The story of
SGM James O. Schmidt

SGM James O. Schmidt receiving a medal in Vietnam in December 1964.

Editor’s note: This story by Jack and Gene Williams originally appeared in the December 2015 Sentinel.

In 2018, SGM Schmidt’s nearly 14-year-old grandson launched a Facebook letter-writing campaign as a birthday surprise for his grandfather, which included a link the Sentinel in which this story appeared. The post went viral, leading to a 2020 documentary film Grandpa’s War Story Goes #Viral about Schmidt’s military career. The documentary can be viewed at or on Vimeo.

On June 11, 2020, Alaska Congressman Don Young recognized SGM Schmidt in the Congressional Record, so that future generations can learn of his service for years to come.

By Gene Williams and Jack Williams

In early June 2014 my wife and I boarded a flight from Washington DC to Seattle. Sitting on the aisle seat next to her was a huge white-haired older gentleman talking to a small dog. This was going to be an interesting flight, I thought. Little did I know just how interesting that flight would become.

SGM Schmidt after combat jump into Sicily in WWII. (Courtesy James Schmidt)

After about two hours I noticed parachute wings tattooed on his right forearm. I leaned over and said “Airborne,” and began a conversation. Quietly he mentioned that he was a WWII (504th Parachute Infantry Regiment), Korea, Laos and Vietnam veteran. In other words he was there on the ground for the entire history of US Airborne in its finest hours, on virtually every battlefield.

He was traveling with a daughter from the Charlottesville, Virginia area to Anchorage where another daughter owned a couple of lodges along the Iditarod trail. By the time we landed I had gotten the gist of his service in the course of our extended conversation. As chance would have it, he had told the outlines of his life story to one of the few Americans who understood it in its entirety.

As we deplaned I asked his name; he said “Schmidt,” emphasizing that the family was Danish origin not German. I silently committed myself to learning more about who he was, obtaining the details of his apparently astonishing odyssey.


After a group discussion of what I knew of the remarkable history of this man, Lonny Holmes and Jack Williams enlisted for the search. Using the internet, we rapidly discovered that he was likely James O. Schmidt, Special Forces SGM retired holder of 3 CIB’s (one of 325 men so honored), 2 Silver Stars and many other decorations. His recounting of his service record was confirmed from numerous sites. Furthermore, he had been an early member of Special Forces Association (1987) but was believed to have died and was so reported in The Drop a few years ago. He story was true!! And his record was even more remarkable than his quiet account revealed. Not only was he SF in Laos and Vietnam, he had fought and survived Inchon, the Chosin Reservoir battle and retreat in Korea, and had jumped in Sicily and Salerno with the 504th in WWII.

We tracked down the daughter in Alaska, Katherine DeHoop and asked her to front for a request to interview the SGM. The proposal went dormant. He didn’t much like publicity. Then after a year shortly after Memorial Day 2015 Katherine gave us a phone number and said her father had consented to meet us. Lonny and Jack flew into Washington and on a Saturday in late July we drove down to Barboursville, Virginia and talked for three hours with the SGM and his charming wife of 60 years Peggy. Here is his story.

The SGM was a native of northern California. He turned 14 years old in the fall of 1941 and he was big for his age, 200 lbs, 6’ tall, Danish origin. As the great depression era had been hard on his family he developed a strong independent streak at an early age. So he left home to join the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and was assigned to a CCC camp in southeastern North Carolina.

Then Pearl Harbor made the CCC irrelevant. As America geared up for total war, in January 1942 his CCC group was disbanded. He chose to enlist in the army and opted to join the new airborne unit. He recounted that this decision came after seeing a movie entitled Parachute Battalion starring Nancy Kelly, who he recalled as being one of the most beautiful women ever.

Well, there is no denying the power of a “training film” with beautiful movie stars on a 14 year old. In any case, that femme fatale heroine did the US a favor when she influenced Schmidt to enlist in the paratroops. (By the way, to this day SGM Schmidt believes the female heroine of the movie to have been Veronica Lake, another beautiful star of the period. But the advantage to the information age is that today such things can be checked….)

When he was assigned to the 504th PIR at Ft. Bragg he was all of 14 years. He had lied about his age in the baldest faced manner, and the Army bought the story because of his size. After training, in June 1943 the 504th sailed for North Africa and was based near Tunis, which had fallen to the British and to General Patton shortly before.

