Friday, October 02, 2015

In honor of U.S. Army Air Forces Maj. Al Smith

At least six young men from Lucas County are buried or commemorated on Tablets of the Missing at the Manilla American Cemetery, a staggering memorial to World War II honor and service, a stark reminder of  the cost.

Consider the numbers: more than 17,000 graves, each marked by a white cross; 36,285 names of the  missing (lost, unidentified or buried at sea) --- from Australia north to Japan, from India, China and Burma east to the Palau Islands --- engraved in white marble.

The physical remains of Andy Knapp, the first Lucas Countyan to die in the war, were reburied here after combat ended, moved from a temporary grave at Camp O'Donnell, also in the Philippines, last stop on the Bataan Death March.

Among the engraved names are those of Joseph J. Larson, Lyle H. Morris, Lyle E. Mosby, Raymond A. Nutt --- and Al Smith, a young man who loved to fly and died doing what he loved.


My late mother, when a girl, attended Sunday school at Central Christian Church in Williamson with Al (named Homer Lewis Smith by his parents but always called "Al"), his sister, Dorothey, and younger brothers, Harold and George Jr.  She also was his Chariton High School classmate.

Al was born August 20, 1914, when his parents, George Sr. and Helen Smith, were farming southwest of Williamson. In 1921, when he was 7, the family moved into Williamson where George Sr. opened a meat market. The eldest son learned his trade, that of a meat-cutter, from his father.

A 1934 graduate of Chariton High School, Al attended a year of classes at Chariton Junior College, then went to work in the meat departments of various Chariton grocery stores --- Spiker's, Ruddells and Blanchard's among them.

On Jan. 1, 1940, Al and a young woman named Mary Ellen Clark were first in line at the Lucas County clerk's office to receive the first marriage license issued that year. They were married the same afternoon, a Monday, at the First Christian Church parsonage.


Smith's best friend in those years after high school was a coal miner's son named Bassel Blakesmith, in part because the two young men shared a love of flying. Al and Bassel and other young men from Chariton traveled to Ottumwa during the late 1930s to take flying lessons, then invested --- when they could afford to do so --- in planes of their own.

There were occasional mishaps, but nothing serious. During June of 1940, attempting a landing on too short a runway at "Brown's Airport" just north of Chariton, Al nosed his plane into the ground and flipped it over. Neither the pilot nor the craft was seriously injured, however.

During August of 1940, Blakesmith and Smith formed a partnership and purchased George Blanchard's Jack Spratt Grocery on the east side of the square. This was located in the building, then separate, that now forms the south half of Betty Hansen's Iowa Realty offices. Bassel operated the grocery and vegetable departments; Al, the meat department. Significantly, Al's sister, Dorothey Smith, signed on as chief clerk.

The two men also had invested jointly in an American Eagle Biplane, which they kept at the Des Moines Airport. That plane was heavily damaged during a wind storm at the airport during April of 1941, but the two pilots soon were airborne again.


The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, propelled the United States into war in both  Pacific and European theaters --- and both Smith and Blakesmith, into the service of their country.

The men wanted to be pilots and set their sights on the U.S. Army Air Corps.

At the time, two years of college or successful completion of a challenging academic test were required of all potential Air Corps pilots. Since neither man had met the college requirement, both took the test --- and passed with flying colors. They enlisted together on Feb. 24, 1942, and left Chariton together for training in Texas on March 23.

Al's sister, Dorothey, had agreed to operate the grocery store for the duration of the war and, somewhat more importantly, had agreed to marry Bassel, although the ceremony would not take place until November. The friends then became brothers-in-law, too.


The two men completed basic training together and both were assigned to the Waco Army Basic Flying School, Waco, Texas --- but then their paths diverged. Al was assigned to advanced fighter pilot school (known as the "Satan's Angels school" at Foster Field, Victoria, Texas; and Bassel, to bomber pilot training school at Kelly Field, Texas.

Both were commissioned second lieutenants and awarded their silver wings during early November.

Dorothey Smith traveled to Texas for Bassel's graduation ceremony and they were married the same day, Nov. 10, in the post chapel at Kelly Field.


