to work and enough moxie to say, “I know how to work. I have to earn money for my family.” And they did it. But that was just one of thousands and thousands that came. We lived on the edge of town. My dad, I said, was a farm labor contractor. We had people pull in there that would work for my dad and they said, “Can we move our little house trailer in on your yard until we can find a permanent place?” And he’d say, “Yeah, park it over there, and connect the garden hose up there,” so they’d have water. They’d run an electric cord over to the house, lay a bare wire across the back yard over there for their electricity. But you know, these people, they wanted to work, and some today became wealthy by their hands and education. Our town was built around those kinds of people.

Aaron Elson: Were you drafted, or did you enlist?

Vern Schmidt: I was drafted. I graduated from high school in 1943 when I was just barely 17 years old. We had an airbase in Fresno called Hammer Field, and I was all set to enlist in the service. My brother enlisted in the Air Force and I figured I could too, so I went up there and went in to the enlistment board and said I want to become a pilot. They said, “Well, you’ve got to fill out these papers.” So I filled out a whole questionnaire, went and took an oral test, asking you about your skills and other kinds of questions. Then I took a physical. Passed all three, the written, the oral and the physical, and they said, “We’ll notify you.” At that time all the training was done in cycles; they were called classes, and they’d rotate. And I didn’t hear for a while. I thought, “I wonder what’s wrong.” Finally I got a letter that said, “At the present time, we are not taking any training,” there are no training schedules right now because as casualties went up and down in the Air Force, that’s how they chose their cycles. So they said, “We suggest that you just wait for the draft, or we’ll call you.” Well, they didn’t call me, so I was drafted, and didn’t have much choice there. I didn’t want to go in the Navy. I hated water. And I didn’t like being on a ship. I wanted to be able to put my feet on solid ground. So the Army was it.

We went to Presidio Monterrey, which was a permanent base. They wanted some volunteers that knew how to drive. Well, I knew how to drive, I’d driven a truck for my dad that held fruit and stuff like that, so I said, “Yeah.”

He said, “Step forward.” And he took me down to the old man’s stable, he had his horses down there, and they gave me a wheelbarrow and said, “Here, you drive this thing.” So I’m shoveling manure, the old man comes by there, here I’m in fatigues, he comes in the stable and I thought, “Let’s see now, do I put this scoop shovel down and salute him?” If you’re on a work detail there’s supposed to be somebody saluting for you; you’re supposed to keep working. And I didn’t know what to do.

But I never finished basic. The Ardennes was beginning to take place, and casualties were mounting. I was in my 12th week of basic, and they just came to us in the nighttime and said, “Gather up your stuff, we’re going into the base. You’re all getting tickets tomorrow, bus tickets, train tickets, a delay en route, and you’re on your way to an overseas assignment.” So in 30 days I was on the front lines in Germany.

I went on the Queen Mary. It took six days to get across. Then down to Southampton. Then on a ship we went across to Le Havre. And then three days and two nights riding the 40 and 8s up to Metz. There they issued us rifles and ammunition, put us on a truck, took us up through Luxembourg and on into Belgium, and that’s where I joined the 90th, right in the Siegfried Line.

We got off the truck and they led us over to a railroad siding and said, “You, you, and you, follow this man.” He took us into the town of Habscheid, and we went into a church – the top of the church was all blown off – and he said, “You guys stay here until it gets dark.”

After it got dark a runner came up, and three of us – one of them I had trained with at Camp Roberts, and the other fellow had come from Alaska; he had been in the antiaircraft up there, he wore real heavy glasses, like those coke bottles, and he complained that he couldn’t see. When it got dark it was just like he was blind. So this runner came down to get us and he says, “You’d better stay close to me because it’s dark and we’re going up to a pillbox.” And this guy from Alaska, his name was Wigten, he said, “Smitty, I can’t see anything.”

And I said, “Just grab on the back of my belt and hang on.” So he held onto my belt and this runner took us down into the pillbox, and we walked probably two blocks, and it was dark, I mean dark. We came into this pillbox – all the ventilation had been knocked out, you could just see the water coming down on the cement sides. And he took us over to meet this gentleman. He said, “This is Sergeant Mueller. He’s in charge.” And that was the highest ranking guy there, Sergeant Mueller, he was a staff sergeant.

And we were all fresh. We had lots of stuff on, and we were carrying a whole bunch. We had everything – blankets, overcoat, raincoat, overshoes. I had a whole carton of Dentine chewing gum, and a writing tablet and a pen and pictures. And he kind of oriented us a little bit. He said, “Fellas, you’re part of the squad here, get acquainted. These are all your buddies.”

And then he said, “Once you know where you are just find a place to sleep. We’ll jump off in the morning.”

