Carl Schneider said it was the most surprising thing he ever witnessed.
There was his 98-year-old mother, talking for three hours about her fallen son with a woman she just met.
It had taken weeks to convince Gladys Schneider to meet the woman, and Gladys was apprehensive that morning of Jan. 9 at her nursing home in Jefferson.
Gladys and James Schneider had raised five children on a farm in the town of La Prairie. One of them, H. Warren Schneider, attended Janesville Craig High School, joined the Marines and died after a battle for which he was awarded the Silver Star.
The woman Gladys was talking to was Mary Jo Ross of Green Bay, who as a Racine schoolgirl became a pen pal with Warren while he was in Vietnam.
“We have been a family that kind of buried what happened 50 years ago,” Carl said. “We don’t sit around and talk about it.”
But there the two women were, talking about Warren.
Ross had always wanted to find Warren’s family and give them the letters he had written her, but she couldn’t find the family. All she knew was that Warren had told her he was from Janesville, as The Gazette reported Nov. 24.
Warren’s oldest brother, Carl, found Ross on Facebook the night the article appeared.
Carl and Ross began a correspondence about Warren, eventually arranging the meeting with Gladys.
“You should be really proud of your brother,” Ross wrote to him.
“I can tell you, sitting here today, that my brother’s name and those words, over the past 50 years, I have never put in the same sentence,” Carl said.
“The day we buried my brother, I buried the whole thing. I just couldn’t talk about it.”
Carl was walking down the long driveway at his Michigan home one recent day to get the mail when Ross’ words came to him. He stopped.
“It hit me like a ton of bricks, and from that moment on, I’ve been able to talk about it,” he said.
Carl did remember being proud of his brother before he went to Vietnam.
Peas to helicopters
In the mid-1960s, Carl needed help in a pea-processing operation he was managing for Green Giant in Illinois. Good workers were hard to find. He hired Warren.
“He was probably 16 at the time, and he turned out to be the mechanic,” Carl said. “He kept things running. When things broke down, he was first on the scene. He was a great kid. Worked hard all season … 80-plus hours a week.”
In the military, Warren trained to maintain helicopters, probably reflecting a natural mechanical ability. Carl isn’t sure, but it’s likely Warren named his Huey “Little Green Giant” because of that season with his big brother.
Warren shocked the family with the news that he had seen a recruiter and would join the Marines, Carl said.
“He served a whole tour, and he came home, and we all wanted to know what he was going to do. And he said, ‘I’m going back. If I don’t go back, what I’ll be assigned to do is escort bodies home,’ and he said he didn’t want do that. He wanted to be with his friends and comrades he left in Vietnam.”
Finding the truth
Warren’s brother Rick couldn’t attend the meeting at the nursing home, but he did contact a Vietnam veteran who was quoted in the Gazette article, Frank Perez of Moline, Illinois.
“Those guys, given a chance, they’ve got a story they want to tell about their experiences, and he was part of the recovery operation with my brother there in Vietnam,” said Rick, who lives in Twin Lakes.
Perez knew Warren’s name, although he never met him.
“Frank shared things with me. The way I envisioned it before wasn’t realistic. Frank brought the realism back to me,” Rick said.
Rick had been researching what happened that day in 1968: A recon unit was pinned down by enemy fire, and numerous attempts were made to extract them.
Warren’s helicopter flew into the enemy fire in repeated strafing runs, with Warren spraying bullets for cover, but the helicopter went down.
The Silver Star citation said Warren died of his wounds, but Schneider sister Diane noticed a discrepancy in some documents.
Diane asked Rick to investigate. He found out Warren didn’t die in the battle. He suffered only an arm wound and died later at a hospital in Da Nang.
With the help of a historian, Rick filed a Freedom of Information Act request for Warren’s autopsy report.
Turns out, Warren was evacuated in a helicopter with other bodies piled on top of him. The crushing weight led to kidney failure and death, Rick said.