Smith was assigned after receiving his wings to the 338th Fighter Group at Dale Mabry Field, Tallahassee, Florida, and proved to be both an exemplary pilot --- and a top instructor. As a result, he spent the next two years as a supervisor of flight training in Florida, Georgia and Alabama, advancing in rank to 1st lieutenant during September of 1943 and captain in February of 1944.

In April of 1945, however, he was reassigned to the 530th Fighter Squadron, then operating in the China theater of operations.

Al was shot down over China on his 21st mission, but almost miraculously survived --- walking some 500 miles from behind enemy lines to safety with a minor leg wound. His family in Chariton received the news that he was missing during August of 1945, then a month later, learned that he was safe.

There was considerable rejoicing in Chariton --- Al was safe, the war in Europe had ended, hostilities in the Pacific theatre had ceased (officially) a few days after Al was shot down behind enemy lines and Japan had surrendered formally on Sept. 2.

Following his safe return, Al wrote the following letter to his mother, describing his experience --- and it was published in The Herald-Patriot of October 11, 1945.


How happy I am to be able to write you this letter. I only regret that I was not able to write it sooner to save you so much worry, at a time when you could have all been so happy with the news of peace.

I cannot tell you any details of my experience --- but you can rest assured I'm O.K. I spent 41 days walking out to where one of our planes could pick me up. My parachute jump was O.K. except I did not have my own and had one too large which gave me a few burns and bruises around the neck, shoulders and legs. My only other injury was a bullet that went through the cockpit and hit me in the right leg. It was my 21st mission and one I'll never forget I'm sure.

As I told Mary, I certainly know the loneliest feeling in the world. It was when those other three P-51's left me out there, 500 miles behind Japanese lines by the side of a little cornfield. God, I could have cried while I watched them go out of sight. Then I woke up to the fact I'd better get mysef gathered up and get the thunder out of there, so I gathered up my parachute and ran like mad. I had quite a time getting away, but made it O.K. God, I ran until I thought I would drop, and then run some more and more.

I was shot down at 11:30 in the morning and that went on until dark --- sore leg and all. Boy, but I'm telling you there is almost no limit to what you can stand when you known you have to and I'm telling you, you sure don't feel like being taken prisoner --- or I didn't.

I brought the silk of my parachute out all the way with me. It's really beautiful, I thought you and Mary and Dorothey might like to make something out of it. God, I almost threw it away at times when it seemed like I couldn't get away unless I did. I'll be mailing it home soon --- along with some other things. I got a Japanese sword and a pistol as souvenirs of my 41-day trip.

Well, it's about time for the lights to go out so I'll have to close for now, but I'll write again soon, as I want this to get off early in the morning. With all my love, hugs and kisses for the best mom and dad, sister and brother in the world, and so sorry I've caused you all so much worry.


The arrival of peace meant a safe return home to Lucas County for Al's friend and brother-in-law, Bassel Blakesmith, but Al still had work to do.

Now promoted to the rank of major --- and with a Purple Heart medal --- he was assigned to ferry P-51 Fighters "over the hump" from Andal, India, to Shanghai.

And it was on one of those missions that severe weather --- it is believed --- brought his plane down on Nov. 19, 1945, somewhere in vicinity of Hankow, China.

This time there was no good news, neither plane nor pilot ever was seen again and a year later, the U.S. Army declared Maj. Homer Lewis "Al" Smith dead. He was 31.

There never was a funeral, but some years later his family arranged for a memorial marker to be placed on the Smith family lot in the Chariton Cemetery --- then his name was engraved on one of those memorial tablets in Manilla.

The family moved on --- always remembering, of course. Mary (Clark) Smith remarried during 1948 --- to Leck Young --- and lived a long life in Chariton. But   most if not all who knew him intimately have passed over the great divide, too, by now. Who remains to say Al Smith's name and tell something of his story?


Donald Hixenbaugh said...

Any relation to Dwight (Moody) and Burdette Smith.

Frank D. Myers said...

I don't believe so.