OPINION COLUMNS

Get that man some cowboy boots

By Joy Carrico | Published Saturday, May 12, 2018
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In the May 20, 1943, issue of the Wise County Messenger, a news article called “‘Touch of Texas’ In Philly Marine’s Walk” was published.

Seventy-five years ago, Sgt. Al Schmid, “the hero of Guadalcanal,” was traveling in Texas on a war bonds tour. He expressed a desire for a pair of cowboy boots. The State War Bond Administrator swung into action, letting Schmid’s desire be known to a local architect. The “fighting leatherneck” found himself in a boot shop, being fitted with a pair of ornately decorated boots “before Schmid could say ‘Guadalcanal.'”

Joy Carrico

Schmid, from Philadelphia, Pa., couldn’t wait for “the gang in Philly” to see them.

The story goes on to detail Schmid’s war bond tour and its success at causing patriotic Texans to swarm to the war bond counters.

We don’t find out until three-quarters of the story has been told what Schmid did to be labeled a hero. And what we are told is very cursory. He was described as “the boy who, blinded by shrapnel, kept on firing until he had accounted for 200 [derogatory term for Japanese soldiers].”

In 1943, it was probably safe to assume that readers understood who Schmid was, and what he had done to warrant “the hero of Guadalcanal” status.

But, 75 years later, I didn’t know. So I looked it up.

GUADALCANAL

Time has faded some of Guadalcanal’s prominence. Iwo Jima and D-Day have overshadowed it. But this battle was a major victory for the United States and is regarded as the turning point in the Pacific. The Japanese, up to that point, had been largely unstoppable.

American Marines landed on Guadalcanal in August 1942 to seize a Japanese air base, which threatened supply lines between the U.S. and Australia. A series of engagements on the ground, at sea and in the air continued with heavy losses on both sides until the battle was over in February 1943, with the defeat of the Japanese.

Back in the states, newspapers were recounting the events of Guadalcanal as they happened. Everyone was kept updated on the battle for six months, and it was still fresh in their minds in May 1943.

WHAT SCHMID DID

Pvt. (later promoted to Seargant) Schmid was part of a three-man team that manned a .30-caliber water-cooled machine gun on the west bank of the Ilu river (which Americans mistakenly referred to as the Tenaru).

An elite regiment of Japanese soldiers surged across the river to retake the air strip. Two machine gun emplacements, including Schmid’s, opened fire on the Japanese, scattering the troops. The Japanese worked to put the two machine guns out of action.

They succeeded with one, but Schmid’s group kept firing. Schmid’s gunner, PFC John Rivers, was shot in the face and killed. Schmid moved Rivers’ body out of the way and took over the gun. The other member of his squad, Corporal Leroy Diamond, took Schmid’s place as the loader.

Then Diamond was shot in the arm and couldn’t load. So he stood beside Schmid and helped spot targets.

Schmid was now both loading and firing the machine gun. When he was low on ammunition, Diamond would punch his arm. Schmid would fire a burst, rip open the magazine, insert a new belt and resume firing.

The Japanese managed to damage the water-cooling system of the gun. The gun overheated, but did not jam.

He continued to load and fire the gun for hours, despite the gun glowing red from overheating. Eventually, a Japanese soldier managed to throw a grenade into his emplacement. Something struck him in the face. His left shoulder, arm and hand were wounded and he couldn’t see.

Without his sight, Schmid retook his position and, with Diamond yelling directions in his ear, resumed firing at the Japanese.

The fighting continued throughout the night, but the Marines cut the Japanese down. Soon reinforcements overwhelmed the Japanese troops and this wave of the battle was won.

Later, hundreds of bodies were counted within range of Al Schmid’s machine gun. He was credited with killing at least 200 enemy soldiers.

Schmid was placed aboard a destroyer and evacuated from the island. The Messenger reports that he could dimly hear a voice saying, “No need to take this one below deck. He’s dead.” He couldn’t see, couldn’t speak, and couldn’t move anything but his right hand, which he started moving, until a surprised voice said, “Say. He’s not dead – yet.”

He underwent multiple operations to remove shell fragments from his face and eyes. He lost one eye and the other was blinded.

He (and Diamond) received the Navy Cross in February 1943. He was honored in Philadelphia and other cities. Articles about him started appearing in national publications. He married his sweetheart in April and in early May 1943, less than nine months after his wounds took him out of the battle, and less than three months after the battle was declared over, he visited Texas promoting war bonds and got himself a pair of fancy cowboy boots, which he couldn’t see.

AFTER THE BOOTS

After his visit to Texas, Schmid’s hero status continued. He was the subject of a book and a Hollywood movie.

He had two sons, made an unsuccessful bid in politics and moved to Florida.

He eventaully regained partial eyesight in his remaining eye.

He died of bone cancer in 1982 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

WHAT ABOUT DIAMOND?

Leroy Diamond is harder to track. There were no big stories on him that I could find. He is mentioned in features about Schmid but never received any kind of individual recognition from the public.

In fact, I found a New York Times article from November 1942 that headlined Schmid as single-handedly holding off the Japanese.

Ironically, this article came up during a search for Leroy Diamond. Also ironically, Diamond was from New York City.

All I can tell you about Diamond was that he, too, received the Navy Cross and that he died in 2009, at 92.

I don’t know why Schmid was treated like a national hero, made the subject of a book and a movie, honored and written about, given cowboy boots, and Diamond wasn’t. But it’s true that the world focused on him and Diamond got left in the shadows.

It seems unfair to me. Without Diamond, Schmid could not have mowed down an estimated 200 enemy soldiers and held the line through the night.

It might be as simple as the fact that Schmid was available to the civilian world because his injuries took him out of the war, and Diamond returned to the fighting. I don’t know.

And Diamond might have wanted it that way. Some people don’t like that kind of attention.

I also saw no evidence that Schmid sought out the fame that came his way. In fact, I read an article where he explained that he showed up for whatever he was asked to do because it forced him to be around people and to combat his grief and depression over his experience and injuries. That, in my opinion, makes him as much a hero as his long night in the South Pacific.

Later stories reveal that he never regarded himself as a hero, which is my experience with heroes. They don’t much like the term.

Seventy-five years ago, a blind yankee Marine made his entry into the awareness of the citizens of Wise County by being willing to fight his demons and doing what he still could to win the war and force himself to be around people.

Schmid, Diamond and Rivers and every other “fighting leatherneck” on Guadalcanal did his part to win the fight, the battle and the war. As did every sailor and airman involved. And the world held Al Schmid up as special.

That’s the way the world works.

Schmid did his job, and kept doing his job until he couldn’t do it anymore. Does that make him special? You bet it does.

And there are a lot of people just like him, just as special, who we don’t know about.

Joy Carrico is a Messenger graphic artist.

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