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Keith Burris


D-Day in the shadow of one who served

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    Walter Schuhmacher holds a photo of the USS Omaha, the ship on which he served in the Navy during World War II.

    The Blade/Jetta Fraser
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Walter Schuhmacher holds a photo of the USS Omaha, the ship on which he served in the Navy during World War II.

The Blade/Jetta Fraser
Enlarge | Buy This Image

D-Day, 70 years on.



When I think of D-Day, I think of Dwight Eisenhower.

And the weight on his shoulders.

What if Operation Neptune had failed?

It’s amazing that, in our nation’s most critical moments, the right person seems always to be found. Be he Ike or Lincoln.

RELATED: Local vets, families tell tales of fear, valor

I think of Mr. Eisenhower’s Farewell Address, in which he warned of the military industrial complex, foreign entanglements, and in which he also defined the essence of the American idea as brotherhood and love.

This from a soldier who had seen so much bloodshed.

From a general who ordered so many men to their deaths.

I think of the tanks, and the men, at the bottom of the sea at Normandy.

The incredible bravery, sacrifice, and carnage of that day.

I think of FDR and the burden on the commander in chief in time of war. He wore it lightly, but it killed him.

I think of the men and women of “the greatest generation” and how, still, not enough can be said about them. And some of the soldiers of World War II who served the nation for the rest of their lives. To name three: Bob Dole, permanently handicapped because of his valor; Justice John Paul Stevens, who enlisted one day before Pearl Harbor, is now 94, and is still writing, and George H.W. Bush, whom I met in this city years ago. He talked to me about the death of his daughter Robin at age 4. I never thought of him the same way after that.

I think also of the men who served during the “Korean conflict” — the forgotten war. My Dad was one. Navy. He had a lifelong respect for military service and those who serve.

And Vietnam — the confused war. We were not sure why we were there, or what to do once there, or how to get out. And we took 30 years to honor the brave guys who fought there. My uncle, a career test pilot and fighter pilot, a tough guy, served there late in his career. He was traumatized by the war in Vietnam because the military was hamstrung.

I think of how soft-spoken those WWII guys are. And how modest, compared to their monument in Washington, which is so great and grand, and almost imperial.

Mostly, they don’t talk about the war. And they are quiet, hesitant, almost diffident when they do talk.

It’s an honor to meet any one of them.

It’s an honor just to think about them.

I think of the great journalists of World War II — Ernie Pyle, who captured the modesty of the American G.I. and died in the war. And Edward R. Murrow, and Eric Sevareid, and Andy Rooney.

I think of Walter Schuhmacher, a Toledoan who was present on D-Day. I met him yesterday. A quiet, gentle man raised on Long Island and a giant in my book.

Walter Schuhmacher was on the USS Omaha during the D-Day invasion at Toulon, which is not in Normandy but in Southern France. “You have to go through Italy,” he told me. The Omaha was a “light cruiser” — smaller than a destroyer. There were 700 men on that ship, which was 550 feet long and 50 feet wide. The Omaha was an escort ship, and fast.

Mr. Schuhmacher’s job was making fresh water, both for the boilers, which cannot run on salt water, and for human consumption. “An important job,” a fellow vet told him recently.

On D-Day, he had a second job, handling powder bags for the big guns.The forward twin naval gun on the Omaha was smaller than the guns on a destroyer, which meant the Omaha had to get fairly close to shore — about six miles.

The mission of the USS Omaha on D-Day was to support the landing by shelling the Axis fort at Toulon. The shelling started early in the morning and lasted until sundown. No one had relief at his battle station, and they let up on shelling only when the ship moved. It had to keep moving to avoid being sunk.

Water was available to the men at the water fountains on ship. “We had to eliminate the enemy to advance,” Mr. Schuhmacher said.

The Omaha also took prisoners of war — 50 or 60 that day.

Did he and his fellow Navy men have any idea of the magnitude of what was going on or the stakes? Did they realize D-Day was D-Day? “No idea,” he said. “The supreme commander knew, which was good enough.”

How does he summarize his D-Day experience, when people ask? He shrugged: “We had a job to do, and we did it.”

I had two questions for Mr. Schuhmacher when I met him: What is the big thing you remember? And: What do you want young people to know, about D-Day?

Here is what he said: “You didn’t know what would happen, or if you would come back.”

He told me he is no hero. “Not at all.” He said the heroes are buried at Normandy and in Arlington.

He stayed in the reserves after the war because he didn’t have a job. President Truman called him back for Korea. He served on a repair ship, mostly in San Diego. Altogether, he gave the country eight years and three months of his life.

Mr. Schuhmacher came to Toledo because of an Ohio girl. He worked 35 years for General Mills. He was 17 when he entered the Navy. He was 18 that day at Toulon. He is 88 today.

He told me his father was a Navy man in World War I. So the Navy was his dream. He recommends military service to young people — “for the discipline.” He says if he went in now he’d be a cook or baker. Why? “If you want your steak medium rare, you get it that way. Everyone else gets well done.” He’d still pick the Navy.

He said he gets impatient with all the “give me this and give me that, today.” He hopes they straighten out the V.A., which he says has been good to him. He went on an honor flight in 2010. “That,” he said “was great.” And he adds, “If anyone deserves credit, it is Dee Pakulski,” who organized the Toledo area honor flights for many years.

Mr. Schuhmacher still gets around well. He has just returned from visiting a new great-grandchild in Boston. He has family in San Francisco, San Diego, Boston, and Toledo. His father was born in Boston but settled in New York. “So we cover the country,” he said.

Modesty and grace.

What a privilege.

I know that if my Dad were still around, he would want to hear all about my meeting with Mr. Schuhmacher. Standing in his driveway, he shakes my hand and says, “See ya’ again.” I hope so.

Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade. He learned about Mr. Schuhmacher on the World War II Memorial App, part of a collaboration project of the Trust for the National Mall and the Library of Congress Veterans History Project.

Contact him at: or 419-724-6266.

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