There is one less hero in Kansas.
Earl Michael “Mike” Schaeffer Jr. of Hays and a longtime resident of Assaria was a survivor of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and a pilot in the first wave of planes in the Battle of Midway during World War II.
The retired U.S. Air Force veteran had 21 medals of service and commendation from World War II. He died Saturday, Sept. 16, in Hays at age 95.
His funeral in Assaria was Wednesday.
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Mr. Schaeffer was born April 25, 1922 in Reading, Pa. He married his wife, Rozella Olson on June 23, 1945 in Assaria. She died in 2005.
On Dec. 7, 1941, he was a 19-year-old private in the U.S. Army Air Corps and working the switchboard in the communications shack at Hickam Field near Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. He was working the midnight to 8 a.m. shift as a favor to a buddy who had a date in Honolulu and paid him $2 to work the shift. Schaeffer was a member of the U.S. Army Air Corp, 72nd bomb squadron.
Shortly before his shift ended, he heard explosions and aircraft. It turned out to be the sounds of war — the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Years later, Mr. Schaeffer would write in his memoirs: “Why hadn’t we heard anything about the possibility of this attack? I didn’t even know (they) were mad at us.”
Mr. Schaeffer saw some of the fiercest fighting in the months after Pearl Harbor.
“He flew most of those missions in the most important campaigns,” said his son, Steve Schaeffer. “It was a pivotal part of World War II.”
Mr. Schaeffer was a radio operator and gunner on B-18 and B-17 aircraft, flying 95 missions at Hawaii, The Battle of Midway, Central Pacific, Guadalcanal and Northern Solomon Islands.
“In Guadalcanal he was landing and taking off under fire,” Steve Schaeffer said. “The first six to 18 months after Pearl Harbor all they were trying to do was survival — hold the Japanese back. The conditions were beyond horrible. And, in the Battle of Midway, his was literally one of the first planes that bombed Japanese ships.”
For years, Mr. Schaeffer never said much about the war.
Once he retired, he began opening up. He became a member of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association and wore the garrison cap — a dark blue and white cap with yellow piping and lined in satin with “Pearl Harbor Survivors” embroidered on the side.
“He was a hero of another generation,” said Jim Denison, a Vietnam War veteran and honorary member of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association who has organized the annual Pearl Harbor anniversary for more than three decades. “I admired his whole career of over 20 years in the old Army Air Corps and the U.S. Air Force.
“He wasn’t just a Pearl Harbor survivor, this man covered the Pacific in the air. You would be hard-pressed to find another individual that completed 95 combat missions in the Pacific, that was just unheard of.”
The national Pearl Harbor Survivors Association disbanded six years ago after the 70th anniversary of the attack. It had fewer than 3,000 members; at one time, the membership was close to 30,000 survivors. It is estimated Kansas has fewer than a dozen Pearl Harbor survivors still living. That number may be overly generous. The Wichita chapter of the survivors association disbanded in 2011 with only a few members left, including Mr. Schaeffer.
He had the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross with Oak Leaf Cluster, an Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters, a Residential Unit Citation an Army Good Conduct Medal, a Philippine Presidential Unit Citation, Navy Presidential Unit Citation and many, many more.
“He never talked about this very much, most of what we learned came much later in his life when he began going to association meetings and club reunions,” Steve Schaeffer said. “He talked about the Battle of Midway and when he was flying in the air, you could just see the Earth like a big ball. It kept moving and turning as he flew and then he some some little black specs. That was the whole Japanese fleet underneath him.”
Mr. Schaeffer was a product of his generation. He saved and he survived.
He ended every talk he gave with the slogan of a survivor:
“Remember Pearl Harbor, Keep America Alert.”
Mr. Schaeffer is survived by his sons Steven (Claudia) of Houston and Gary (Becky) of Hays; daughter-in-law, Jolene Schaeffer, of Hays; four grandchildren and six six great-grandchildren; two sisters, Gertrude Nagle of Honeybrook, Pa; and Barbara Varone of Shillington, Pa; and a brother, George (Jane) Schaeffer of Leeport Pa.