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Mo. veteran's military service spans two wars, results in two Purple Hearts

Mo. veteran's military service spans two wars, results in two Purple Hearts

June 18th, 2017 by Jeremy P. Amick in Local News

Jefferson City veteran James Schaffner was inducted into the Army in 1944 and went on to serve in World War II with the 7th Infantry Division on Okinawa, where he was injured and received two Purple Hearts.

Photo by Jeremy P. Amick

The stories of the brave individuals who served during World War II tend to share in a consistent theme — they were called to service through the draft. This process netted many a young man, many of whom were still in the process of finishing high school, thrusting them into the middle of a war overseas where they would serve alongside scores of other drafted Americans.

A native of the Mid-Missouri area, James Schaffner's parents moved to Webster Groves near St. Louis in the early 1940s, where his father found employment at a defense contractor. It was here, Schaffner said, he graduated from high school in 1944 and embarked upon an unexpected military adventure that would last for decades.

"You've probably heard it before, but I was drafted into the Army while I was still in high school," the veteran said. "I was inducted at Jefferson Barracks in September 1944, and they sent me to Camp Robinson (Arkansas) for basic training."

Several weeks later, an 18-year-old Schaffner took a train to the West Coast where he boarded a troop ship. After making several stops at various islands in the Pacific, he and hundreds of other soldiers arrived at Okinawa. It was here, he added, he received assignment as a replacement infantryman with the 17th Regiment of the 7th Division.

At the point of his arrival, elements of the 7th Division were already veterans of engagements that included service in the Aleutian Islands, Marshall Islands and the Philippine island of Leyte. However, the late arrival of the untested draftee from Missouri would not prevent him from experiencing the harm prevalent in a combat environment.

"The attack against Okinawa was launched on Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945," wrote an unidentified author in the "History of the 7th Infantry Division." "Nobody suspected at the time that it was to be the last beachhead, indeed the last campaign, of World War II."

As recorded in division's lineage of World War II service, Schaffner and his fellow soldiers would face bitter resistance while on Okinawa. In fact, some of the GI's reportedly faced an attack by Japanese soldiers who were wielding spears.

"We were in foxholes, and it was raining," Schaffner recalled. "A mortar shell landed in front of my foxhole, and it blew my tent away, sending shrapnel through the air and a bunch of it was embedded in my left arm."

Treated by a medic, Schaffner quickly returned to combat duty with his unit. However, within a few days, he received another injury that would earn him a second Purple Heart.

"We were in an area where we could see Japanese soldiers across a ravine, and they could see us," Schaffner described. "We began shooting at each other, and I hit one of their soldiers. But then I was shot on the side of my left leg."

The bullet, Schaffner said, passed completely through his leg, narrowly missing his kneecap. He was evacuated to a Marine hospital in Guam and, following nearly a month of recovery, returned to his unit in July 1945.

"By the time I got back to my unit, I was wearing a Marine Corps uniform because I didn't have any of mine with me when I was sent to the hospital." Grinning, the Army veteran added, "Boy, did the guys ever give me grief over (wearing a Marine uniform) when I got back to my unit."

Upon his return, Schaffner recalls the island as "essentially secure" and the news of the Japanese surrender reaching their camp shortly thereafter. Despite the war having ended, Schaffner and many of the soldiers of the 7th Division were then placed on a troop ship and sent to Korea to serve as part of the occupational forces.

In addition to ensuring the Japanese forces left Korea, Schaffner noted he and other soldiers from the division rotated to different outposts along the 38th parallel and conducted training in a country that would become ground zero for another war only a few years later.

Schaffner returned to Missouri in 1947, later married, and attended both the School of Mines in Rolla and the St. Louis Business School. He received a direct commission as an officer with the Army Reserve and was recalled during the Korean War, during which he was sent to Fort Benning, Georgia, to serve as a nuclear, chemical and biological warfare instructor.

Following his Korean War service, he transferred to the Missouri National Guard, with whom he served 30 years and retired as a lieutenant colonel. The veteran also enjoyed a career in private business and later invested 20 years in state government, which included stints as director of procurement and director of revenue under the administration of former Gov. Warren Hearnes.

"That's back when I was young and innocent," Schaffner grinned, while pointing to one of the photographs taken of him during World War II. "But even at my age, I'm still doing pretty good."

When discussing his combat service on Okinawa and the resultant injures, he concluded, "When I was hit by shrapnel, it was like I had fallen on a gravel road and was all scratched up. It didn't seem like much. I recently had an X-ray done on my arm, and bunch of the shrapnel is still there, all these years later."

The two-time Purple Heart recipient added, "I never really thought that my injuries were all that much, but I guess the Army did."

Jeremy P. Amick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.