ELM CREEK — Allan Schmidt had few misgivings about joining the U.S. Marines back in 1969.
After graduating from Centennial High School in Utica, he moved with his family to Elm Creek and found a job in a hay mill, but he was worried because the military draft would be reinstated on Dec. 1, 1969.
“I decided to enlist and go where I wanted to go in the military rather than being drafted. I figured the hay mill would always be here,” he said.
He also was influenced by a young U.S. Marine at his church. “He looked really sharp in that uniform. In my mind, that’s what I pictured,” Schmidt chuckled. “A few years later, I realized that wasn’t just the Marines. His arms were bigger than my skinny legs.”
In November 1969, Schmidt joined the U.S. Marine Corps. Within a year, he was sent to Vietnam.
In the beginning
He underwent basic training at Camp Pendleton in southern California, but when his initial orders to go to Vietnam were deferred, he was assigned to guard the home of then-President Richard Nixon in nearby Yorba Linda whenever Nixon came home for a visit.
“We practiced for riot control and other things, and when he’d come out for a weekend, we’d have the trucks all lined up with gear. Part of the unit was sitting out there all the time. We were always glad when Nixon went back to (Washington) D.C.,” Schmidt said.
Three months later, he was sent to Vietnam.
Schmidt served in Quang Tri Province while stationed with Mike Company 3rd Battalion 1st Marine Division. Stationed north and west of Da Nang in the northern part of the country, Schmidt’s fellow Marines and members of the National Guard would “roam around between five and six villages to let locals know we were there,” he said.
“The people were kind of leery about us. I was just a dumb kid. We didn’t speak their language. I don’t think we were as respectful as we should have been. I really felt sorry for them. This was an area where all the people were farmers. They farmed by hand and tried to make a living. Between us and the North Vietnamese, they probably wish they’d been left alone.”
His job was to carry the radio for his unit as they proceeded down the road. Other radio operators convinced him he’d get more sleep at night if he handled this duty because officers and senior NCOs had radios all night.
“That radio was heavy, though. I always carried extra batteries. I had to have illumination flares or colored smoke grenades to call in medivac helicopters if needed. Everyone looked after me because I was the connection to get outside help, so that was a good deal,” he said.
Ten months later, his unit returned to the U.S. It was the last ground U.S. Marine unit there. Schmidt still says its name proudly: Mike Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine division.
Back at Camp Pendleton, he and his fellow Marines spent their days in the field, shooting blanks for practice. “We thought it was crazy, but that’s what you have to do to be prepared for the next day. It’s just like basketball. You can’t just sit on the sofa,” he said.
At that time, early 1971, the U.S. was shrinking the armed forces and offering programs to the military members so they could get out early. Many occupations Schmidt had been trained for had been eliminated. He ended up working in the office because he knew how to type.
My parents had insisted I take typing in high school. I thought, ‘I’ll never use that. I’m a farm kid,” he said.
Schmidt became the unit diary clerk. Every day he turned in a report for payroll purposes, noting promotions, demotions and leaves.
“I had to put that together every day. Even if there weren’t any changes, it still had to be documented,” he said.
Feedlots and more
In November 1972, he left the U.S. Marine Corps and worked at a feedlot for the Roberts Cattle Company in Lexington. One year later, he got a job at a manufacturing plant in Elm Creek just six blocks from his house.
In 1973, he went to work for Redex, which built grain dryers. He spent his life in that business.
In 1989, Schmidt and Gary Stromberg of Kearney launched Ag Dryer Services Inc. that custom-designs, builds and services seed tenders and grain dryers. It now has 35 employees.
Lifelong Marine values
Although it’s been 50 years since he was a U.S. Marine, lessons he learned then have stayed with him.
“I’ve worked on different grain dryers and all kinds of brands, all my life. A local guy might give up on a problem, but I say, ‘There’s gotta be a solution. We’ve gotta figure it out,’” he said.
A lesson he absorbed from the military.
Schmidt was trained on old World War II equipment and learned how to fire a bazooka, use a flame thrower and string phone wires through trees when people assigned to do telephone work couldn’t get to the base for several days.
“The senior gunnery sergeant said, ‘We’re not going to wait that long,’ so I was among those who did it. You can’t say you don’t know how. You figure it out,” he said.
But he never mastered learning to swim.
“As a farm kid, the only watering hole we had was a creek we’d run through. In boot camp, they told us we were all going to learn how to swim, but they said, ‘Some of you are probably going to swim like rocks,’” he said.
Schmidt still keeps in touch with a few of his fellow Marines. “Everyone in the military looks out for each other. In civilian life, you don’t quite have that,” he said.
“Also, the Marines gave me some multicultural exposure. As a kid, I don’t remember anybody who was different from me, but after I joined the Marines I figured out pretty quickly that it makes no difference what color you are; there are good people and bad people of every color,” he said.
When he returned from Vietnam, his wife Linda and their infant daughter came to live with him in California. The Schmidts were the first couple to have an apartment off the base. “Numerous couples stayed with us for awhile as they got organized. Some were really good people. I feel bad that I’ve lost track of them. I’d like to contact them again,” he said.
He and his wife Linda celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary this year. They have three daughters and a son, Mark Schmidt, who owns Schmidt Construction in Kearney.
When he returned from Vietnam in 1971, anti-war sentiment was rampant. “We were told it was best to go in pairs if you go to the airport. We knew that no matter what people do to you, if you lay protesters out on the concrete, you’re going to be the one who ends up in jail. People were not respectful at all,” he said.
But he took lots of photos while in Vietnam — “since I carried the radio, I wasn’t the guy out there in front with the rifle, so I had a tiny camera, a 124 Kodak I think, and I’d mail the film home to Linda and make a list of what I remembered I’d taken. She got it developed and wrote all that down in a book,” he said.
He looks at those photos now and then, and remembers.
“It feels good now to be greeted by someone who says, ‘Thank you for your service.’ My unit didn’t have a lot of casualties, but on Veterans Day, I think back to the fellows who didn’t make it back. The Lord wasn’t done with me yet, I guess,” he said.
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