Mary Jo Ferko was excited.
It was 1968. She was a fifth-grader at St. Lucy’s Catholic School in Racine, and she had been called out of class for a meeting in the office.
For more than a year, she and four of her classmates had been writing to U.S. Marine Harry Warren Schneider, who was fighting the war in Vietnam.
Schneider sent her kindly letters, and she felt she was connected to something big that was happening. The war in Vietnam was constantly in the news in those years.
“Today was my birthday. I am 19 years old now, although I don’t seem any older than yesterday,” he wrote to her on Nov. 21, 1968. “You know something? I don’t live very far from you. My hometown is Janesville.”
Mary Jo Ross, the woman that little girl grew up to become, said the letters were a big part of her life.
“He wasn’t just a pen pal. He represented our culture at the time. … I think it was that connection to what was going on in our world with the war and to know you really knew somebody that was right there and part of it, and he was going to tell you about it, that you were making a difference in someone’s life. … He always made it sound like our letter was the best thing happening to him, and I guess it was.
“It was on TV every night, and I would see that and think, that’s what Mr. Schneider is doing.”
So when young Mary Jo and the other four students were called to the office, she was thrilled because she expected to hear that Warren, as he asked her to call him, was going to meet them.
The students’ fourth-grade teacher, Mary Bany, arranged for the class to be pen pals with soldiers in Vietnam. Ross isn’t sure where she got the names and addresses.
“She was really a special teacher. She was a sweet lady. She was young, she was tender, loving. We were so lucky to have her,” Ross recalled.
Letters from Vietnam
The students wrote a prayer for Schneider, and he thanked them, writing: “Now I know for sure that someone is watching over us.”
In more than one letter, he asked her about snow—had it fallen yet? But he would never see snow again.
“Yesterday was Christmas,” he wrote on Dec. 26, 1966. “My friends and I sure enjoyed your present. Thank you very much. It wouldn’t of (sic) seemed like Christmas if it wasn’t for you and your friend, and also Miss Bany. You really made things bright for me this year.”
Maybe next year, he wrote, he could be home and make Christmas bright for her.
The Marine had died in a fierce battle on Feb. 16, 1968. That’s why the students were called out of class that day.
Ross can’t remember what was said, but the table where they sat in the office and the stunned looks on people’s faces are still fresh in her memory.
She was stunned. She walked home, two blocks away. When she entered her house, she burst into tears.
“I think it was the first time I was ever touched by death,” Ross said.
“I can’t imagine what his family was going through.”
The news came shortly after Valentine’s Day, so every year on that day, she thought about Warren, she said.
She kept four of Schneider’s letters through the years, as she became a nurse, married and had children. Her husband served in the Air Force, so she came to appreciate the sacrifice made by those in the military, she said.
“I was always looking for a way to find this guy’s family,” she said.
About 50 years after his death, she was in an art gallery in Egg Harbor operated by Janesville artist Connie Glowacki.
She overheard Connie’s husband, Mike Glowacki, mention Janesville, and it came back to her. She asked him to help find Warren’s relatives. Maybe they would like to have the letters.
Glowacki contacted Schneiders he knows but found no relatives, so he turned to The Gazette.
Killed in action
The news of 20-year-old Schneider’s death was on the front page of The Janesville Gazette on Feb. 23, 1968.
The short article said he was the son of James and Gladys Sabin Schneider of Milton-Shopiere Road and a 1965 graduate of Clinton High School.
The article listed brothers Carl of Elkhorn and three siblings at home, Diane, Donna and Richard.
The article had few details of what happened. But Schneider was posthumously awarded the Silver Star, the third-highest medal that can be awarded to a member of the military.
The citation was “for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action … in connection with combat operations against the enemy in the Republic of Vietnam.”
The citation goes on to describe the events of Feb. 16, 1968: Schneider was crew chief and gunner aboard a UH-1E “Huey” helicopter that was diverted to support the emergency extraction of an eight-man reconnaissance team.
The team “was heavily engaged with a numerically superior North Vietnamese Army force six miles northwest of Dong Ha.”
The battle was in an area known as the demilitarized zone, but at that time, the area separating north and south Vietnam was highly militarized, with U.S. Marines and North Vietnamese Army units in frequent battles.
“Arriving over the designated area, he expertly directed a heavy volume of machine gun fire on the enemy positions during repeated strafing runs in support of the extraction aircraft,” the citation reads.
“Although five Marines had been extracted, subsequent attempts to rescue the remaining men failed due to a heavy volume of ground fire, which had seriously damaged three helicopters.”
Schneider’s pilot volunteered to evacuate the remaining men.
Heavy fire made the pilot abort his first try, but he made a second run, with Schneider sending in heavy volumes of machine gun bullets from the air and after landing, “enabling the three Marines to embark. Lifting from the fire-swept site, his aircraft was struck by a burst of enemy fire and crashed, mortally wounding Cpl. Schneider.”
Honors and horrors
A posthumous Medal of Honor, three Navy Crosses, eight Silver Stars and two Bronze Stars were awarded to participants in the battle, according to an article published by Quad Cities Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 299.
A major source for that article was Frank Perez, now of Moline, Illinois, one of the Marines sent to help with the extraction.
Perez told The Gazette he had just returned to his base from a mission when he saw gunships firing tracers into the jungle a few miles away.
Minutes later, his unit was sent into the fray, dropped into high grass by a Chinook helicopter.
Perez remembered 50-year-old details like they happened yesterday. They walked through the grass in the dark toward the action until they saw shadowy figures on the trail ahead of them.
They called out, “Recon?” and heard Vietnamese.
His lieutenant threw a grenade, and he saw bodies flying.
That started an intense battle that continued much of the night.
His unit retreated to a hilltop, where later that confusing and fear-filled night he was fired on by both sides.
That morning, Perez’s unit helped retrieve the dead and wounded. He remembers blowing up Schneider’s crashed Huey to keep it from being salvaged by the enemy.
Asked what he thought of those men who flew into the gunfire to rescue other Marines, Perez said, “They’re nuts!”
The Hueys were like tin cans used for target practice, and one bullet in the right place could bring them down, Perez said.
However, “It was the right thing to do. It was the only thing to do,” Perez said. “If you were in a situation like that, you would just pray that someone would come out to give you a hand. …
“The guys that didn’t come home are the ones we need to thank and never forget.”
Mary Jo Ross will never forget. As she looked over the letters last week, it occurred to her that Schneider’s DNA was on those pages.
“That’s kind of neat to think, you know—he touched this. …
“Warren passed away at such a young age. His family should be so proud of him.”