The flag-draped casket of John J. Schumacher is removed from First United Methodist Church in Coon Rapids during a funeral for the World War II veteran Friday. Schumacher served from Jan. 1944 to Jan. 1946 with the 17th Airborne Division and saw heavy combat in the Belgian Ardennes. The life-long Coon Rapids resident was later honored with the Bronze Star.
The flag-draped casket of John J. Schumacher is removed from First United Methodist Church in Coon Rapids during a funeral for the World War II veteran Friday. Schumacher served from Jan. 1944 to Jan. 1946 with the 17th Airborne Division and saw heavy combat in the Belgian Ardennes. The life-long Coon Rapids resident was later honored with the Bronze Star.

January 3, 2017

Coon Rapids

Old soldiers, General Douglas MacArthur said, never die, they just fade away. Coon Rapids on Friday laid to rest one of the region’s more well-known and respected World War II veterans, 91-year-old John J. Schumacher, a Carroll Countian who fought for his nation on the battlefields of Europe and returned home to raise a family and build a legacy in economic development and community service. He passed away on Christmas Day.

Coon Rapids on Friday laid to rest one of the region’s more well-known and respected World War II veterans, 91-year-old John J. Schumacher, a Carroll Countian who fought for his nation on the battlefields of Europe and returned home to raise a family and build a legacy in economic development and community service. He passed away on Christmas Day.

Brothers Will and Levi Pingrey, both cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and like Schumacher, products of Coon Rapids, stood at attention as the late December wind whipped across Union Township Cemetery east of Coon Rapids.

Their memories of Schumacher may fade with the years, but they’ll never die, the young men said.

“Ever since I was in high school I knew John J.,” said Will Pingrey, a senior at West Point. “He was one of the guys I really looked up to.”

Will Pingrey keeps a card Schumacher gave him in his hat.

“He’s always been willing to sit down with us, share his experiences,” said Levi Pingrey, a sophomore at West Point. “He’s just a wealth of knowledge. We were lucky to get to know him.”

Schumacher’s son recalled having a father who served as a superior role model.

“I feel so blessed to have had a dad who is everything you could have asked for,” Jeff Schumacher said.

Hundreds of people gathered at the First United Methodist Church in Coon Rapids for the funeral, while others, including Congressman Steve King, R-Kiron, a friend of Schumacher’s, paid respects at the visitation Thursday at Ohde Funeral Home.

“Growing up in Coon Rapids, you couldn’t help but know who John J. Schumacher was,” said Carroll County Sheriff Ken Pingrey, the father of Will and Levi. “Everyone in town knew him and he, in turn, knew everyone in town. He is one of those rare people who always had a smile and was quick with a handshake, even when he may have been facing adversity himself.

He later became a mentor to both my boys as they decided to enter the military. He lived an exemplary life that we all could learn from.”

John Kult, a family friend from Coon Rapids, said Schumacher was a “master storyteller” — an attribute that allowed him to keep World War II memories fresh and on the ready for schoolchildren and other audiences.

In the early morning of March 23, 1945, Schumacher (pronounced “shoemaker”) joined thousands of Allied troops in Operation Varsity, an airborne assault on Germany along the Rhine River in Wesel. With a stomach full of a steak that tasted an awful lot like a “last meal,” Schumacher rode in the driver’s side of a Jeep carried by a CG-4A glider, towed behind a C-47 plane, from France to hostile German territory. No seat belts. No parachutes.

“For 40 years, we tried to forget it,” Schumacher said in a 2013 interview with this newspaper. “Once you get to this point, you realize how lucky you were to survive something like that.”

Schumacher, a private with the 194th Glider Infantry Regiment, 17th Airborne Division, said he doubts the existence of a rougher riding craft than the glider — “which was no more than a welded tubular frame stretched with canvas, a plywood floor and a nose section with room for two pilots.”

Within the first 12 hours of Operation Varsity, casualties were high for the 17th — 1,080 killed, and up to another 4,000 wounded or missing or captured.

Schumacher landed safely and proceeded with the mission: Securing key territory in western Germany.

Only weeks earlier, Schumacher served at the Battle of the Bulge, the bloodiest battle for Americans in World War II, one in which about half the 14,000 men on the 17th Airborne Division’s payroll wound up as casualties — and more than 80,000 Americans were killed, injured or captured.

Official Airborne statistics show that 92 percent of the field troops suffered frostbite. Schumacher — who drove a Jeep and served as a mortar man — was among them. Seventy years later, he would continue to experience frequent foot pain as a result.

During the Battle of the Bulge, in the Ardennes Mountains, Schumacher served in the lead infantry, attached to Gen. George Patton’s Third Army.

At one point, he joined three other soldiers in pushing Patton’s Jeep from the snow, amid enemy fire. Schumacher vividly recalls Patton shouting, “You men take cover!”

“I had a lot of respect for George Patton,” Schumacher said. “He handled himself well most of the time. He was a cocky guy, and he knew how to handle a tank battle.”

Schumacher returned from the war and married his high school sweetheart, Wanda (Shride), on Valentine’s Day 1946. The couple was married for 64 years until Wanda’s death on May 7, 2010. He was a 1943 Coon Rapids High School graduate. She was a member of the Class of 1945. The two attended First United Methodist Church in Coon Rapids as kids.

“I had my eye on her in 1941,” Schumacher said. “She waited for me.”

The Rev. Joyce Webb, speaking at the funeral, said Schumacher wanted to spend this Christmas with his late wife.

“He did,” she said. “He went home on Christmas Day.”

The couple had three sons: Ken, Steve and Jeff.

Schumacher was born March 28, 1925, a son of German immigrants John and Freda Schumacher, who had met in western Illinois before settling on the farmstead north of Coon Rapids where Schumacher resided until near the end of his life. He’s always gone by “John J.” because there were so many men named John in his family and the southern part of Carroll County in his youth.

“I’ve been John J. so long I’ve even gotten mail addressed to Mr. J,” Schumacher said.

After the war, Schumacher started a career in farming and real estate and insurance, for a time owning Iowa International Real Estate and Insurance. He also worked tirelessly on economic development in Coon Rapids and represented that city on the Carroll Area Development Corporation.

An electrical substation southwest of Glidden owned by Corn Belt Power Cooperative was dedicated in Schumacher’s honor in 2014 for his long service to the cooperative industry.

In 2012, when Coon Rapids dedicated its Veterans Memorial west of Coon Rapids-Bayard High School, Schumacher was there, front and center, wearing the Army uniform assigned to him in 1944.

For years he used a pair of German binoculars he found during the war. His walls are adorned with photos and drawings and memories of the war. Schumacher, near the end of that 2013 interview, said he thinks often of the men who didn’t come home and marry their high school loves, who gave the years of life he enjoyed since World War II to their country.

“It seemed like we were always on the attack,” Schumacher said. “When they say, ‘How many people did you see die?’…

Well, they just disappeared.”