Veteran remembers comrades as he recalls campaigns during WWII
When Earl Schneider enlisted in the National Guard at the age of 16, he got a dollar bill and life experiences that would combine patriotism, brotherhood and a fight for life.
“Most of us just didn’t want to fight here on our soil,” Schneider says, which was incentive enough for men of varying ages to enlist and fight for their country during World War II. “We did what we had to do.”
Schneider, 92, had completed only his junior year of high school before he was sent into the Pacific. He was part of the 164th Infantry Regiment, a unit of the North Dakota National Guard. The 164th later joined Chicago’s 182nd Infantry and Philadelphia’s 132nd Infantry to form the Americal Division.
First stop for the group: Guadalcanal. It was October 1942 when the 164th landed, and “it was probably one of the bloodiest battles,” Schneider says. “It was the first one in fighting the Japanese,” who lost 24,000 men in that battle alone. While 1,600 Americans were killed, 4,200 were wounded and thousands more died from tropical diseases and malaria.
Guadalcanal was also where Schneider celebrated his 18th birthday.Moving on
The Americal Division was effective in ending the Japanese resistance on the island, and moved on to the New Guinea island of Bougainville in late 1943 and early 1944. Schneider was there for 13 months, fighting the Japanese to maintain and extend an established perimeter.
Through the thick jungle around the island, Schneider and his division fought against the Japanese, primarily in hand-to-hand combat. For more than a year, the troops moved further inland, fighting illness, extreme heat and unfathomable conditions.
“I prayed to President Truman — a lot of us prayed — because they told us 60 to 70 percent of us probably wouldn’t come back,” Schneider says.
After the American campaign at Bougainville, Australian troops took over. They fought against the Japanese on the island until the end of the war.Liberation
Schneider continued with his regiment to the Philippines to liberate the islands from Japanese occupying forces. The Americal Division was assigned to clean out remaining forces around the islands. A large part of its success there was in freeing prisoners of war, some of whom were from the U.S. — not only soldiers, but also missionaries and families who had moved to the area before the war.
But, while Japanese soldiers suffered from hunger and malnutrition, their prisoners received far less and were in extremely poor shape when they were rescued.
“Prisoners were emaciated,” Schneider says. “Most were only under 100 pounds.” He says the prisoners immediately were given food, but were warned to eat minimally at first. For some, it was the most they had eaten in two or three years or more.
It was in the Philippines where Schneider was wounded, lost a lifelong friend and comrade, and received a bronze star to honor his dedication and service.
Jerome Higgins, a friend since third grade and fellow St. Michael’s Church parishioner in Grand Forks, was with Schneider as they crossed a stream to get to the next hill, when enemy fire began. Schneider knew it was best to stay put and pleaded with Higgins to do the same. But while attempting to reach cover, Higgins was hit.
Schneider pulled his friend toward him by his legs and held him in his arms, covered in blood. The two prayed as Higgins died.
While his friends and fellow soldiers were dying around him, and as the battles continued and the threat of enemy fire grew, Schneider held onto one thought: “I’m not going to let one of these people keep me from going home.”
During one close-quarters engagement, Schneider’s foxhole was about to be run over by a Japanese tank; and before he and his foxhole buddy were able to escape, a grenade was thrown into the hole. Schneider’s buddy was killed, and Schneider himself was hit in the back with shrapnel.
The liberation was a difficult process, because of the conditions on the islands and the determined Japanese soldiers, who were relentless in resisting the American and Philippine forces. But inch by inch and town by town, the campaign proceeded.Fat Man
By August 1945, the second atomic bomb of the war, Fat Man, had been dropped, and Schneider and his unit were aboard ship. Schneider was 19 and a platoon sergeant, one of the youngest in the division. He and his unit were heading toward Japan to take part in the invasion of the Yokohama-Kawasaki-Yokosuka area.
Even though the bomb had done its intended work, Schneider and his platoon were warned it would not be an easy operation and would likely be the last for many.
“We were in Okinawa, aboard ship, getting ready to invade Japan,” Schneider says. “They called us up on deck and told us we should write home.”
But the soldiers were soon told that the war was over. Their next mission would be not to invade, but to occupy and maintain the area.
“When I went in, up to two weeks after the bomb, (Nagasaki) was flattened,” Schneider says. To compare, “if the same bomb dropped here, it would take Grand Forks and East Grand Forks completely out.”
While in the area, Schneider was able to take in the devastation of the bomb — the body parts hanging in trees, bodies strewn about — even weeks after the detonation. The view of ruins and homeless families searching for whatever they could find in a city of rubble was a confirmation for Schneider: the United States had to fight back hard during the war, or the destruction could have been wrought on American soil.Survival
When Schneider arrived home, he was 20 years old, had malaria and was still recovering from the shrapnel in his back. He maintained friendships with many who returned home, especially in Grand Forks, and often reflected on the lives that were lost during their campaigns in the Pacific.
“I had 48 men under me when I was 19 years old,” he recalls. “And (at times), I didn’t know if any of them were ever going to come back.”
Schneider, who took correspondence courses by having his mother and sister mail him information throughout his time in the Pacific, later started Dakota TV and Appliance in Grand Forks. He has been actively involved in veterans groups since his return home. He also has attended guided tours with other veterans and events to honor the memory of veterans who have died.
“Americans are dedicated soldiers,” he says. “And I think that’s one of the reasons why we’ve been successful in a lot of wars.”
Schneider considers his reflections on the war to be those shared by most, if not all, soldiers he was fortunate enough to fight with.
“I don’t want to sound like some kind of hero. I just did my job.”