GEORGETOWN — In October 1944, a hunk of flying shrapnel ripped into the left side of Joseph Schmidt's chest during the height of World War II fighting to liberate the Philippine island of Leyte from Japanese control.
The wound was so serious that doctors wanted to send Schmidt back home to the United States. He didn't want to go.
"I requested to stay with my unit," Schmidt said. And he did, eventually returning to duty after his wound healed.
On Monday, Schmidt, 89, who achieved the rank of second lieutenant, received the Purple Heart for the wound he suffered 67 years ago. U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler presented the medal during a brief ceremony at the Scott County Courthouse as Scott County Judge-Executive George Lusby, Georgetown Mayor Everett Varney and some of Schmidt's friends looked on.
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"It's always nice to be in the presence of a hero," Chandler said.
Schmidt took all the attention in stride, but he then showed he's as plucky now as he was in the war. He scolded Chandler, and Congress, complaining that some in Washington might want to cut veterans' benefits to save money.
"If it wasn't for someone like us, that fought in World War II, where would you be now?" Schmidt asked.
Chandler replied that there wouldn't be any cuts "if I have anything to say about it."
Schmidt, who has lived in Kentucky since 1960, grew up in Tampa, Fla. He enlisted in the Army in November 1940, more than a year before war broke out, and he became an aerial spotter for the 465th Field Artillery Battalion.
His job was to pilot a tiny Piper Cub, flying low and slow, to direct artillery fire onto enemy units below. That made him a target too.
"I came back several times with bullet holes in the wings," he said.
Schmidt had just landed after one such mission when he was wounded, only three days after U.S. forces invaded Leyte. That should have qualified him for the Purple Heart. But for some reason — "paperwork," he said — he never got the decoration until now.
Chandler also presented Schmidt with more than a dozen other medals that his military service entitled him to.
In addition to his time in Leyte, Schmidt served in the Philippines and New Guinea. He remained in the Army after the war, eventually seeing service as a military adviser in Korea and Germany. The Army sent him to Frankfort in 1960 as an adviser to the Kentucky National Guard, and he settled in Georgetown, where he met his wife, Dorothy. He put away his uniform after 22 years of service, then he worked at the Blue Grass Army Depot for about 17 years before retiring.
Like many veterans, Schmidt doesn't talk a lot about his war wound.
"A piece of shrapnel hit me; that was it," he said simply.
But he doesn't hesitate to speak up for veterans.
"There's not many of us left," he said.