Surrounded by his wife and children, Col. Norman Schmidt celebrated his 40th birthday in the summer of 1966. After 20 years as a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force, retirement was finally near.
With the end in sight, Schmidt’s command offered him a choice. He could fly 100 final missions in Vietnam or take a desk job at the Pentagon.
For a career pilot, the choice was easy.
“He didn’t want to work in the Pentagon,” said Janet Zupan, the colonel’s third child, who was 11 at the time. “His real love was flying that plane.”
Schmidt’s decision to fly a few last missions came as difficult news for his wife, Marie. But the family accepted it and began the countdown to his retirement.
With the deployment near, Schmidt raced to make some final home repairs. He mended the fence in the corral and laid a Spanish tile floor. Then he packed his bags and left for Vietnam. Letters home would follow in superb penmanship.
“You were right,” Schmidt wrote in one letter to his wife. “I’m getting too old for this nonsense.”
Schmidt’s last letter is dated Aug. 31, 1966. Flying over North Vietnam a day later, his F-104 Starfighter came under fire from a well-hidden anti-aircraft battery. He ejected before the crash and deployed his parachute.
Schmidt survived the landing, but the Viet Cong found him before his would-be rescuers arrived. He would spend the next 364 days imprisoned at the Hoa Lo Prison – the infamous Hanoi Hilton – where he died at the hands of his captors.
“We just kept waiting for him to come back,” said Zupan, thinking back on her childhood. “It just blends together. Waiting eight years for somebody, you’re just in a bubble holding your breath.”
The U.S. military counted 58,220 casualties in the Vietnam War.
Zupan sits at the table in her Missoula home. It’s decorated with the trappings of a writer – a poster of James Welch on the wall and her husband’s latest novel translated to German and French.
Life has gone on, though the memories of her father remain frozen in time. His picture hangs in every room. He stands by his F-104 in the kitchen. An etching with his name taken off the Vietnam Wall hangs in the dining room.
“When we were in Taiwan, my dad learned one of the island dialects and moved us up into the mountains of Beitou instead of us living on the Air Force base,” Zupan said. “He wanted us to experience the culture, and he had a particular love for the Asian culture.”
The family lived across the street from a Taiwanese compound. They shared conversations with the locals and explored the cuisine, most of it foreign and somewhat frightening to a younger Zupan.
Down on the coast when time allowed, Schmidt built a sailboat with local craftsmen. Zupan remembered the speedy 30-footer and how it plied the warm waters off the coast of Taiwan.
“We’d go out to the islands and he’d barter for the big glass balls the fishermen used,” Zupan said. “We were always right there with him. I remember a childhood just adoring him and wanting to be like him.”
Schmidt’s strong family ties were understandable. He lost his own father to a traffic accident when he was 8 years old. His brother later died in a Navy flight-training accident off the Florida coast.
So when Schmidt met Marie in high school, it would become an arrangement for life. He left for flight training at Connelly Air Force Base in Texas, and when he returned in 1951, the couple was married. Five children followed and his military career blossomed.
“We were supposed to go on to Germany, but then the Vietnam conflict started up,” Zupan said. “His first tour there lasted four months and then he came home. He was almost 20 years in, and I still remember his 40th birthday.”
Zupan rode her bike through the Mojave Desert on Sept. 1, 1966. When she arrived home from her piano lesson, she realized something was wrong.
Her older sister, Kathryn, cleaned the house at a feverish pace and she pleaded with Zupan to help. The military men in the dark blue car had already stopped by with the news: Their father was missing in North Vietnam.
“My mother was at her school getting ready for the students to return to class,” Zupan said. “So they broke the news to my sister. She was 14 or 15 at the time. She was the only one home.”
The next 40 minutes passed in a blur as the Air Force family descended on the home. One family took Zupan into its care. Another took her sister. The youngest child, 3-year-old Johanna, stayed with her mother.
They were assured their father was still alive.
“There’d been warning signals from his plane,” Zupan said. “It had exploded, but someone heard the signals as he parachuted down. There was an immediate rescue mission. One of the other pilots was killed in the process.”
That pilot’s name was Maj. Hubert Nicholas Jr.
Schmidt’s last letter details what likely took place. The three-page dispatch addressed his wife as “Lover” and described his flight across the demilitarized zone in search of a North Vietnamese ammo dump.
Unable to find the primary target due to clouds, the pilots delivered their payload over a strategic stretch of road. But then the clouds cleared. With their remaining armament, Schmidt and his team destroyed the stockpile they’d been seeking.
“I’ve never seen an ammo dump go up before, but we spent 20 minutes making passes and it looked like the Fourth of July at the fairgrounds,” Schmidt wrote. “You wouldn’t believe that cool green stretch of jungle could turn into such a hell.”
It was gratifying, Schmidt added, to hamper the enemy’s war-fighting ability. The action would surely be a loss to the North.
“Today marked the first time I’ve had any real feeling of accomplishment in this war and it all happened so accidentally and suddenly that it seems like part of a James Jones novel,” Schmidt concluded. “Hate to be happy about anything connected with the operation, but …”
Schmidt was shot down the next day when he returned to finish off the stockpile. Not knowing his fate, the passing years would test the family’s resolve. They stayed close to the television hoping to catch a glimpse of their father in a grainy North Vietnamese propaganda film.
One night, they were certain they saw him.
“There was this camera shot of this face, and my father had these incredibly heavy eyebrows,” Zupan said. “There was this person, out of focus, but looking at his eyebrows, we were sure it was him.”
If it was, it would be the last time Zupan would see her father alive.
Signed in 1973, the Paris Peace Accords brought an end to America’s involvement in the war. The U.S. pulled its troops from Vietnam. In exchange, North Vietnam released 591 American war prisoners, of the 1,350 the U.S. government listed as prisoners of war.
As the men returned home to tell the story, the family finally received news of their father’s fate at the Hanoi Hilton. As Zupan learned, the guards enforced a no-communication policy between prisoners. But one day, her father was caught looking through a crack in the prison wall.
Schmidt was stocked to a bed for 10 days – punishment for violating prison rules. His interrogation would follow in another room. The other prisoners listened to his beating and torture at the hands of a guard they called “Greasy.”
It would ultimately lead to Schmidt’s death.
“I think he felt it was his duty as the ranking officer to check on people to make sure they were healthy,” Zupan said. “When the prisoners came home, they shared a lot. My father had been dead for seven years by that point, but I think my mom knew before that.”
The loss of their father would have a lasting effect on the family. Kathryn expressed her loss through art. Zupan did the same through writing. She struggled during her younger years. She talked too much about her father. She dwelled on his death.
When the Abu Ghraib scandal broke in 2003 during the Iraq War, Zupan was deeply offended. Sen. John McCain, who spent time as a POW after his jet was shot down in 1967, would also voice his disdain.
McCain was held at the Hoa Lo Prison for the last two months of Schmidt’s life.
“I was shaking physically – Abu Ghraib hit me so personally,” Zupan said. “What I remember about my dad, as an American you had certain values, and one of them was you never torture because we’re an example to the world. That was a rough year for me.”
But Zupan has learned to let go. It’s something she describes as wisdom. She still sees her father through the lens of an 11-year-old girl and his letters remain bound in leather.
They sit within easy reach, and she turns the pages with care.
“I have this delight in the person he was because I just didn’t know any better,” she said. “Up until I was 40, I could find the letters he wrote when he was 27, and I would read the letters, and it was like we’re both 27. It was phenomenal that he gave that to me because of all those letters.”