Gladys Schmidt of Hillsboro held hands with her husband of 65 years, James, as they sat together in his room Oct. 14 at Bethesda Home in Goessel.
Much had changed over the years for James since he returned to the Unitied States from service in the Philippines and Japan during World War II, but two things have remained constant. One is Gladys. The other?
“He’s so proud to be a veteran, it means so much to him,” Gladys said.
“I’ve been in the American Legion for 63 years,” James said.
Schmidt moves more slowly these days than during the 14 years he delivered prescriptions for Greenhaw Pharmacy in Hillsboro. Since moving to Bethesda Home in 2008, a wheelchair makes it easier for him to get around.
Memories can sometimes be elusive for James, though other times he’s the go-to authority on family history.
“You’re reminding me of things I forgot,” Gladys said, as James talked about the 33 years he worked for Panhandle Eastern, when he and Gladys raised three children together.
When Gladys learned about Kansas Honor Flights, which provide transportation and support for World War II veterans to see the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., she wanted her husband to have that experience.
“I thought it would be such an honor for him to go,” Gladys said.
Schmidt needed his mother’s permission when he left the family farm near Haviland to join the war effort in 1944.
“One day I asked my mother to drive me to Haviland. I went to the Kiowa County courthouse, and I went in when I was 17,” James said.
Schmidt was assigned to the U.S. Army 164th Infantry division, which in 1942 was the first Army unit to engage in offensive operations in Guadalcanal. When Schmidt arrived in the South Pacific, the 164th was engaged in securing Leyte, Mindanao, and Cebu in the Philippine islands.
Enemy attacks were always a concern, but mosquitoes, not bullets, put James in the hospital, where he lingered near death for several days with malaria. Doctors packed his body in ice to bring down an unusually severe fever, Schmidt said.
“I was so sick the doctors gave up on me,” James said. “Later on it was pointed out my fever was higher than any they had record of.”
When the Japanese formally surrendered in September 1945, Schmidt moved on to Japan, where he served in the 720th Military Police occupation force.
“We patrolled the roads between Yokohama and Tokyo,” James said.
Schmidt returned to the U.S. in December 1946, and a few months later he married Gladys and started working on putting the war behind him.
The Schmidts moved to Hillsboro in 1982 to be nearer their daughters, Phyllis Van Horn and Darlene Bartel.
“By that time Darlene had married Daryl Bartel and lived in Hillsboro and started a family,” said Van Horn, who lives in McPherson.
The first honor flight group Gladys signed up with, in Great Bend, encountered financial problems and canceled all 2012 flights. But another group, Kansas Honor Flights, picked up the slack, and the trip was on again.
“Since he had been on the list the year before, they put him on the list for September,” Gladys said. “In just a matter of days they called me
The Schmidts asked Van Horn to accompany her father as his guardian for the trip.
“I had gone to their website a few times, so I was familiar with what was involved. It was pretty much a shoo-in,” Van Horn said.
Hillsboro American Legion contributed to cover a portion of Van Horn’s expenses, and the Schmidts picked up the rest.
The flight that left Wichita early in the morning had 29 veterans and their guardians on board, Van Horn said. They met up with another group that flew from Kansas City when they arrived at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
The first stop was Fort McHenry, the site where Francis Scott Key penned the national anthem during the War of 1812.
“We went through the fort, saw the cannons, read the posters they had out. We spent quite a bit of time there. We stayed long enough to see them lower the 1812 flag that flies there,” Van Horn said. “It really is a pretty place, and it’s beautifully-restored.”
The second day began with the trip to the National World War II Memorial on the National Mall. The group was greeted by former U.S. Sen. and fellow Kansas war veteran Bob Dole.
James said it was a humbling and moving experience as they moved around the memorial, particularly when he and Van Horn found the column honoring Kansans.
“I just thought ‘What those guys must have gone through. What they must have gone through,’” James said. “I looked at her and she was about to cry, and I was, too.”
The group moved around the Mall, taking in the Korean War, Lincoln, and Vietnam War memorials before lunch. They had time for a short visit to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.
The group rode next to Arlington National Cemetery. They witnessed the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and the Kansas veterans had a special tribute.
“We stayed around because people from our flight laid a wreath at the tomb,” Van Horn said.
“All in all, it was a very worthwhile trip, worth everything it took,” Gladys said. “I’m just so thrilled he got to see the memorial.”
Van Horn said any interested family with a World War II veteran should consider reserving a place on a future honor flight.
“I would encourage other World War II veterans to make this flight, even if they think they are unable, even if they think getting around is difficult,” Van Horn said.