Wednesday, January 09, 2008

John Edward Schultz, RIP 1921-2008

My grandfather died around midnight last night. He was 86.

John Edward Schultz was born on his parents’ farm near Galena, Illinois, on July 2, 1921. He was the middle son of five children. He grew up on various farms near Galena, Illinois, having many childhood adventures. He first met his future wife Coletta Weis when they were both in grade school, and the very first time he met her, he told his parents that he would marry that girl some day.

John Schultz and his parents and siblings

One day while doing chores on the farm, he saw a snake disappearing down a hole. In the manner of young boys everywhere, he wanted to catch the snake, so he quickly grabbed its tail before it escaped. He immediately realized his mistake when the snake’s tail rattle started shaking: it was a diamondback rattlesnake, deadly poisonous. With its head several feet down the hole, it couldn’t turn and bite him, but neither did Grandpa want to let it escape. Thinking quickly, he pulled it out of the hole...and immediately started swinging it around his head like a lasso so the centrifugal force would keep its head too far away to bite him. He threw it against the wall of the barn and then killed it with a shovel. It was over six feet long.

Grandma and Grandpa as teens during the Great Depression

As a young man, he began a lifelong interest in geology. Although war and family responsibilities would keep him from finishing college, he read widely on the subject. One day on a train to visit relatives in Iowa, he struck up a conversation with the man sitting next to him, who said he was a geologist and expounded on a theory he recently came up with on the subject. Grandpa impressed him by having heard about this theory, and they discussed it at some length. The man turned out to be Alfred Wegener, and the theory they were talking about was his Tectonic theory of continental drift, which a couple of decades later became accepted as the basis for our current understanding of geophysics.

Grandma and Grandpa as young adults shortly before WW2

With war clouds gathering on the horizon and then raining all over Europe, he got a job around 1940 at the US Army’s Savannah Arsenal, assembling aerial bombs. He personally came up with several changes in procedures that greatly increased the efficiency of bomb production. These changes were so efffective that their value was recognized and they were adopted at other bomb factories, and they were thus able to make so many bombs that, even once Pearl Harbor was attacked and the US military greatly increased their orders for bombs, the bomb-making part of the Savannah Arsenal could be closed down (so the Arsenal could focus on making artillery shells) and the other plants (thanks to Grandpa's new procedures) could more than make up the slack. Given that we didn't beat the Axis in WW2 by being braver or smarter or luckier than they were (no one was smarter than the German generals, or braver than the Japanese troops, and luck was, as always, randomly distributed), we beat them by out-producing the heck out of them, by allowing the US to make more bombs more efficiently, Grandpa may have contributed a lot more to the war effort and our eventual victory than any of us previously realized.

After Pearl Harbor brought the US into the war, and his own efficiency improvements had ended up ironically eliminating his own job, he joined the US Army Air Forces to at least be able to pick his branch of service before being drafted (or killed at home working in a dangerous factory filled with several kilotons worth of artillery shells). Initially he was trained as a pilot, learning to fly on Stearman biplanes. However, he was soon reassigned as a gunner, and when he was sent to join a B-17 crew, he was found to be the only one in his particular crew short enough to reasonably comfortably fit inside the cramped ball turret on the belly of the plane, and he was thus placed in that most dangerous of positions.

He proved adept in gunnery training, becoming a master of the complicated range-finding gear. This was a set of lines in the gunsight that could be moved back and forth, with the idea that if you knew the wingspan of a plane and positioned the lines on each wingtip, you could read out the range to the target at which its apparent length would equal the distance between the lines on the gunsight. To practice with this gear, and pass the long boring hours on practice flights stuck in the ball turret, he figured out a way to use basic geometry and multiplication to use it to figure out their altitude based on the known size of some object on the ground (a building, the width of a road, etc.) or, conversely, figure out the size of something on the ground given their altitude. On one training flight, this saved his life.

They were on a routine training mission when a gigantic thunderstorm blocked their path. They first tried to fly over it, but it proved taller than their maximum altitude, so they began descending to a more reasonable height and tried to go around. As they descended, the Pilot told them when they got low enough to remove their oxygen masks (the B-17 was unpressurized due to the open windows on the side for the waist gunners). Grandpa happened to be doing his little altitude-finding trick with the rangefinder, and it looked like they were actually higher than the usual altitude at which it was safe to remove oxygen masks. He double-checked and then triple-checked his figures, not removing his own mask, before calling the pilot on the intercom to report his misgivings. There was no answer.

Laboriously extracting himself from the turret and hooking a portable oxygen bottle to his belt, he saw that the waist gunners were both passed out. Uh oh. He crawled through the tunnel over the bomb bay and up to the cockpit, where the pilot, co-pilot, navigator, and radio operator were all also passed out. He also saw that the unguided aircraft was headed straight for the center of the thunderhead. He put their oxygen masks on them and turned up the gas, reviving the pilot and co-pilot. He also started turning the plane away from the thunderstorm and descending to a lower altitude. His actions saved his plane and his crew and he was promoted for his efforts.

