Serving Their Country Runs in the Family

In World War I, the Smiths had six maternal uncles fight overseas while their father served stateside due to a hernia.

In World War II, the family had eight brothers serve. Jim is the eldest, now 94. His brother, 92, lives next door.

Jim’s three sons continued the tradition. All are now retired from the Army National Guard. His two grandsons served in Iraq.

“We loved our country,” Jim said. “I don’t consider myself a hero, but I figured I had to do my part.”

Jim and Bill were raised in rural Ewing. The family, which has four younger sisters in addition to the brothers, later moved to Hamilton.

During the Depression, their father, a machinist, couldn’t get work. He eventually joined the Works Project Administration in Trenton.

Jim dropped out of high school to work for the Civilian Conservation Corps in northern Idaho. He worked planting trees where forest fires had occurred. He was seventeen.

Jim stayed nearer to home, working for the Mercer Rubber Company in Hamilton Square.

“The job was boring. I couldn’t wait to be drafted, so I signed up,” Jim said.

At the age of 20, Jim joined the Army Air Corps and became a radio operator for the First Air Division of the Eighth Air Force.

He flew with thousands of B-24s across the English Channel, part of the inspiration for the film Twelve O’Clock High. Allergies made it difficult for him to breath at high altitudes, so he was transferred to headquarters in Huntington, England.

Jim was later sent to France to work a mobile radio unit until the end of the war. His job was to communicate with Headquarters about targets using coded messages.

He had close calls. Once, he was in a farmer’s field beside a barn when a German patrol came along. The farmer dumped hay on his truck, and Jim waited for the patrol to pass.

“Other than that I was pretty safe. You get used to it. It’s not like the infantry, who were under fire all the time, for us it was occasional times we were in danger.”

He feels that he is fortunate that he didn’t fly since the Eighth Air Force lost 25,000 men or fight in the infantry like his brother Bill.

During the Battle of the Bulge, at Christmas, Jim received a gift of humanity from a German pilot. “One time I was in my truck sending a message when a plane came over, and I had to jump out and run like the devil to get out of there.”

The American soldiers were surprised when, on Christmas Eve, the German pilot wagged his wings and kept on flying.

Bill was less fortunate in the infantry. When he was still 18 years old, he was wading in chest-deep water onto Omaha Beach. He was part of the replacements for the men who were killed in the D-Day invasion four days before. They made it to the beach while under constant mortar fire.

They were assigned to digging trenches. Just as they finished, the Germans began shooting at them. “They told us it was the Germans’ way to welcome us.”

Bill remembers seeing the dead bodies. “They were laying on the ground,” he said. “One had a newspaper over his face, the other was down in a ditch, and he was in a praying position. We started looking, and they said, ‘Move it up, never mind them.’”

Bill was injured in the town of Vire on August 3, 1941, during the Battle of Saint-Lô in Normandy. Most of the town was destroyed in the fighting. The Germans had the barn Bill was hiding in surrounded, so he ran and was hit from behind by a tank shell.

“I blew my [right] hand off, had internal injuries, lost partial hearing from the war … I have two ribs missing, and dislocated another rib in 1965 … and have pieces of shrapnel in two parts of my body that were inoperable – the back of my head and lower spine,” Bill said.

His life was saved by a mandolin strapped to his back. He had picked it up as a souvenir.

He received the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star with an oak leaf cluster.

His injuries were so extensive that a buddy he ran into after the war acted as if he saw a ghost. They had been told Bill didn’t survive the wounds.

Bill returned to the States and underwent operations and therapy in Atlantic City. When he was discharged, he took a cab home from the train station. The cabbie refused payment, saying, “You don’t owe me anything. You’ve paid your price.”

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE