Asked to start his story, Smith goes back more than 75 years, far from his home in Radnor Township, to his childhood days in Des Moines, Iowa, and a fascination with Charles Lindbergh’s accomplishments.
"I was 7 years old in 1927 when Lindbergh made his solo flight. I was motivated
by his skill, daring, dedication and desire for the unknown,’’ said
Smith. "I was not a large person, not athletic; I had no musical skills. So what
I decided was to do something achievable with the attributions and skills I had.
And there were very few opportunities in those days for us,’’ Smith
said of African-Americans.
Fate stepped into Smith’s life to fuel his interest.
"My younger brother and I hitchhiked to the Des Moines airport when I was 13.
He found $5, and that was enough for a plane ride. We managed to get two for
the price of one if we only took up one seat. I remember the pilot banked sharply
and I was scared to death, but it motivated me even more. When I was 14, I was
asked if I’d like to work at the airport cleaning up.’’
His enthusiasm must have been quickly noted. He caught the attention of airplane
mechanics who made him an "assistant’’ in wiping down and refueling
planes, which he considered "the thrill of a lifetime. Before the summer was
over, the local newspaper did a feature about me and told about my ambition
to become an aviator.’’
It would be an uphill struggle to gain the needed background and experience.
"The mail was being flown by Army reserves at that time. I listened every chance
I got for technical knowledge, seeing I’d have to know about navigation
and meteorology. I got an education and learned skills so that I would be prepared
when the opportunity came.’’
A pool of potential pilots
Opportunity arrived with World War II. The government held a civilian pilot
training program as a means of developing a pool of pilots. Smith became a
licensed pilot. He had been attending the University of Iowa as a mechanical
engineering major and took a hiatus for his aviation career.
"I was flying on Dec. 7, 1941, when we got the order to land every flight,’’ said
Smith, reflecting on what may have been the only occasion prior to Sept. 11,
2001, when air travel was completely grounded. "The thought that went through
my mind was,‘Oh, now maybe I’ll be admitted into military aviation.’ In
September 1942, I was directed to report to Tuskegee.’’
Like much of the South, the military was segregated. It was believed by some
that black soldiers could not handle the complexities and technology of aviation.
But the demands of entering the war after the Dec. 7 attack on Pearl Harbor
caused the government to launch what Smith said was at the time considered
an "experiment’’ of training black aviators.
"I went to Alabama, and it was my first time being in the South. There was segregation
all around except on base,’’ Smith said of the Tuskegee Army Airfield
where the training was done.
"It was integrated, and there was a sense of cooperation among the black cadets
and the military instructors, all of whom were white. The cadets felt there was
a unique opportunity for us to take advantage of the education.’’
Smith cites the leadership of Benjamin O. Davis, the first black West Point
graduate, as the reason for their success. Davis was in the first class of
13 cadets that graduated in March 1942, and was the foundation of the 99th
Pursuit Squadron. "He was our commander, intelligent, disciplined and visionary.
He knew how to relate to people who didn’t want him where he was.’’
The Tuskegee Airmen went on to become legendary. From 1942 to 1946, 992 airmen
were trained. Of that number, 450 went overseas in combat. This number is part
of a 16.4 million force involved in WWII. Smith graduated as a second lieutenant
in May 1943.
At the age of 22, he was a fighter pilot in Europe, flying P-39 Airocobra,
P-47 Thunderbolt and P-51 Mustang aircraft. During his career, he is credited
with destroying two German enemy aircraft in aerial combat and 10 German aircraft
in ground-strafing missions.
"We were told our mission was to‘reduce Germany’s ability to wage
war.’ The Germans realized they would have to get through us to their targets," Smith
Their success was outstanding, protecting 200 bombing missions without losing
a bomber. And that success helped bring more fame and particularly respect,
often more so from the enemy.
The Friday the 13th flight
Now a captain, Smith’s combat aviation career was scheduled to end in
October 1944, and he thought he might become an instructor. But on Oct. 13,
a Friday, on his 133rd and final combat mission, he parachuted from his burning
Mustang aircraft over Yugoslavia and was held prisoner for seven months until
the war ended. Badly injured, Smith was in a German hospital for that time,
and then hospitalized for two more years upon returning to America.
Smith was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with six Oak Leaf
Clusters, Purple Heart, eight European and Mediterranean Theaters Campaign
Ribbons, and the Prisoner of War Medal after being permanently injured on his
final combat mission.
The Senate recently approved him for the Congressional Gold Medal. Action is
now expected in the House.
"(The Tuskegee Airmen) had a tremendous impact on me as an individual, on black
and white Americans, and America itself. It was a transformation from segregation,
racism and discrimination to racial diversity. This began in the skies over Europe
and the attitudes developed by bomber pilots.’’
Smith was permanently physically disabled from his injuries. However, he was
extremely motivated by his survival to pursue goals and, long before the Army’s
tag line, be all he could be. He returned to the University of Iowa and finished
his degree in mechanical engineering, which was, he said, not a typical career
choice for black students. After some false starts, he was employed by General
Electric’s Missile and Space Operations in Philadelphia as an aerospace
engineer until his retirement in 1988. He and his wife, Lois, raised two children,
both Princeton graduates.
Among other honors and contributions, Smith served on the Architect-Engineer
Evaluation Jury that chose the design for the World War II Memorial on the
Mall in Washington, D.C. He was one of seven veterans chosen to accompany President
Bill Clinton to Europe for the 50th anniversary of the end of WW II. Moreover,
he has contributed significantly to the achievement of racial equality and
helped change the face of the military.
Smith and his fellow Tuskegee airmen have achieved legendary status and cannot