He and his plane were assigned to the 388th Bombardment Group (Heavy) and ordered to join the US Eighth Army Air Force at Knettishall Airbase in England. This is the same unit that conducted the trials for the US equivalent of the German “Project Mistletoe” using remote-controlled unmanned bombers as guided missiles to destroy heavily defended targets. Joe Kennedy Jr., elder brother of JFK and RFK, was killed on a training mission while attached to this unit. They were initially supposed to fly over via Iceland and were issued cold-weather clothing, so of course they ended up being sent via Brazil and North Africa instead. Some other poor unfortunates initially ordered across via North Africa apparently got sent via Iceland with nothing but light summer-weight uniforms instead. While in North Africa, he was briefly kidnapped by a group of deserters who were using forged papers to requisition rations, jeeps, weapons, and various other military gear for sale on the black market. He managed to escape and rejoin his unit.

The 388th Bomb Group Memorial in Market Weston, England

In England, he was at another airbase one Sunday morning for last-minute gunnery training. Trying to find a Catholic church to attend mass in mostly-Protestant England was a difficulty, but he got some directions and headed out on a bicycle. It was a very foggy morning, and he soon got lost. Emerging from the fog at a crossroads, he noticed a well-dressed family out for a stroll, and rode over to ask for directions.

“Where the Hell am I,” Grandpa asked. “You’re not in Hell, you’re in England,” came the good-natured response. Grandpa chuckled, and asked for directions to the nearest Catholic church. He was told where one was, but told he probably wouldn’t make it in time for mass. He thanked them and said he’d try to make it anyways, but first asked their names. The father of the family was rather taken aback at not being recognized, but one of his two daughters told him “it must be one of our American cousins”.

The father drew himself up to his full height and said with much dignity, ”I am George of England.”

Gee, they sure talk funny here, Grandpa thought to himself, still not recognizing the King of England, his wife, and their two daughters, the future Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret. Well, when in Rome, as they say. “Well, in that case, I’m John of the USA”. This got a huge laugh from the family, and they invited him to share a picnic lunch with them. He declined, saying it was very tempting offer, “Especially considering your two lovely daughters”, (which got another laugh from the daughters and father but a rather nervous one from the mother), but he’d still rather try and make it to mass. The father accepted this, but told him that if he was ever in London, to go to a certain address and ask for him at the door and say “John of the USA” was here to see him. Grandpa thanked him for the offer and headed out on what turned out to be an ultimately fruitless quest for a church. However, as he rode off, he was accosted and questioned by a rather irate British soldier, who informed my stunned grandfather that the nice family he’d met was in fact the Royal Family.

A couple of weeks later, he did finally get leave in London, and went to the address he had been given, which of course turned out to be Buckingham Palace. The first door guard he talked to tried to brush him off, but eventually a superior officer was found who had actually been told to expect someone calling themselves “John of the USA”, who regretfully informed him that the King was in a meeting all day and could not be disturbed. Grandpa later figured out that this was the meeting that set the date for the Normandy Invasion.

Still in London, Grandpa and a couple of his mates went to visit the Tower of London. There, another guard saw their uniforms and asked if they were with the US Army. Of course they were, they replied. “Well then, your meeting is through that door,” they were informed. Puzzled, they went through, and found themselves mistakenly admitted to a reception for official War Correspondents. Not ones to pass up free food, they hobnobbed for a while with the likes of Walter Cronkite, Ernie Pyle, Walter Winchell, and so forth, all of whom were ecstatic to finally get a chance at an unsupervised and uncensored talk with actual US service personnel. Later that day, in the subway, Grandpa rescued an English girl from an attack and possible attempted rape by a group of drunk US soldiers, and the grateful girl offered to take him on a tour of her home town. He accepted, and when she asked him to “knock her up sometime if he was ever in town again”, he was briefly flustered by that particular bit of British slang meaning nothing more carnal than “call on me at my home address”.

Upon returning to his airbase the next day, he found on the notice board a message left for “John of the USA” from “George of England” stating that he was sorry they missed each other in London. Apparently a bunch of his fellow airmen who weren’t familiar with the story had already called the number on the message, mistakenly thinking it was some sort of covert advertisement from a brothel.

An older Grandpa showing a B-17 Ball Turret to my cousin Aaron at an airshow

A couple of weeks later, he went on one of his first combat missions: being in the first wave of allied aircraft to cross the channel and bomb German positions behind the beaches on the morning of D-Day. His bomber was hit and lightly damaged and forced to return alone rather than with the rest of the formation. Grandpa was thus one of the few aircrew to pass directly over the beaches (supposed to be kept clear to avoid friendly-fire incidents with trigger-happy AA gunners) and they flew directly over the vast invasion armada, nervously waggling their wings to show off the USAAF insignia and “invasion stripes” on the wings to cut down on the number of shots fired at them. In his ball turret under the plane, he had an awesome view of the 6000+ ships below him filling the sea from horizon to horizon, the biggest armada in human history.