“It’s family, and it’s important to all of us,” Rick said of his quest for the truth.
Rick was two years older than Warren. When his little brother came home for a month between his tours in Vietnam, Rick convinced him to go fishing with friends in Canada. They got to know each other better.
“He told us stories about Vietnam and things he’d done,” Rick said. “… I knew Warren in a way that nobody else in our family did.”
Rick was at home when the news of Warren’s death arrived. His parents were in Arizona. It took four days to contact them.
“For four days, whenever the phone rang, your heart just jumped,” Rick recalled.
Rick tried to convince them to come home without telling them why. But they wouldn’t come without knowing.
“That was the toughest part for me,” he said.
The body arrived a month later with a Marine escort. The Marines lived with the family until the burial, Rick said.
The burial was tough. Carl was in the car behind the hearse, traveling from Schneider Funeral Home to Emerald Grove Cemetery.
As they passed the junction of Highway 11/14 and Racine Street, a Janesville police officer was directing traffic.
Carl said he can still see the officer’s white cap and gloves. As the hearse approached, “He snapped to attention (Carl choked up at this point in telling the story), and he saluted that hearse. I see that just as plain as it happened yesterday.”
At the cemetery, “it really broke me up when we lowered the casket into the ground,” Carl said. “There’s nothing worse than for a family to stand there and watch the flag folded and hear taps blown by a bugler in the back corner of the cemetery.”
Carl visits his brother at the cemetery whenever he passes this way. He cries a little.
“Something an old man has to do,” he said.
Carl said he talked to Ross’ husband while Gladys and Mary Jo talked.
A portrait of Warren hung on the wall, as it had wherever Gladys and James Schneider lived since his death, Carl said. James died in 2012.
“Mother said, ‘I really liked Mary Jo. It was easy to talk to her.’” Carl said. “She said, ‘I told more stories than I ever thought I could.’”
Ross had similar feelings for Gladys.
“While I was afraid that I was opening painful memories, she was calm and comforting,” Ross wrote in an email.
Gladys told a story about a time when Warren, age 6, didn’t show up at school one day. They found him a few hours later at a fishing hole.
“Warren’s family shared this story with us to reflect on the free spirit that Warren had. So they were not surprised at his calling to join the Marines and then to re-enlist,” Ross wrote. “Is it therefore, not a surprise to hear that he volunteered to take part in the rescue mission in Vietnam that cost him his life? ...
“We talked about being a mother and the void it leaves in your heart to lose a child,” Ross continued. “We shared a lot of laughs about risk-taking activities of young men.”
“We all feel like we connected and that Warren has brought us together,” Ross wrote. “The Schneider family has truly been a gift to me. Warren Schneider will always be my hero.”
“I think it was a little bit healing for all of us, and some closure,” Ross said.
Someone brought a bottle of wine. They drank a toast to Warren and their friendship.
“Mother was beaming at the end,” Carl said.
As the Rosses were leaving, Gladys asked Carl, “Do you think she’ll come back and see me?”
“I said, ‘You ask her,’ and she did,” Carl said.
Ross said yes.
As for the letters, Gladys didn’t read them, at least not right away. Carl said his mother placed them in her cedar chest, where she keeps treasured items.
Honor & remembrance
A ceremony honoring veterans buried at Emerald Grove Cemetery is held there each Memorial Day.
Rick and Carl both have attended.
It starts with the Pledge of Allegiance at Emerald Grove Congregational Church. Songs such as the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” are sung, Carl said.
Then they read the names of the dead buried there, about 125 of them, said Emerald Grove Cemetery Auxiliary member Jane Stevenson.
“It’s amazing how many are in that little cemetery,” Rick said.
(Stevenson, by the way, knew Warren. She gave him rides to school in Janesville.)
After the service, people cross Highway 14 to the cemetery, and children put flags and flowers on the veterans’ graves.
“It’s an awesome day,” Carl said. “A great day for the honoring of those people.”