On May 9, 1962, Daniel Schmidt died on an operating table at Fort Miley Veteran’s Hospital in San Francisco. The former airman, only 31, expired as doctors performed open heart surgery.
More than 33,000 Americans had died in the Korean War and Schmidt, who survived the conflict, may have been its final victim.
On the bone-freezing night of January 15, 1953, Stardust 40, a B-57 from the 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron, flew 22,000 feet over western Korea. Its official mission was to drop propaganda leaflets, but the flight carried some top brass, including Colonel John Knox Arnold, Jr. and Major William H. Baumer. One of the lesser-important crew members was Airman 1st Class Daniel C. Schmidt, listed in the official records as an “aircraft observer” from Portland, Oregon.
As Stardust 40 ended its mission and turned to head home, 12 Russian MIG-15 jet fighters swept out of the sky in a surprise attack. Heavy anti-aircraft fire from the ground shook the American plane. Surrounded by the MIGs, and taking ground fire, Stardust 40 had no chance. The battle was brief—after three engines caught fire, the crew bailed out.
The fourteen flyers landed in the Korean country-side. Eleven were soon rounded up and transferred to China, while three were never found.
Back home, Daniel Schmidt’s pretty red-haired wife, Una, was informed that the plane had gone down. She said she received notice from the air force that all the airmen were missing and presumed dead. Two months later a son, Danny Walter Schmidt, was born.
In Apollo’s Warriors: The United States Air Force Special Operations during the Cold War, Michael E. Haas writes of the ordeal suffered by the airmen: “Kept handcuffed and chained in solitary confinement for months, the [Stardust 40] crewmen underwent grueling mental and physical torture. Eighteen months after their internment and a year after the war was over, the Chinese broke their silence to announce the forthcoming trial on the charges of germ warfare. In October, 1954, the crewmen were put through a highly publicized propaganda trial before a Chinese military tribunal and—surprise—found guilty.” Each was sentenced to long prison terms.
Then, on August 4, 1955, the crewmen were released, in exchange for Chinese scientists held by the United States.
By then, Una had remarried. “I thought Danny was dead,” she told reporters. “I intend to meet my husband when he arrives from overseas. We have a great deal to discuss, including the future of our son.” Una moved out of the trailer she shared with her new husband, Alford Fine, and went into seclusion. She hired an attorney to help her sort out the “nuptial tangle,” as the newspapers termed it.
Shortly after marrying her new husband, Una had learned that Daniel was still alive in a “red Chinese” prison. She corresponded with him, and even sent pictures of Danny, Jr. But she never informed him about Alford. “I figured [Daniel had] gone through enough hell without me putting a little more on him,” she said.
After Schmidt returned back to the states, he refused to meet with Una. Deeply hurt at what he perceived as her betrayal, he flatly rejected any attempt at reconciliation. He did state, however, that he would seek custody of their son. For several weeks, lawyers for both Daniel and Una used the news media to publicize their own version of events.
Finally, Schmidt’s mother spoke with her son and persuaded him to meet Una. Once Daniel saw his bride, all bitterness was forgotten. On August 25, the Associated Press reported that “a surprise reconciliation put Airman Daniel Schmidt and his wife Una on a belated honeymoon Thursday and wiped out his plans for a divorce…They promptly went into seclusion and were reported to be at an Oregon beach.”
Since Una had never annulled the marriage, the two were still legally bound.
Alford Fine, called the “forgotten man” by reporters, hitched his trailer home to his car and drove off into the sunset. His grief must not have lasted long, since five months later he married again. Then the jilted second husband faded from history.
The glow on the rekindled Schmidt marriage soon wore off. Daniel and Una divorced, and both remarried.
The star-crossed couple led anonymous lives until 1962, when newspapers reported that Daniel had died. He’d never recuperated from the torture inflicted by the Chinese, or from the crushing blow of finding his wife had remarried during his forced absence.
Like her second husband, Una faded into obscurity.
Throughout the ordeal, newspapers referred to the poem, “Enoch Arden,” written by Lord Alfred Tennyson. The poem related the story of a shipwrecked sailor who returned home 10 years later, only to find that his wife had remarried. Like Daniel C. Schmidt, Enoch Arden also came to a tragic end.
Mr. Schmidt died on the operating table in 1962 during open heart surgery.
The top 5 of The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. Front row (L-R) Doc Severinsen, Johnny, and Ed. Tonight Show director, Bobby Quinn (rear left) and executive producer, Fred De Cordova. Photo was taken 12-14-84.