Now, I didn’t know what that meant, “jump off.” At five or six o’clock, he woke us all up and he said, “Get outside here,” and we all got out and carried all our stuff. I’d left the gum, the pictures, and my toothbrush inside. I said, “Sergeant, are we coming back here tonight so I can pick up this stuff?”

He said, “Not unless they’re carrying you back.”

I said, “You mean, we’re not living here?”

He said, “No, that was last night.”

And I can’t believe how naive I was. I said, “Would you give me just a minute?”

He said, “Hurry up.”

So I went back in, and I thought, “Well, let’s see. I want my fountain pen.” And I’d just become engaged to my wife and I have her picture, a five by seven, I’ve got to have that. And I grabbed the toothbrush. And that was about it. Stuffed them inside my field jacket, and came back out. And I said, “You’re sure we’re not coming back here tonight?”

And he said, “Not unless them Krauts push us back.” So I left a carton of Dentine gum for somebody.

The first day we went off and attacked, but it was more or less a mopping-up exercise. During the day there was tank movement and I thought, “Boy, if you get behind one of these things, you’ve got good protection!”

And the sergeant hollered, “Hey, Schmidt! Get away from that tank! That thing takes the fire. The Krauts will zero in on it and blow you to pieces.” Boy, I could feel that warm exhaust coming off, that felt good. I could smell that diesel, it reminded me of home. I said, “Man, that feels good.”

He said, “Get away from that tank!”

It took a couple of days to learn that you didn’t hang around them. But you always liked to have those tankers, they were so good to us, gave us food; they got 10-in-1 rations, they ate pretty good, because they could carry everything with them. We got K rations. They were always taking care of us, always giving us food.

Aaron Elson: Did you see any knocked-out tanks at Habscheid?

Vern Schmidt: There was a lot of stuff laying around there. My first day I was so scared. I had a carbine. I had trained as a cannoneer, so at Metz I said, “I’m a cannoneer, so I get a carbine.” Everybody else had an M-1. Here we’re going down with this M-1, and my sergeant said, “Where’d you get that popgun?”

I said, “I got it in Metz.”

He said, “You’d better trade that off for an M-1, or something that you can depend on.”

And I said, “What’s wrong with this?”

He said, “That’s a popgun. Get rid of that thing.” So the guy that, I forget now whether it was the guy that was carrying the bazooka or one carrying the machine gun, I traded with him. He gave me his M-1 and I gave him my carbine, and from then on I carried the M-1. It was more reliable, and you could get it pretty full of dirt and it would still fire.

Aaron Elson: Did you get wounded?

Vern Schmidt: No. In Mainz I got shot in the shoe; it merely grazed the heel and lifted me off the ground, but I wasn’t wounded.

Another time, I was a second scout in the woods and next to me was my sergeant, he was been the third man in line, and there was a sniper up there. We found this out later – he let us two scouts go, he was smart, he knew that we were probably scouts and the next one would probably be a sergeant or someone in charge, and he nailed him there.

Aaron Elson: He was killed?

Vern Schmidt: He died later, yes. I visited his grave in France. And the two fellows that I walked up to that pillbox with that first night – on the19th of February, right near the same area, we had only covered a few kilometers a day – we were up on a ballfield and took direct 88 treebursts, and both these two guys, the one with the heavy glasses, who couldn’t see, he and Roper, the fellow I trained with at Camp Roberts, both were almost cut to, almost like a sieve. One was almost decapitated from this treeburst. The sergeant just about a day before had given me the little radio to carry and he said, “You stay with me, wherever I go.” So he dove in a hole and he says, “Schmidt, get in this hole with me!” So I went in this hole and these three other guys, just like that, were killed instantly.

I made it clear into Czechoslovakia without being wounded. I credit a lot of that to my father; he was a very devout Christian. Being a farmer, he didn’t punch a clock but he worked. He’d spend hours of the day in his work, saying my brother’s name and my name in prayer. And he believed in God, and I did, too. I still do. But he had a fervor there. He would read the scripture, the 91st Psalm, a thousand fall at your side, ten thousand on the right hand, but it shall not come nigh thee. He stood on that prophecy.

Aaron Elson: Which denomination was he?

Vern Schmidt: We were Pentecostal. We belong to the Assemblies of God. All I can say is, we believe the Bible from cover to cover, and were fundamental to the point that if it said an eye for an eye, we believe that’s what it meant. And our faith was strong. My parents were strong in that. Our church banded together, and there were consecutive prayer chains going for the guys in the service from our area there. And it might seem naive, but you’ve got to have your faith in something. And my faith was where my dad’s faith was, and we came home. Grateful for it, too.

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