Allentown Pearl Harbor survivor gets a drive-by 98th birthday celebration
By KAYLA DWYER | The Morning Call | Published: May 12, 2020
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ALLENTOWN, Pa. (Tribune News Service) — Richard G. Schimmel is the last 98-year-old who wants to be stuck inside.
The dozen cars full of family and friends who drove through the circular driveway of his West Allentown home, where he’s lived since 1973, heard about it — if they didn’t know already.
“I’m going nuts here,” he told one car, suited up in his mask, jacket, and Pearl Harbor baseball cap.
Until the coronavirus pandemic shut down business, this World War II veteran and Pearl Harbor survivor was a thrice-a-week visitor to the Allentown YMCA and an organizer of occasional bus trips to casinos and destinations across the country.
He’s talkative and social, nicknamed “Schimmodo” by the Japanese friends he made in Honolulu before and after the Sunday morning attack in 1941.
So on his 98th birthday Monday, his family brought the celebration to him the best way they could. Drivers greeted him with a “Hey Rickie” and a “Hi Uncle Dick,” some dangling American flags out their windows and one friend handing over a gift with a quip, “Here’s a bomb for you.”
They heard his cooped-up frustrations, but they also heard expressions of surprised gratitude from the man they knew never minced words.
“I didn’t expect this,” he said surrounded by Happy Birthday balloons and a smattering of family. “This is a huge surprise.”
The Allentown native entered the army in 1940 and was assigned to the Aircraft Warning Service on Oahu, Hawaii. He worked as a plotter and switchboard operator at an information center just east of Pearl Harbor, communicating with the U.S. Army’s first radar unit.
His friend, Joe McDonald, was working the night shift at the information center when a new soldier at the radar station called in a report of his screen filling up with blips.
The officer on duty assumed the blips were American planes. They were Japanese, which McDonald and Schimmel found out when they heard the bombs. They went to a nearby roof and watched Pearl Harbor envelop in smoke.
Schimmel served a total of 56 months overseas, surviving three bombings from the Japanese. Then he worked a career at Sears and retired in 1984.
He remained active in life after work. Schimmel organized a club of Sears retirees and started running bus trips to Atlantic City casinos once a month. The trips got bigger over the years — and their clientele expanded far beyond Sears retirees — venturing to California, Alaska, the Panama Canal, and every five years now, Hawaii.
Before the pandemic, the world traveler had at least four other trips planned that have now been canceled. Since the lockdown, he’s only left home twice, shepherded by his son to Weis.
“I’ve never had so many days at home,” he said.
So instead of going to YMCA, he walks around his circular driveway to keep fit. Instead of taking him to restaurants every Monday and Thursday, his son, Rick Schimmel, brings meals over. Inside, he’s been watching a lot of TV — he’s seen just about every Western film ever made, granddaughter Jill Schimmel said.
“He keeps himself busy, but this has been hard for him,” she said. “He’s stir-crazy.”
Her four-year-old son, Dardan, is used to taking “Great Bop” to Perkins for breakfast whenever they visit from New York. Instead he helped make the goodie bags the family handed out to those who drove by on Monday.
The elder Schimmel, for one, wishes he could get back to running the bus trips. Those are what keep him going, he said.
But the unusually high birthday turnout certainly provided a boost.
Out a sun roof, one family held a large homemade sign saying “Happy 98th Birthday,” which they insisted daughter-in-law Judy Schimmel take off their hands.
“We’ll change it to 99 for next year,” she said.