Dr. Robert Czincila walks with World War II veterans and pushes one in a wheelchair.
Einstein Medical Center Montgomery

Einstein Doctor Watches Over Veterans in Return to Pearl Harbor

By on 12/14/2021

Richard Schimmel was a 19-year-old Army radar operator, stationed overlooking Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, early on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, when the crew began picking up signals of planes coming toward the base.

A young lieutenant and other officers dismissed the warning, says Schimmel, 99, an Allentown, Pa., resident and native. “They said, ‘Don’t worry about it.” The officers thought the planes were American B-17s expected to arrive  from the mainland.

But soon after, the attack on Pearl Harbor began.

“We saw the airplanes flying,” Schimmel says. “But then all of a sudden, maybe 10, 15 seconds later, you wouldn’t see anything but a big puff of smoke.”

The radar operators’ warning was disregarded that day. But last week, on the 80th anniversary of the attack, Schimmel was in a place of honor, along with other World War II veterans, in ceremonies at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii.

One Doctor and 14 Nonagenarians

An Einstein doctor, Robert Czincila, DO, Chief of Emergency Medicine at Einstein Medical Center Montgomery, provided medical oversight for Schimmel and others in a group of 14 veterans, ages 94 to 99, organized by the Memphis-based nonprofit Forever Young Veterans.

“It was very impressive,” Schimmel says about the anniversary ceremony and parade, in which he and the others were grand marshals. “I think it’s nice that they remember the servicemen.”

Schimmel and two other World War II veterans from the Delaware Valley went on the trip. Dr. Czincila first got to know the Forever Young Veterans group after a chance meeting last May and said he would love to accompany them on a future trip.

Going with the group to Pearl Harbor was “an amazing experience, certainly once in a lifetime,” he says. “There was a lot of history, a lot of important moments.”

Support, But No Crises

Fortunately, the trip didn’t have any medical crises. But just in case, there’s always a doctor and usually a nurse on each of the trips that Forever Young Veterans organizes to battle sites, says Founder and President Diane Hight.

“They’re with us so if any problems arise, they can assess them and determine if they can help them or if they need to go to a hospital,” she says. “Most of their issues are little things. But we are very fortunate. We have not had any major issues on all these trips.”

To make sure they have all the help they need, each person also brings a companion, Hight says. Forever Young Veterans pays all expenses from donations, she says. “We think our veterans have given enough.”

Dr. Czincila remembers one moment on the trip when he was needed, not so much for his medical expertise but for another kind of support at the Pearl Harbor anniversary ceremonies.

“One gentleman wanted me to go with him to help him stand when it was time for the National Anthem and for various parts of the ceremony,” he says.

“The folks that were running the ceremony told them to stand only if you’re able, but these guys are of the Greatest Generation and they’re stubborn and they’re stoic and they’re going to do what they want to do.”

Sightseeing and Storytelling

The packed agenda for the weeklong trip included a 97th birthday party for one veteran and tours of various museums, island sites and the historic battleship Missouri.

But what Schimmel and Dr. Czincila both enjoyed most was the chance to talk and listen to stories.

“I think meeting all these old servicemen was the best,” Schimmel says. “We were from all the branches in the Army and the Navy and the Air Force.” People on the trip had been stationed in Okinawa, Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal and even in Europe.

“I could talk for hours on end about the things that they shared,” Dr. Czincila says.

He recalled one man who was able to lay flower petals in the water in memory of his two brothers, who died on the USS Arizona in the Pearl Harbor attack. Another man talked about tracking down an old buddy, finding out he had died, but becoming so close to the man’s daughters that they consider him an uncle.

Mark Schimmel, Richard Schimmel’s grandson, said it was “a morale boost” to have Dr. Czincila on the trip. “We all interacted and became one big family.”

Enabling these conversations between veterans from the same war, people who understand each other, is a major reason for the trips, Hight says.

“What we hear all the time is ‘I’ve never told anyone this before,'” she says. “Often they won’t talk to family members because they don’t want to burden them. But when they’re with other men, they talk a lot. And that’s where we start seeing a lot of healing take place in their lives.”

From Allentown to Pearl Harbor and Back

A child of the Depression, Schimmel remembers constantly moving to new lodgings when his family couldn’t pay the rent. He joined the Army in 1940, before the war, to get away from home and see the world.

He was overjoyed to get sent to a scenic, warm spot like Hawaii and learn to operate radar, a relatively new technology at the time. But then the bombs fell.

Schimmel remembers all of the generals, admirals and even a Supreme Court justice who showed up at Pearl Harbor later, investigating why the Americans were not prepared for the attack.

He finished the war at various islands in the Pacific, then came home, sold appliances for Sears Roebuck, and raised a family in Allentown.

Grandson Mark Schimmel said he got “all choked up” to see the veterans honored. “It’s just nice that they finally get the recognition that they deserve.”

Photo caption: Dr. Czincila pushes a wheelchair and walks with other veterans in Hawaii.

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