My life changed forever on March 28, 1945.
My dad, a naval aviator, was killed on that date in a military aircraft crash into the Chesapeake Bay off Oceana Naval Air Station, Virginia. It was two days before my fourth birthday.
Donald E. Smith joined the U.S. Navy as a teenage seaman and after serving two years in the fleet, Seaman Smith was accepted to the Naval Academy Prep School and then entered Annapolis where he graduated in 1938. Then, it was on to flight school at Pensacola, where he earned his aviation wings and then came World War II. Smith flew numerous combat missions in the North Atlantic and South Pacific during the war. He had risen to the rank of Lt. Commander, when he was sent home in mid March of 1945 and assigned a Squadron Command at Oceana. Ten days later he was dead.
Like so many families touched by the tragedy of war, my mom did her best to pull her life together. She brought my brother and me back to her parents’ small farm in New Jersey, where she worked hard as a department store clerk and insurance company cashier to support her young boys. Despite my grandparents’ financial and personal support, mom could not get over the tragedy. She never remarried, turned to alcohol for relief, and just kept the pain inside. We used to plead with her to date and remarry, but she would always say, “I am a one man woman.” Forty-eight long, lonely years later Mom passed away and my brother and I buried her in Arlington with the “love of her life.” The epitaph on their tombstone says, “Together Again.” This is taken from the country music song by Buck Owens and the opening stanza says:
the tears have stopped falling;
the long lonely nights have come to an end;
nothing else matters now, we’re together again.”
Despite this tragedy and pain our mother never let my brother and me forget that our dad was one hero in a long line of patriots from the precarious condition of George Washington’s army to the present. She instilled in us a strong sense of patriotism that became the benchmark of our own lives.
I left for Viet Nam with the U.S. Navy on her birthday in October of 1966 and she cried. When I returned a year later, I held her in my arms as we watched my brother head off to that war in a U.S. Army uniform. Fortunately for mom we both returned. She was always the patriot and never bitter.
I relay this personal story as my own way of thanking and remembering those veterans and family members who have sacrificed so much to keep this nation free. Don and Marge Smith are symbols of ALL the families and veterans who have carried the torch of freedom for over two hundred years for this great nation.
Words do not even begin to repay our veterans for what they have sacrificed.
Try to imagine the hardship and bravery of:
A patriot in a cold tent at Valley Forge.
A soldier facing a volley of gunfire at Gettysburg.
A marine trying to get on the beach against the Japanese at Iwo Jima.
A soldier trying to climb the cliffs of Normandy against a volley of German artillery fire.
A POW being tortured in Korea and Viet Nam.
A soldier with the U.S. military facing a roadside bomb in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Or even more poignant, walking through the acres of graves at Arlington or another military cemetery.
American servicemen and women have sacrificed all over the world for freedom, and as General Colin Powell so appropriately said, “All we ever asked in return was a place to bury our dead.”
Your mission for this weekend is to find a veteran, or his or her family member, and say, “thank you.” It will make you feel proud to be an American.
Thank you veterans and families. We remember and we appreciate all that you have done. God bless you!