A tale of two family reunions Hoboken war vet remembered in ‘Whispers from an Empty Coffin’

It was the week before Father’s Day, 1999 and World War II Veteran Donald Schuman, as part of his daily routine, was comfortably sitting on his favorite bench in front of Hoboken City Hall. That morning, a car pulled up to the curb and the door flew open. Out walked Edmund Schuman, who stepped out onto the sidewalk and shouted “Hey pop! It’s me, Eddie Don.” The two hugged and the tears began to flow. They recognized each other immediately, even though they hadn’t seen each other in more than 50 years. This was a second tearful reunion in the amazing life of Donald Schuman, as told in Kathleen Belfiore Schuman’s newly released book ‘Whispers from an Empty Coffin’ (Trafford Publishing).

Family told he’s dead

Schuman, who grew up in White Lake, S.D., joined the Army before his 21st birthday. In June of 1944, Schuman was part of the D-Day invasion of Omaha Beach on the French coast.

As the summer wore on and the fall approached, the Army’s 778th Tank Battalion, of which Schuman was a member, trekked across the French countryside, pressing on toward the German border. Schuman was the commander of five tanks in the battalion.

Then on Nov. 30, near the town of Saarbrucken, just over the German border, his unit came under fierce attack. Five soldiers in Schuman’s tank were killed in the attack, and Schuman narrowly escaped by climbing through the exit hatch. Over 40 percent of his body suffered second degree burns.

“As the sole survivor of the tank, he laid there, falling in an out of consciousness,” reads the book. Then, Schuman became a prisoner of war.

“Nazi soldiers marched Donald into an enemy hospital in Saarlautern, Germany, with his hands cuffed behind him and machine gun to his back,” the book says. “If he fell, the enemy would drag him along the ground and kick him, showing little mercy for Donald or his obvious shock, pain, trauma and fears.”

As a POW he experienced almost unbearable horrors. During the attack a piece of shrapnel injured his left eye. The Nazi doctors weren’t at all sympathetic to his pain.

“Arriving at the hospital, Donald laid on a worn-torn gurney in the hall waiting for someone, anyone, to give him something to ease his pain, but that never happened,” the book reads. “Instead, two days later, enemy doctors physically restrained Donald, and without administering a drop of pain medication or sedation, they pulled his eyeball out, ran a magnet over it to remove the shrapnel, and then snapped Donald’s eyeball back into socket ‘like a rubber band,’ leaving him permanently blind in his left eye.”

During his time at that notorious Stalag 9B, he suffered malnutrition, regular beatings, and disease. While in captivity he almost died of Scarlet Fever and dysentery.

What once was a sturdy 190-pound frame had shriveled to an emaciated 120 pounds.

In captivity

While Schuman was in captivity, the Army sent his parents a letter, signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt, saying that he had perished in battle on Nov. 30, 1944.

After receiving the letter, his family wrote an obituary, bought a headstone, and had a funeral in South Dakota. The plot and the headstone are still in a White Lake cemetery.

“They prepared a mass service for their beloved son because they did not have his body to bury…only whispers from an empty coffin,” reads the book.

But on the day before family and friends were to attend the Schuman mass service in White Lake, the Schuman family received a Western Union Telegram from Washington. To their astonishment, the telegram was informing them that Schuman was alive and returned to military control.

The military flew Schuman to a hospital in Birmingham, England, where he spent the next eight weeks receiving additional medical treatment. The doctors there had to stretch his stomach back into shape.

While in London, he reconnected with a Woman’s Army Corps member named Muriel, whom he had met during his training at Camp Polk, La. and was then stationed outside of London. After a brief courtship, the two married at the Church of St. James in England.

When they returned to the United States, he hopped a train and was met in Mitchell, S.D. by his mother and father and a group of neighbors and friends, who rushed to hug him and welcome him home.

Soon afterward, his father remarked that he was “the luckiest dead man” he had ever seen, Schuman told the Reporter during a 2003 interview.

This was the first of Schuman’s tearful reunions.

Back in the U.S.

Donald and Muriel had four children together, Edmund (“Eddie Don”), Richard, Robert and Donna Marie. They settled down in Florida.

But Muriel and Donald didn’t have a fairytale relationship. Shortly after the birth of their youngest daughter, Muriel filed for divorce. She also gained custody of their children.

After he was honorably discharged from the Army in the 1950s, Schuman took up painting as a trade in Florida and Havana, Cuba. While working for Shell Oil in Cuba, his ex-wife took the kids and left Florida.

“Donald searched everywhere he thought they could have gone, to no avail. Neighbors, family, and friends could not (or would not) give Donald any information as to the whereabouts of his children. They as simply vanished.” Schulman returned to Cuba, and eventually married a woman named Zoraida about 50 years ago in Miami.

In 1957, the couple moved to Hoboken so that Zoraida could be closer to her sister. In Hoboken, Schuman started up his own painting business while Zoraida worked at the Tootsie Roll factory on Willow Avenue making 50 cents an hour.

They spent the past 40 years in Hoboken raising their family, which consists of three children and six grandchildren.

Meanwhile, Donald’s first wife had moved to Detroit and then back to Florida.

A genealogy project

In 1997, Kathleen Belfiore Schuman, the wife of Edmund Schuman, began an ambitious genealogy project. They were told by Edmund’s mother that his father was dead. “Ed mentioned repeatedly over the course of our marriage that before he died, he wanted to find where his dad was buried,” the book reads. “He wanted, or perhaps needed, to pay his respects and get closure in that chapter of his life.”

After a call with the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, Kathleen discovered the truth about Edmunds’s father. “That veteran isn’t dead, he’s very much alive,” the Veteran’s Service officer told her.

After some additional research, they found that Donald Schuman was living in Hoboken.

Then, just before Father’s Day 1999, Ed and his father met for the first time in a half a century.

The two quickly reconnected, and they visited about six times a year until Donald’s death on Feb. 20, 2005.

The viewing was attended by Mayor David Roberts, other city officials, and most of the city’s veterans. As the hearse drove down Washington Street towards the Brigadier General William C. Doyle Memorial Cemetery in Wrightstown N.J., it briefly stopped in front of Hoboken City Hall and Schuman’s bench as a final salute.

On April 25, 2005, Roberts and City Clerk James Farina organized a special ceremony to unveil a plaque that dedicates the bench to Schuman.

A copy of ‘Whispers from an Empty Coffin’ can be purchased at www.trafford.com.


© 2000, Newspaper Media Group