April 1, 2013

John J. Schumacher celebrated his 88th birthday Thursday in Coon Rapids with a soldier-historian's keen awareness of how fortunate he is to have survived the days leading up to his 20th.

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 CG4A Glider, towed behind a C47 plane, from France to hostile German territory. No seat belts. No parachutes.

"For 40 years we tried to forget it," Schumacher said in an interview. "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."

His fellow Coon Rapids Rotarians serenaded Schumacher with song on his birthday and listened as newspaper publisher Charlie Nixon read accounts of Operation Varsity, the heroism of the American and British soldiers involved.

Nixon said he couldn't fathom the courage involved in flying with the gliders, the mettle men muster to keep fear at bay, from freezing them into stone, as gunfire and smoke and the sensory bursting trappings of battle surrounded them on an unsure descent.

"He epitomizes what I consider to be a notable veteran of World War II who was intent on coming back and getting on with life," Nixon said.

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

"We were scared to death all the time," Schumacher said. "As Colonel Potter said in 'M*A*S*H,' 'If you weren't scared young man, you were a fool.'"

Official Operation Varsity statistics remain classified by the Allied government until March 25, 2015 - on orders still in effect from British Gen. Bernard Montgomery.

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 frost bite. Schumacher - who drove a jeep and served as a mortar man - was among them. Sixty-eight years later, he continues to experience frequent foot pain as a result.

"It's hard to explain," he said. "They feel numb, but they still hurt."

During the Battle of the Bulge, in the Ardennes Mountains, Schumacher served in the lead infantry, attached to Gen. George Patton's 3rd 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 were married for 64 years until Wanda's death on May 7, 2010. He's 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 couple have three sons: Ken, the program manager for the University of Iowa's Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City; Steve, a sales manager for an electrical distribution business in Tucson, Ariz.; and Jeff, director of electrical products for Fike Corp., of Blue Springs, Mo. John Schumacher has four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

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 resides to this day. 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.

He's been a member of the Methodist church choir for 75 years and was a standout in music at high school. On Thursday afternoon, his sonorous voice stood out as Coon Rapids Rotarians sung the national anthem before lunch.

"I did a lot of vocal," he said of high school. "I was probably in every group that required a male."

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.

Just weeks ago, Schumacher attended a 17th Airborne Division reunion in Lancaster, Pa. On Christmas Eve, he received by mail the Knight of the Legion of Honor Medal from the nation of France - the highest honor that country bestows.

"They are looking to honor those who participated in World War II - and I am alive," Schumacher said. "This is not a posthumous award."

He traveled to Europe in 2012 to retrace his experiences in the war.

"I can't impress enough the gratitude of those countries over there," Schumacher said.

Last fall, as 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. He was 6 feet tall, 147 pounds then. Today, he's 6 feet, 151 pounds. The well-maintained uniform fits almost as if it had been recently tailored for Schumacher.

During an interview at his home Thursday, Schumacher showed a treasure trove of items and documents he's preserved related to his service in World War II - including a book he wrote titled, "Two Years in the Life of John J. Schumacher: 1944 to 1946."

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 thinks often of the men who didn't come home and marry their high school loves, who gave the 68 years of life he's 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."