They went on many more missions over occupied Europe in the months following the invasion. Remember the movie “Memphis Belle” and the big hubbub over the first US bomber crew to complete 25 missions and be sent home? Well, Grandpa did 33 missions, because by this time heavy losses had forced the USAAF to increase the number of missions before you could be sent home. Some of these missions were to drop supplies to the French Resistance behind German lines. The rest were mostly against industrial targets in cities like Hamburg, Schweinfurt, Berlin, Munich, and Kiel.

One particular mission went down in the history books as one of the great blunders of all time. It was “Operation Frantic II”, in which bombers would take off from England, bomb targets in Eastern Germany, then land in Soviet-controlled territory at Poltava in the Ukraine. It was originally randomly assigned the name “Operation Frantic Joe” until someone pointed out this might be interpreted as a dig at “Uncle Joe” Stalin. They planned to then operate for a few weeks from Soviet airfields against targets in occupied Poland, Austria, and other areas difficult to hit from England or Liberated Italy, before bombing Germany again en route back to England.

One of several books about this classic military blunder

However, their first night at Poltava, the Luftwaffe attacked the airbase with over 100 He-111 and Ju-88 bombers, destroying 58 of the 90 bombers on the ground and heavily damaging the rest. The aircrew were originally ordered to sleep in and under their planes to protect them from sabotage, but they decided at the last minute to accept Soviet hospitality in tents at a nearby village, a decision that probably saved many lives. The Russian air defense was almost nonexistent, consisting of three lend-lease P-39 fighters (flown by female pilots) and a handful of AA guns, also manned by all-female crews. Nevertheless, they did manage to shoot down at least one of the escorting German fighters, which crash-landed not far from Grandpa’s tent (which had been strafed, with 20mm bullets whipping past Grandpa’s head while he lay in his bunk). He and a Soviet army officer were first to reach the plane, where they found the pilot dead. The Soviet officer reached in and took the pilot’s helmet, goggles, jacket, and belt (which featured a huge swastika on the buckle) as a souvenir, and immediately put them on.

Then a rather angry young woman ran up in Soviet army uniform. She was the lone survivor of an AA gun crew that had been wiped out, apparently by this particular plane, on a strafing run a few minutes before. So when she runs up, the first thing she sees is a guy wearing Luftwaffe helmet, goggles, jacket, and with a huge swastika on his belt. While this guy was standing right next to my Grandpa, she ran up and emptied her submachine gun (with a drum magazine of 90 rounds) into the guy, pretty effectively shredding him. With his plane destroyed, Grandpa had to be flown out of Russia and back to England via Tehran and North Africa again.

Grandma and Grandpa's wedding photo

Back in England, he continued to fly missions until they finally said his tour of duty was over and sent him back to the US for training on B-29’s for possible future missions over Japan. While at a training base in South Dakota, he married his longtime sweetheart, Coletta Weis, and her wedding dress was made from the silk parachute he’d salvaged from the wreckage of his bomber on the field at Poltava. The war ended before he could be sent to bomb Japan, and he retired from the USAAF as a Staff Sergeant. He and his wife worked for a time as farm laborers until they saved up enough to buy their own farm at the end of Pilot Knob Road 3 miles south of Galena, Illinois, not far from the farms where they grew up.

Grandma with their four young children

They had four children: Margaret Ann Schultz, my mother; John Albert Schultz, my Uncle Jack; and my aunts Joyce Clara Schultz and Jean Coletta Schultz. They lived on that farm and raised their children, eventually handing the farm on to Uncle Jack and moving to the farm where Grandma's mother grew up a couple of miles away on Blackjack Road. That farm had been in the family since at least the mid-1800's, and still has barn that partially consists of a log cabin built on the site in about 1810. Grandpa was also active in local politics, serving on the Township Board and in the local Farm Bureau, and helping lead an unfortunately unsuccessful grass-roots campaign opposing the conversion of some local farmland into a garbage dump.

Grandma and Grandpa with their four adult children

He died last night around midnight, of heart and kidney failure brought on by a long series of diabetes-related infections in his legs dating back to when he had his knee replaced, a knee that never quite recovered from shrapnel wounds received from German flak over Europe in WW2.

Grandma and Grandpa with their seven grandchildren

He is survived by his wife, four children, and seven grandchildren. He will be sorely missed, but he certainly had a long and fulfilling life. My sister and I will both be serving as pallbearers at his funeral on Saturday morning.


Blogger RoguePixie said...

I'm so sorry for your loss. He sounds like he was a remarkable man.

1:00 AM, January 10, 2008  
Blogger Vince said...

It's been nearly a dozen years since my grandfather died.
He was also a veteran of the European Theater, a truck driver with the Redball Express, and had fantastic stories too, involving what a French whorehouse smelled like, how to proposition women in French and how fixing crap games helped him escape a court-martial.
I still miss him, and if he ain't in heaven, I don't want to go.
In the next life, we must get together for beers and stories.
My sympathies, and Godspeed as you deal with this.

3:29 AM, January 10, 2008  

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