As Missouri Southern State University student Savannah Schwab, unable to sleep, gazed out the window at a moonlit night from her bedroom in Fort Scott, Kan., her thoughts turned to her late grandfather.
She had listened to an hour or so of the World War II veteran’s audio recordings that recounted his experiences as a member of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division, 15th Infantry Regiment.
“I was cozy in my bed, but I wondered, ‘When my grandfather slept outside in the snow during the war, what would it have been like?’” Savannah recalled.
Had 1st Lt. Donald K. Schwab been alive, Savannah said, she would have written him a letter. But her grandfather died in 2005; Savannah was just 11 and did not yet consider her grandfather a walking history book or a hero.
“As a kid, you don’t think ‘My grandpa might not live that much longer, I need to ask him,’” she said. “He was just grandpa.”
Schwab’s division, the 3rd Infantry, is known as “The Rock of the Marne” and has one of the most successful combat records of any in the U.S. Army. Fifty-one members have been awarded the Medal of Honor.
In a White House ceremony later this month, Schwab will join their ranks, and his granddaughter, through the luck of the draw, will be there to see it.
The photographs she takes and the documents she collects at the Medal of Honor ceremony will become part of a unique project she began after that sleepless night for an MSSU government class: A blog called “Letters to My Grandfather.”
“Of course, a reply from him would be impossible, but the answers to my questions are all on his audio recordings, just waiting to be played,” she said.
Donald Schwab was born into a family of farmers in 1918 in the tiny town of Hooper, Neb. His grandfather had settled there after immigrating as a child to America from Germany in the mid-1800s.
After graduating from high school in 1936, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and during training crisscrossed the nation. A year later, his brother, Capt. Virgil Schwab, a graduate of West Point, died during a bombing mission in the Pacific.
Donald’s service in the African and European Theaters with the 3rd Infantry Division took him to Algeria, then Tunisia, Sicily, Italy and France.
It was on the afternoon of Sept. 17, 1944, near Lure, France, he led his company over more than 400 yards of bare ground against a line of machine guns.
Military records show that under heavy fire, he and his men were forced back.
He again organized his men into a skirmish line, following orders to overwhelm the enemy, and led them forward into the fire. Again, they were forced to withdraw under heavy fire.
A third time, Donald rallied his remaining men for a charge. He worked his way to within 50 yards of the Germans and ordered his men to “hit the dirt,” military records show.
Donald rushed forward alone, firing his carbine at the German foxholes, as he headed straight for the key enemy machine gunner that had caused heavy casualties among his men.
When he reached the German encampment, he ripped off the shelter cover and, with a strike from his carbine butt, knocked out the German gunner. Donald then dragged him back to friendly lines through a volley of fire.
As a result, the enemy became so disorganized that it withdrew. Donald had broken a powerful German position.
Donald was awarded the Bronze Star, three Purple Hearts and the Distinguished Service Cross — the nation’s second-highest military award — after his overseas tours.
When a federal defense spending bill authorized a review of war records to ensure that minority veterans of wars had not been excluded from receiving the Medal of Honor because of prejudice, officials discovered other soldiers were deserving of the medal for extraordinary heroism in action, including Schwab.
A HUMBLE MAN
After the war, Donald returned home to Nebraska, where he took up farming like others in his family. He married Maralee Janssen in 1946, and they had five children. One, Terry Schwab, would go on to medical school and become an orthopedic surgeon, working for Freeman Health System and St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Joplin.
Donald became a rural mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service in 1951, where he worked until his retirement in 1980.
Terry, who now works for Mercy Hospital in Fort Scott, remembers his dad maintaining active membership in the Hooper American Legion Post 18 and Hooper-Winslow Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 10535 as the commander of the honor guard. It was for a special reason.
“He organized the military funerals and the Memorial Day observations — 21 gun salutes and that sort of thing — and he always said he did that to remember his brother,” Terry said. “My mom said he never missed a military funeral. That was his job, his duty, his way to remember his brother.”
But Donald didn’t talk much about his own service.
“He was a humble man; he didn’t think he did anything special. If he knew about this, he’d probably say ‘I was just doing my job. This is what I was supposed to do — fight for my country. I didn’t do anything out of the ordinary’,” Terry said. “That generation was like that. It was pretty amazing.”
Savannah said she didn’t hear him talk about his war experiences, either.
“I only heard my grandfather talk about the war once in my presence before he died in 2005,” Savannah wrote in her blog. “Little did I know, that the story he shared with me that day would one day soon be the story President Barack Obama tells from a paper called a Medal of Honor Citation.”
Both Savannah and Terry will be at the White House on March 18 to receive the award, as will Terry’s four brothers and sisters who are scattered across the Midwest.
“I got a call from the White House last year at work; my receptionist answered the phone and got the funniest look on her face,” Terry recalled. “Two seconds later, I’m talking with President Obama.”
Since then, he’s also received calls from the Pentagon to obtain the necessary clearance for those planning to attend the ceremony.
“They allow us to have seven people there,” Terry said. “The five of us siblings are going, and we agreed to put the names of the 16 grandchildren in a hat, and draw for the two who will get to go.”
Savannah’s name was drawn, as was her cousin, Sean, from Drexel, Mo.
Some 30 or so family members, including Savannah’s siblings Ethan and Zachary, both students at MSSU, and Abbey, 13, as well as their mother, Kim, also will make the trip to Washington, D.C., as other ceremonies and receptions are to be held in addition to the one at the White House. Terry said there likely will be ceremonies in the Schwab family’s hometown in Nebraska, as well.
Donald Schwab’s five children are unsure what they will do with the Medal of Honor after the March 18 ceremony; it may be put on display in Nebraska, Terry Schwab said.