World War II veteran Evan Schmidt, left, visits the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., on May 24, 2024.

World War II veteran Evan Schmidt, left, visits the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., on May 24, 2024. (Facebook/Rocky Mountain Honor Flight)

(Tribune News Service) — There is a reason that men and women of the 1940s are considered “The Greatest Generation.” Drive, patriotism, and altruism are attributes associated with their generation — each of which Evan Schmidt or “Royal” personifies to a T.

Schmidt, a 100-year-old resident of Florence and World War II veteran, has not let the passage of time keep him down and, though he takes his time when settling or rising from a seat, his fighting spirit recently enabled him to attend an Honor Flight sponsored by Rocky Mountain Honor Flight in May.

Organized and accompanied by Fremont County Service Officer Marty Peek, the Honor Flight included an all-expense paid trip to Washington, D.C., where several memorials and landmarks awaited Schmidt.

However, it wasn’t his first “all-expense paid trip” to anywhere but Florence.

Like most able-bodied men in the early 1940s, Schmidt was drafted by the United States and entered the Army as part of its combat infantry in early 1943. He was pulled from his parents, siblings, and everything he knew when he was thrust into the armed conflict and served in the South Pacific area.

For three and a half years, he served in a variety of roles, including as a machine gunner on a Higgins Assault Boat, in the combat infantry, and traveled from Guadalcanal to Papua New Guinea and various other locations before landing in Korea after the end of the war.

Despite being thousands of miles away from his beloved family, he made countless memories with tenacious and patriotic men just like him. He vividly recalls scouting missions with his close pal Bobby Sanchez and remembers befriending an orphaned Korean child at the end of the war. It was a tumultuous time fraught with the worst and greatest of humanity for Schmidt, something he would remember for the coming decades.

Though his experiences during the war could fill a thick book, one of his greatest memories is seeing American soil for the first time in nearly four years.

“[On the ship home] the captain said, ‘Anybody wanting to see the United States, come out to the bow of the ship,’ and we went out and saw the lights of Portland, Oregon,” Schmidt said. “And, boy, everybody jumped up and we all hugged each other.”

Because they were home.

Schmidt was just 24 years old when he returned from war to both a county and a country attempting to put the pieces of its collective heart back together. Florence and Eastern Fremont County had last a significant number of men to the conflict, something that Schmidt steadily learned the longer he was home.

“I would ask how so and so was doing and someone would say, ‘Oh, he died in the war,’” Schmidt said.

Not long after returning from the South Pacific, Schmidt met his future wife, B.J., at a Cañon City yard sale. Apparently, kismet had been struck as the couple have been married 75 years, share four children and a gaggle of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

But the itch to honor those who never returned home never resided for Schmidt. Not after spending nearly 20 years with the Florence School District. Not after successfully fathering and grandfathering new generations of Americans.

However, the opportunity finally came in two, distinct forms.

During the May Honor Flight, Schmidt was one of only two WW II veterans to attend the festivities and, immediately, his status as a member of The Greatest Generation earned him the adoration of the masses.

A town crier announced each veteran when they de-boarded the plane after landing in Baltimore, Md., and Schmidt occupied a position of great honor throughout the trip.

Accompanied by police escorts and throbbing crowds, Schmidt visited many of the memorials in Washington D.C., including the Korean War Memorial, the Vietnam War Memorial and Wall, Arlington National Cemetery. However, it was the WWII Memorial that touched Schmidt’s heart the most.

“It brought back a lot of memories...of the good men that I served with,” he said. “It was truly one of the greatest experiences of my whole life.”

After 100 years, that’s quite significant.

During his visit, Schmidt was thronged by crowds, was bought round after round of beer by admiring restaurant-goers (though he admits he only drank a little), and reveled in his celebrity status.

It was the attention of a 4-year-old girl that truly caught his attention, however.

“[Her father] told me thank you for my service...and asked if his little girl could take a picture with me,” Schmidt said with a twinkle in his eye. “She came up to me and I kissed the back of her little hand.”

The family left giddy with the one-of-a-kind souvenir.

After returning home from the Honor Flight, Schmidt was honored by the Fremont County Commissioners for his dedication to his nation during the June 11 meeting.

“Royal, thank you...we appreciate you and we have a special love and admiration for our World War II veterans — my grandfather also served in the Pacific Theater so we really appreciate all that you’ve done,” said Commissioner Kevin Grantham.

“We’ve all been to the banquets where they’re raising money to be able to send veterans on these flights so it’s just an amazing thing to be a part of that as well. I’m glad to be just a little bit of a part of getting you there and I’m so glad that you enjoyed it and I’m glad you’re here with us today,” added Commissioner Dwayne McFall.

Schmidt’s efforts to honor his fallen brethren weren’t finished, however, as he also donated something special to the Florence City Council during their meeting on Monday.

In the summer of 2021, Schmidt, along with fellow WW II veteran Jack Sasser, approached the Florence Pioneer Museum about putting a plaque together of all the men from Eastern Fremont County that died during the war. Years and countless man hours later, they had a finished plaque with 37 names, military branches, and locations of death for those who had been lost to Fremont County.

Schmidt donated a photo of the plaque to the council for the express purpose of remembering their sacrifice.

“It’s priceless [to have this plaque] and to have Royal as a personal friend,” said Councilmember Gayle MacKinnon.

Schmidt’s efforts are far from over as he plans to attend the June 29 military funeral of Army Air Forces Technician Fifth Grade Clifford Harley Strickland, who died in the Phillipines on 29 July, 1942 after being forced to partake in the Batan Death March. Though he didn’t know Strickland personally, he knew members of his family and also served in the Phillipines — tying them together as brothers who never met in this life.

“It’s all about honoring that flag,” he said while sitting in his Florence home on Wednesday, gesturing at the waving stars and stripes in his front yard.

The Greatest Generation has certainly earned the moniker and will be remembered because of individuals like Schmidt.

(c)2024 Daily Record, Canon City, Colo

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