Columbia Veterans Day ceremony spans generations

World War II veteran Chester Schmidt (left) speaks during Mon- day’s Veterans Day service at the Columbia American Legion with his niece, Charlotte Hoock, by his side. Seated behind Schmidt is Columbia Mayor Kevin Hutchinson. (Andrea Degenhart photo)

Veterans Day is a time set aside to honor all those who have fought for our country throughout the ages. In Columbia, special effort is being taken to unite all corners of the community before we lose entirely our Greatest Generation.

These measures were evident at Monday’s Veterans Day program at the Columbia American Legion.

“Over the years we have been getting youth coming to these events, but today is the largest turnout of youth I’ve seen,” said Columbia Mayor Kevin Hutchinson. “I think its an important way for our youth to honor the veterans for serving the nation.”

The program itself was a melding of the old and new.

Musical selections were performed by the Patriotic Quartet, made up of Columbia High School students Kristian Avise-Rouse, Emily Harrison, Brannan Hutchinson and Mady Wetzel.

The guest speaker was local resident Chester Schmidt, who relayed his experiences serving as a radio operator on a B-17 bomber crew based in England, completing missions over France and Germany.

“I’m not here to boast. I’m not a hero. I didn’t volunteer, I was drafted,” Schmidt began by telling the audience.

But he did serve for almost the entire duration of the war, primarily as a member of the U.S. Army Air Corps, the predecessor of today’s U.S. Air Force.

Initially in training to be a pilot, Schmidt struggled with the solitude of flight school. So he began training to become a radio operator,  eventually joining the 10-man crew of a B-17 Flying Fortress.

He took part in missions bombing oil refineries and air fields in Germany, before participating in the event that changed the war.

“Finally, on June 6, 1944, we went through our regular routine and got to the headquarters where there was a great big map… (The commander) pointed to a place and he said, ‘Gentlemen, this is the day. This is the day we’re going to invade France and run Hitler out of Europe,’” Schmidt said.

He recalled the silence in the room after that pronouncement.

“Rumor had it that Hitler had a secret weapon and if he got desperate he would use this hidden thing. We were trying to figure out what it would be — maybe a chemical to send up into the air to ruin the airplane engines. We didn’t know but we were concerned about that.”

Schmidt’s service in Europe included a bout with temporary deafness that was treated with radium, bombing Berlin and surviving bomb raids in London during leave. On his return stateside, he sailed home on a ship with German prisoners of war headed for interment in the U.S.

Two days after Schmidt returned home, he resumed his college studies at Washington University — back home, but never exactly the same.

Monday’s program concluded with the American Legion honoring 60-year members Alvin Maeys and Vernon Schneider, as well as retiring Honor Guard commander Ray Schaffer.

For photos, that you may view and purchase, from Veterans Day services throughout the area, click here.

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