Then in July 1943 he jumped with the 504th into Sicily. The unit was scattered but he landed with his mortar platoon relatively intact. During a German counter-attack he was wounded in the hand but helped repel the German armor. He recalls the resupply flights coming in the following night some of which were shot up by the American fleet as they passed inland.

SGM Schmidt at left. Photo during World War II. Note CIB, so after Combat Jump into Sicily.

In October 1943 he went into Salerno; his battalion of the 504th jumped onto US lines to hold a German counter-attack while others were sent into the beachhead by landing craft.

In the meantime, however, his mother had been informed of his wound in Sicily. She wrote an angry letter to President Roosevelt informing him that she didn’t mind that her husband was in the Army… but it was a bit much that her “15 year old son was fighting in Europe, lying wounded and untended in a Sicily field” (mothers will do this kind of thing you know).

SGM Schmidt’s FATHER circa World War II

The long arm of the “Ma” started the wheels of U. S. Army rolling in their ponderous way until at last the great hand of the bureaucracy reached down and plucked Schmidt from the front lines north of Naples. Shortly before he turned 16 he was booted out of the Army because of his age and sent home aboard ship.

Well, that wasn’t going to be the end of it. Now 16, upon arriving back in the U.S. Schmidt took a discharge bonus and three weeks off. Then in December 1943, he joined the Navy, went through training and went to sea in a destroyer, only to suffer a similar fate six months later when news of his age caught up with him. So at the age of 16, Schmidt was not only an airborne combat veteran, but had also earned the unique distinction of having been kicked out of both the Army and Navy … surely a rare record.

Having been excluded from further WWII combat, he signed on with the Merchant Marine where he served on an ammo resupply ship sailing the Atlantic amidst the U-boat menace for the remainder of the war in the European Theater. Finally, he reenlisted on June 3, 1946, which was 8 months after his 18 birthday, following his release from the Merchant Marine. He was awarded the rank of Sgt E-5 and was assigned to the 508th PIR in Germany that same month. He returned with that regiment to the USA when it was de-mobilized in the fall of 1946.

He was then sent to the 187th PIR in Japan where he remained until the outbreak of the Korean War.

31st Infantry Regiment (“the Polar Bears”) of the 7th Infantry Division distinctive unit insignia.

SGM Schmidt, Korean War era

In the summer 1950 as North Korean Army surged south to the Pusan perimeter, the Army pulled every NCO in Japan they could get their hands on to put into the fray. He was assigned to the 31st Infantry Regiment (“the Polar Bears”) of the 7th Infantry Division where he trained South Korean troops attached to the regiment. His regiment was then committed to combat during the Inchon landing. After weeks in the line, his division was assigned to the X Corp.

In October 1950 as MacArthur led the United Nations forces north of the 38th parallel to the Yalu, the 7th ID was landed at Iwon in North Korea as part of the X Corp invasion which included the Marines. The U.N. forces spread out to chase remnants of the North Koreans northward, 7th Division advancing to the east of the Chosin Reservoir, Marines to the west. With the rear area command out of touch with the front but demanding “full pursuit,” the 31st Regiment moved out as part of what became “Task Force Faith,” unaware of the huge Chinese Army infiltration in front of them.

31st IR was further advanced and isolated from the 1st Marine Division by the frozen Chosin Reservoir when the storm broke. For three days Task Force Faith fought encirclement and tried to break out east of the Reservoir, but the 3,000 man task force was shattered and overrun. The survivors retreated across the ice to join the Marine column which then fought its way south from point to point … the famous “attacking in another direction” march in the dead of winter.

During the retreat Schmidt broke his shoulder in a truck wreck during shelling and couldn’t hold a weapon. Despite the wound, he led a desperate attack that captured a key hill on the flank of the march to Koto Ri and was awarded the Silver Star. He and the remains of the 31st IR and the 1st Marine Division fought their way back to the coast and were evacuated on 15 December 1950.

The SGM served in various airborne and armored units throughout the 50s. He said he had heard rumors about the formation of Special Forces and had tried to join in 1954 when the embryo SF unit was being organized. But he was sent instead to various armored units being built up in the Ft. Hood area for deployment to Germany in the face of the Soviet threat.