He fought for our freedom
WORTHINGTON -- Al and Marie Schnieder have been married for more than 50 years, but there are some things he's never shared with his bride about his experiences in World War II.
So when he sat down earlier this week to recount his years in the U.S. Army, she listened intently to his story.
Al Schnieder was a 22-year-old farm boy when he left his rural Lismore home behind on Dec. 1, 1941, for what he thought was a one-year commitment in the U.S. Army. Six days later, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he knew he'd be in for the long haul.
Schnieder completed basic training at Camp Polk, La., before moving on to Fort Knox, Ky., for mechanical training. There, he learned how to work on the Army's vehicle fleet. When he returned to Camp Polk, he was assigned to work as a battalion command driver.
By mid-summer of 1942, he was sent to the Mojave Desert in Arizona to perform maneuvers. He would later be retrained at Camp Picket, Va., before moving on to Indiantown, Pa., and Camp Kilmer, N.Y.
While at Camp Kilmer, Schnieder faced the decision of a lifetime. Because his last name was of German descent, Army officials gave him the choice to fight in Europe or the South Pacific. He chose to stay with his battalion and head to Europe.
Ironically, Schnieder's father -- a man who died while his son was still a teen -- had spent several years as a German soldier. He immigrated to America shortly after his military release.
Heading into battle
On Sept. 1, 1943, Schnieder boarded a ship at New York harbor, destined for the coast of England.
"There was about 25 ships in the convoy," recalled Schnieder. A destroyer escorted the fleet, but because of the slow pace of accompanying fuel tankers, their journey lasted a full 13 days.
"We changed course about every half-hour -- a few degrees -- to throw off the German submarines," he added.
The ships docked in Liverpool on the night of Sept. 13, and soldiers immediately boarded trains to Salisbury Plain for additional training.
They remained in England for nearly seven months, getting their orders in early June of 1944 to head to Southampton. There, they would board a ship destined for the French coastline and Normandy Beach.
"But luck was with us -- we had stormy weather," Schnieder said. Waves in the Atlantic were so rough that the vessels were unable to land. They were forced to turn around and go back to England. It was the weather, he said, that saved him and his fellow soldiers.
Had they landed, they would have been among the first soldiers to take part in what history books will forever record as D-Day -- June 6, 1944. American troops suffered mass casualties that day.
Schnieder and his fellow soldiers departed England more than a week later, again destined for Normandy Beach. They landed on the beachhead June 18 to the ringing of artillery shells being fired upon them by the German Army.
Their journey had only just begun.
As Schnieder spoke of those first few days on Normandy, he had to stop mid-sentence several times -- choking back emotions that so easily returned some 60 years after the invasion.
"The most shocking thing was when I saw the first dead American soldier, laying in a ditch alongside the road," said Schnieder. "It was full along there -- American and German soldiers dead.
"But, you soon got used to it. It's something you didn't dwell on -- you lived from day to day," he added.
On the beaches of Normandy, living from day to day was something every soldier hoped for -- and one Schnieder feared impossible as the gunfight raged on. They protected themselves by digging fox holes to hide from the enemy.
"You had to dig your own fox hole -- it wasn't safe to go in an old one. They had them booby-trapped," he said.
While hunkered down in a foxhole, Schnieder encountered what every soldier feared -- a hand grenade tossed by a German soldier landed mere inches from his hole.
"It was a dud -- it failed to explode," he said. He hates to think what would have happened had the grenade exploded. "I don't think I would have survived. It would have buried me alive."
Schnieder and his fellow soldiers left Normandy behind, journeying through the French countryside and many small villages along the way.
"There was only a couple days when we weren't under artillery fire," Schnieder said.
As driver of the Battalion Command Post -- a traveling half-track that featured front wheels and a track at the rear -- Schnieder transported all radio equipment for the battalion headquarters.
"Farm boys knew how to handle equipment and work with machinery," he said. As such, they were often chosen to drive vehicles during the war effort.
While driving the half-track provided somewhat of a shield against enemy fire, Schnieder wasn't immune to dangerous situations.
On one particular night in their journey, he pulled his half-track off the road and into a field as neither the Americans nor the Germans traveled after dark.
In an effort to disguise his vehicle, Schnieder began chopping down some nearby shrubbery when he suddenly heard a sound from among the branches.
"Here it was a German soldier -- he had a gun and a hand grenade," Schnieder recalled. "He could have wiped out half our unit, but he surrendered."
Some time later, again during one of their nightly stops, Schnieder's brush with death became all too real.
"We got ready to move the next morning and we could hear a tank battle going on a half-mile away," he said. The German tank involved in the incident changed its mode of attack by backing up and firing shells in the air for greater impact.
"A shell came over, hit a tree and exploded," said Schnieder, pointing to the brow line over his left eye where shrapnel from the shell hit him. "The hair still won't grow normal there."
The injury earned Schnieder a brief break from combat, along with a Purple Heart.
"I wasn't expecting a Purple Heart for that, but had (the shell) been a half-inch closer (to my eye), it would have went into my head," he added.
Between their landing on the beaches of Normandy and their linking up with the Russians on the Elbe River, Schnieder's battalion had been led by seven different commanders. Col. Orr was leading the troops as they completed their mission at the Elbe.
Schnieder said their next journey was to Wippera, where they were to stay until new orders arrived.
"I was working on the generator (trying to get electricity for the building) when a fellow came and said Colonel Orr wanted to see me," said Schnieder.
He headed to Orr's office, where he was asked if he wanted to go home on furlough. Schnieder didn't have to think twice about the offer -- he was ready to go home. He was given the next day off, and the following day he boarded a truck for Bonn, Germany. There, he caught a train to LaHarve, France, where he was to board a ship for the trip home. His departure from LaHarve coincided with V-E Day -- May 7, 1945.
"We had to work our way back and pick up the injured in Southampton," said Schnieder. From there, they headed toward New York Harbor.
"On the way back, we watched movies on how to be a human being again," he said. "We were deprogrammed."
The soldiers were halfway across the Atlantic Ocean when they were instructed to account for their length of military service, the number of battles they'd served in and the number of commendations they'd received. The information was used in a point system, which Schnieder later learned would allow the highest point earners to be discharged.
By the time he arrived in New York Harbor, Schnieder was told the good news -- he would be discharged. He received the necessary paperwork, along with $250 in separation money -- funds paid by the military in exchange for a soldier's service to his country.
Schnieder arrived in Fort Snelling on a Sunday morning in late May of 1945. A train delivered him as far as Adrian, and a call to his brother gave family members the news they'd been waiting for. All he needed now was for his brother to pick him up in Adrian for the last six miles of his journey.
"Mom was more emotional to see me come home than she was when I left," said Schnieder. Of course she'd had no idea war was about to break out when he left.
In all, Schnieder earned five battle stars -- commendations earned for his service in the battle at Normandy, on the Siegfried Line, in the Battle of the Bulge, on the Ruhr River and in Germany. Along with his Purple Heart, he has a box filled with memorabilia from his service during World War II, including his dog tag, military photo, patches and a German flag.
Today, Schnieder will add one more honor to that box. He is among approximately 40 area World War II veterans to receive the Normandy Medal of the Jubilee of Liberty. The medals will be handed out by Congressman Gil Gutknecht in an afternoon ceremony open only to the honorees and their families.