The Smiling Soldier: World War II Veteran Reflects on His Service

“It’s better to let go with a smile than to hold on with tears.”
—Geraldine Romero

Joe Schaefer has the kind of smile that when you see it, you feel the corners of your own mouth turning up.

Schaefer is a World War II Veteran. He served with the 92nd Field Artillery and 2nd Armored Division. This former door-to-door produce salesman punctuates the end of a sentence with a giggle when he tells the story of how he sprained his ankle playing softball just weeks before D-Day.

” I got injured in a softball game running to first base,” Schaefer said from his living room couch.

Sidelined for D-Day

A bad ankle tear required a cast, and while this 22-year-old begged to take part in the Normandy Invasion, doctors kept him away from the battlefield for two months. In an odd turn of events, a pop fly and an ankle cast kept him from storming the beaches and might have saved his life.

“All of the paratroopers were coming back from the war and they’d say, ‘What happened to you?’” Schaefer said with a chuckle. “ I said, ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’”

During the Battle of the Bulge, Cpl. Schaefer drove what’s called a “half track,” akin to a tank-truck hybrid. Upon the war’s conclusion, he drove one before the Big 3 — Churchill, Stalin and Truman — during the Potsdam Conference in Germany.

Not All Smiles

Schaefer is legally blind from macular degeneration but still enjoys viewing old photos. It’s difficult even with special low-vision equipment. Despite his disability, this smiling soldier still finds joy in photos from England, Africa and Germany. But there’s one memory that wipes the smile from even Schaefer’s face: the death of his brother, Paul.

“He was killed in Europe,” Schaefer said. “He was younger and they sent him over there, and he was killed four days before the war ended.”

Paul Schaefer was 22. He never made it home from the war but memories still bring a familiar expression to Joe’s face — a smile.

Paul served his country, and now, perhaps, his brother gets to carry his smile.

Story by Sarah Hill and Photojournalist Scott Schaefer