La Jollan and WWII vet John Schmidt reflects on 100 years of doing ‘whatever was on the path in front of me’
La Jolla Centenarian
Like many Americans and others across the world, “a date which will live in infamy” meant big change for John Schmidt. It was a moment that jump-started decades of military service, global travel, a series of careers and more.
Ahead of his 100th birthday on Sunday, July 16, the La Jolla Heights resident can still recall where he was when he got word that Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941, bringing the United States into World War II.
“One Sunday while I was in college, one of the kids living downstairs came to me and my friends and said, ‘Where is Pearl Harbor?’” Schmidt said. “Soon, we understood what had happened.”
Schmidt watched as President Franklin D. Roosevelt described the attack and asked for a congressional declaration of war. “I thought, ‘Here we go.’”
Schmidt, a Wyoming native who had four years of ROTC between high school and college and whose father and two uncles served in World War I, said, “I didn’t want to be a ground-pounder,” meaning a rifleman on the front lines “sleeping in the dirt.” So he enlisted in the Army Air Corps as a meteorologist, which he said sounded interesting given his studies in civil engineering.
He was soon sent to meteorology school in Iowa, followed by a time at Brown University. “That was a new experience because I had gone to a cow college out in Laramie [Wyo.] and then here I was at an Ivy League school,” he said.
From there, he was assigned to a training camp in Illinois, “but they would test us all the time and if you dropped to a certain level, you were gone.”
When he was eventually cut from the training program, he went home for a few weeks, followed by “the real Army, not the training on college campuses,” Schmidt said.
He said his commanding officers “didn’t know what to do” with him and the seven “washed-out military meteorologists” in his group, so he spent much of the next few months at a weather station.
When the war was still going on overseas, he was sent to places such as India and China to assume duties from soldiers who had been there for years.
“World War II was very complicated, especially in the United States,” Schmidt said. “We were not ready for a war; we didn’t even have rifles for everyone. Some guys practiced with broomsticks, yet we managed to develop the strongest military that had ever been.”
After his military service, he got a master’s degree in civil engineering and later married a woman named Charlotte.
Together, they moved to Detroit so he could work at Ford making car parts.
“I marveled at that job,” Schmidt said. “Every day I thought I should be paying them to work because it was such an education for me. … I would see the next year’s model in the design studios, so for an engineer, it was great.”
While he was working at Ford, General Electric advertised a need for civil engineers at a nuclear power plant in California. “I thought that sounded interesting … but because my wife was Chinese, she didn’t want to go to California because they discriminated against Chinese people at that time,” he said. “So when I got the job that would take me to San Jose, she went and got a lawyer and filed for divorce.”
Schmidt eventually got remarried, to Miriam.
Between the military and his careers, Schmidt went to Saudi Arabia, South Korea, India, Australia, China, Japan, the Philippines and across the United States. Thankfully, he said, Miriam “was a great travel companion. We would fly somewhere and she would have talked to everyone on the plane before the wheels came up.”
After working for General Electric, Schmidt got a job at General Atomics near La Jolla. So in 1962, he and Miriam moved to the house where he now lives. Miriam died in the 1980s.
“I never had a goal in mind,” Schmidt said. “Life just developed and I would do whatever was on the path in front of me. All my life, I never made a decision on my own.”
Schmidt’s mother died when she was young and he was raised by his grandparents, who lived well into their 90s. He never smoked cigarettes, he said, and drank only “a couple of beers or a few ounces of wine at dinner.”
“I never overdid anything, so I didn’t wear myself out,” he said.
As one last nod to his youth, on July 4, 2002, he bought a Ford Mustang with a stick shift. “I had to practice driving it down in a parking lot, but because it was Fourth of July, there was no parking. So I had to learn how to drive it home,” he said with a laugh.
Now he drives it every week to go grocery shopping.
Though he likes to travel and work, mobility issues now limit him from doing so. So with his free time, he fosters animals in his home.
La Jolla Centenarians is an occasional series in the La Jolla Light. If you know a La Jollan who is or close to at least 100 years old, email firstname.lastname@example.org. ◆