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Capt. John Schley: Three wars fought with valiance

By Staff | Mar 20, 2009

Capt. John B. Schley

In March of 1941 the USS Rhind steamed out into the Atlantic on an extended tour of duty. Aboard the destroyer was newly commissioned Ensign John Schley. Ensign Schley was also a newlywed. For the next three years USS Rhind was involved in all actions in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy.

John B. Schley is a fifth-generation Shepherdstonian. His great-grandfather (times five), John T. Schley was an original settler of Frederick, Md., when he led a group of German immigrants into western Maryland. The Schleys lived there until 1835 when great, great-grandfather John Schley married, Ida Towner and moved to Shepherdstown. Rockland was on the Verdier Plantation. Built in 1791, the magnificent Victorian was built in 1791, and by the mid 1800s was the Towner family home. The newlyweds moved in and the historic showplace became known as Schley Farm, home to the next four generations of Schleys.

Benjamin Harrison, John’s great-grandfather started Jefferson Security Bank from his family home at the corner of Church and German Streets. Eventually his grandson, John’s father, Harrison Schley became CEO of the bank. Harrison and Molly Schley had four children. There was Mary, Benjamin Harrison, Becky and the baby, John. The Schleys lived in a big blue and white colonial that sat on three acres in High Street.

Young John graduated from Shepherd College with a degree in economics before going into the Navy Program at North Western University in Chicago. At the age of 22 he was commissioned as an Ensign in the United States Navy, eight months before the United States entered World War II.

In 1941, John was in love with Jean Snyder. Jean lived in that great home that used to house the Bank at the corner of Church and German streets. John had to request permission to marry Jean but not from Jean’s father – from the Navy. This was military law. The Navy approved and John and Jean were married. Then, the groom went off to war.

In September 1943, in the first weeks of the Allied campaign to liberate Italy, an Anglo-American invasion force of over 80,000 men landed on the beaches of Salerno, and was nearly beaten back into the sea by the Germans in an historically ferocious 10-day battle. Some say that the Salerno beachhead changed the course of the campaign. The USS Rhind was in the thick of it. “The fighting in Italy was worse than Normandy,” recalled John.

John was assigned to the Rhind until 1944 when, at 24, he was sent to the Pacific as the youngest Commander in the Navy. Commander of the USS Stringham. The next two years the Stringham was involved in battles in Saipan, Tinian, Angar, Pelelieu, and Okinawa, sneaking close to shore in the dead of night sending troops ashore in rubber boats. The USS Stringham received commendations for The Bismarck Archipelago Operation, The Saidor Occupation, The Marianas Operation, The Capture and Occupation of Southern Palau, and The Occupation of Okinawa. Historians have written “Operating over a long period of time from the Capture of Guadalcanal through the Occupation of Okinawa, the U.S.S. Stringham made repeated landings in assault and in support of the landing forces, thereby contributing greatly to the decisive victory achieved. Her courageous determination and effort were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”

From the Stringham, John commanded the USS E.A. Green and went to the Mediterranean. After an assignment at Navy headquarters in Washington D.C. he was again in the Mediterranean commanding the CSS Rodman. This time in the Korean “Police Action.”

In 1952 he was on dry land in Washington D.C. at the Bureau of Naval Personnel selecting the “best and the brightest” officers to further the US mission. During the next five years, John Schley took another Med Cruise as commander of the USS Stickell, made Captain and was sent to Norway assigned to the staff of the Commander of the Allied Forces in Northern Europe to take charge of long-range war plans. You would think that active duty in two wars would be all anyone could stand. Not so Captain Schley. By 1960 he was steaming through the Mediterranean again, this time as Commander of a five-ship destroyer division. Now, in my opinion here comes the scariest assignment of all. Throughout 1962 and in 1963, Captain Schley was the Commander of USS Mount Katmai cruising around the South Pacific and off the coast of Vietnam. The USS Mount Katmai was a large ammunitions ship. This means, no matter how you say it, for well more than a year the Captain and his crew lived aboard a floating bomb.

John Schley is a soft spoken gentleman who underplays his history and bravery. And he certainly doesn’t exaggerate war stories. Accounts of the horrific battles in all three wars in which he fought are well documented in history books. John did however admit, “The ships I was on were under attack on a number of occasions and we did suffer casualties from time to time.”

John returned to the States in the summer of 1963 and was assigned to the Pentagon with a duty of testifying before Congress to make the Navy’s case for more funds and better supplies for the troops. In 1966 he began his last tour of duty as Base Commander at the Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Va.

In 1970, John retired and he and Jean returned to Shepherdstown. Just off Shepherds Grade Road, high on a hill, surrounded by 150 acres of farmland sat “Windward.” This 1800s brick colonial with sweeping vistas, party-friendly rooms and six fireplaces was, with some nautical renovations, a perfect place for the war hero and his Navy wife to live – and live they did.

“We entertained all the time,” recalled John with a smile. “Our home was always full of people.” Jean and John had been away for so long and now was their time to enjoy their family, their friends and each other. While John was at Sea, Jean had followed him and kept the home fires burning in many places, San Francisco among them. She also received awards from the Navy for going above and beyond in her support efforts. Their children, William and Betsy, became well-traveled at a very early age. Today William lives in Shepherdstown and Betsy and her family live in Woodbridge, Va. John has one grandchild, the beautiful Susan Slepetz.

Jean had studied at the Cordon Bleu and was a great cook. Despite her exalted culinary skills, her husband admits that beef stew – not Bourguignon – was his favorite dish. Between days of entertaining, cooking, golf, tennis and just enjoying being home and a family, John served on the planning and Zoning Commission and the Board of Appeals. He was a member of the Board of Managers at Jefferson Memorial Hospital, charter member and president of Jefferson County Historic Landmarks commission, board member of the Jefferson County Historical Society and board member of Historic Shepherdstown Commission and Chef de Gare of 40&8 Voiture 1358 and was a Meals on Wheels volunteer.

Jean Schley was a genius with flowers. Her gardens were magnificent and she spent years working with Keith Knost the Shepherdstown designer extraordinaire still spoken of with reverence for his talent. “Jean, Wanda Perry, and Mary Eleanor Huyett always did the floral designs for Keith’s table setting programs. Jean had the best sense of humor and so many talents,” said friend and designer Ann Wayt. “Jean was one of Keith’s best friends.”

The Schleys spent their final years together in peace, beauty, and fun in their “hometown.”

They moved to a house in the woods near Morgan Grove Park in the early 1980s. Jean died in 2000. Today, though, John is busy, surrounded by friends, and enjoying life, he unabashedly misses Jean, and his “best friend” Henry Shepherd.

I’ve never met anyone – anyone – who served our country in three historic wars of the 20th century. John speaks of those 30 years with great humility though it’s clear he loves the Navy. At two points in our conversation, John smiled and said “You have got to be so bored by all of this.” Publicly I say to that “John, YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING!” John Schley, Shepherdstown boy, you’re one in a million and it was an honor to talk with you.

– Sue Kennedy is a former public relations executive and Emmy Award winning screenplay writer.