More than 300 people, most of them strangers to each other, showed up at Arlington National Cemetery on February 23, 2023, to ensure that U.S. Navy Gunner’s Mate 3rd Class (GM3) Herman Schmidt would not be buried alone.
Service members from every military branch attended, as well as Arlington police and firefighters, young people from the Civil Air Patrol, and civilians—some wearing veteran baseball caps or leather vests with unit patches. All attended to pay last respects to the World War II veteran from the battleship USS Oklahoma, which capsized during the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Many brought a single rose or a bouquet of flowers.
Schmidt died, along with 429 shipmates, after Japanese torpedoes capsized the battleship. Originally from Sheridan, Wyoming, Schmidt, a husband and father of a newborn son, had served in the Navy for at least four years before his death. Initially buried as an unknown at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii, his remains were eventually identified as part of a 2015 Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency project to identify all of the Oklahoma’s crew.
Schmidt’s son, now more than 80 years old, lives in Wyoming; the only relative who could attend the funeral service was his great nephew, Gary Bishop, and his wife. Navy Chaplain (LCDR) Robert Price, who would conduct the service, put out a notice to his church for anyone to attend. The word spread from there. Veteran and patriotic groups sent out emails. More and more people learned about the World War II veteran’s service and decided to attend. And they came in droves.
Army Lt. Col. Melanie Rowland found out about the service from a West Point Society email, and attended with her husband, Navy Capt. Roy Apseloff. “I thought it was very fitting that we honored a brother in arms who is going to be laid to rest,” Rowland said, adding that the outpouring from the public “restored my hope in this country.” Retired Air Force Master Sgt. Dan Kolcun learned about the service from his American Legion Riders’ group. “I had the impression that there was going to be maybe one or two people here,” he explained.
Kimberly Agnello, a civilian, was contacted by her local Daughters of the American Revolution chapter. “They were calling on the daughters to come out and support a patriot,” she said. “I was also intrigued that they were able to identify his remains after all these years and finally put him to rest and let his family know,” she added as she teared up. “That was really special.” Standing next to Agnello was her friend Mea Peterson, who had been injured in Iraq while serving as an Army sergeant. “I understand what that support means to the family,” she said, “as I’ve been here in this situation before with other friends.” Her voice broke as she finished her sentence.
Schmidt’s great nephew, Gary Bishop, admitted to being astonished by the crowd. “I didn’t know if there would be six people here,” he remarked.
At the funeral service, Chaplain Price asked the crowd why they had all come. Then he answered his own question: “We are here today because we are a people who do not forget those who have stood the watch and have sacrificed for us.” Then he turned to the urn holding Schmidt’s ashes and declared, “Welcome home GM3 Schmidt. Fair winds and following seas, you stand relieved. We have the watch!” He could have been speaking for everyone in attendance.