Hometown Heroes: Pearl Harbor survivor witnessed beginning and end of World War II
My Edmonds News continues its series, Hometown Heroes, to recognize the courageous contributions made by members of VFW Post 8870.
Ervin Schmidt was a 25-year-old barber from Marshfield, Wisconsin when he enlisted in the United State Navy in August of 1940. After completing basic training, Erv was assigned to the battleship USS California and participated in numerous training cruises in the Pacific Ocean. In December of 1941, the USS California was docked in what has become known as “battleship row” at Pearl Harbor, Honolulu, Hawaii.
When the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor occurred at a few minutes before 8 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941, Erv was asleep in his bunk several levels below the main deck when the first of two torpedoes struck the California. One of Erv’s bunk mates was killed instantly by the blast. Dazed by the attack, Erv and several of his bunk mates tried to make their way to their battle stations. They were overcome by smoke and fumes on the second deck, and survived only because shipmates carried them to the main deck where the fresh air revived them. After a second torpedo struck, the ship began to list and the Captain issued the order to abandon ship.
Erv was on the main deck and chose to remain on the ship with three of his shipmates, who could not swim. They were the only remaining personnel on the ship, and they manned a 50 cal. anti-aircraft gun to fire at the attacking Japanese planes. Late in the afternoon, Erv and his three friends were evacuated and shortly thereafter, the USS California sunk. Of the 1500 men assigned to the USS California, over 200 of them were killed in the attack.
Three days after the attack, Erv was reassigned to a heavy cruiser, the USS Chicago and the ship immediately left Pearl Harbor to serve as reinforcement to the Australian and New Zealand forces in the vicinity of the Coral Sea. In the confusion that resulted in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Erv was listed as Killed in Action, and his family was so notified. Six weeks after his family held a funeral service for him, they learned that Erv had, indeed, survived the attack. Three months after the USS California was sunk, the battleship was raised and returned to Bremerton for repairs and refitting.
On May 7 and 8, 1942, the USS Chicago participated in the Battle of the Coral Sea, which proved to be a turning point in the War in the Pacific. The Japanese advance on New Zealand and Australia was stopped. After several months of patrolling off the Australian coast, the Chicago was assigned to transport portions of the 1st Marine Division to Guadalcanal. These Marines participated in the landing on the beach on Aug. 7-8, 1942. During the battle, the Chicago was struck by two enemy torpedoes. Fortunately for Erv, the torpedo that struck his ship directly below his bunk, did not explode, but the second torpedo caused significant damage to the ship. The ship returned to San Francisco for repairs, and Erv was able to be reunited with his family after a nearly two year separation.
When repairs were completed, the USS Chicago returned to the Coral Sea, and in late January 1943, the convoy engaged the Japanese at Rennell Island, which is located in the South Solomon Islands. On Jan. 29, 1943, the Chicago sustained severe battle damage and once again, Erv hear the command to abandon ship. This was the second ship on which Erv served that was sunk. Following his second sinking, Erv returned to San Diego where he volunteered for duty on a submarine. He was assigned to the USS Saury as a radio and sonar operator. During his five patrols on the Saury, a total of 9 Japanese ships were sunk, and Erv and his crewmates survived numerous depth charge attacks and a ramming by a Japanese light cruiser. In a scene right out of a Hollywood movie, the Saury was forced to lie on the bottom of the ocean at a depth of 200 feet. After the enemy had left the area, the submarine was able to surface the next morning and return to Pearl Harbor for repairs.
After some well deserved shore duty in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Erv returned, once again, to the South Pacific. He was now assigned to another submarine, the USS Torsk, which conducted patrols against enemy shipping, first in Tokyo Bay and then the Sea of Japan. On August 11 and then on Aug. 13, 1945, the Torsk sank two Japanese Naval ships, which were the last two ships sunk by the US Navy in World War II. On Aug.14, 1945, hostilities in the South Pacific ended.
Erv’s submarine returned to New London, Connecticut in October 1945 where he was reunited with his wife and members of his family. He served in the Navy for one more year before he was discharged in December, 1946. Erv served three years in combat in the South Pacific and has the distinction of serving in combat at the outset of WW II and during the last naval action of WW II. He is a highly decorated Naval veteran, and has been a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars for over 70 years. A month after celebrating his 98th birthday on Feb.10, 2014, Erv passed away. The members of Post 8870 are proud to honor and recognize Ervin’s service to our grateful nation.
– By Fred M. Apgar
Fred Apgar is a combat Vietnam veteran and the Commander of Post 8870.