Honoree's career spans 32 years, three wars

  • Published
  • By Airman Ashley J. Cass
  • 28th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 23.2 million veterans living in the United States in 2008. Out of that number, a mere 92,000 people had consecutively served in World War II, the Korean War and the war in Vietnam. Retired Lt. Col. Donald Smith is one of those few.

Born in 1922, Smith grew up in a rural area of Wisconsin, near Wisconsin Dells. He began working for the Soo Line Railroad after graduating from high school, but soon moved on to a higher calling.

"When I was 9 or 10 years old, I saw a large group of airplanes fly by," Smith said. "I found out later that they were racing from Minneapolis to Chicago. Watching them enthused me so much that I never gave up on it. I wanted to get in one of those airplanes."

Pursuing his dream of flying, Smith enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps Aviation Cadet program on Sept. 10, 1942. After training in PT-19, BT-13 and UC-78 aircraft in Sioux City, Iowa, he received a commission as a second lieutenant Jan. 7, 1944.

Smith said his first assignment was at Royal Air Force Molesworth in England with the 303rd Bomb Group, the original Hell's Angels.

"I arrived in Europe in June of 1944," Smith said. "I was stationed at Molesworth, which is 90 miles due north of London."

As a B-17 co-pilot, Smith participated in 34 combat missions striking enemy targets in Germany and Czechoslovakia during his European tour.

"I sustained damage to my plane on about 70 percent of those missions," Smith said. "I certainly didn't enjoy being shot at. That's one of the things that really scared me. But they didn't send you somewhere for a joyride, there was a plan."

Being under enemy fire wasn't the only thing he had to worry about. On at least three different missions, Smith lost the use of two of his engines.

"That's scary when you go a great distance, and then you lose two engines," Smith said. "As soon as planes fell out of the flight formation and went to the back they were picked off by enemy fighters."

Rory Adams, an on-site operational support consultant for Ellsworth and former aviator, explained that the casualty rate for B-17 crews was high during that time.

"They were losing up to 700 people a day," Adams said. "Losing an engine was normally the kiss of death."

Smith and his crew were able to make it back from those flights safely through the help of cloud cover and P-51 Mustangs that provided critical fighter support for the big bombers.

"We went in the clouds once," Smith said. "Another time, we had P-51s latch onto us. We really looked for the P-51s on our wing. Having them there made a lot of difference."

Smith said once he completed his service in the skies over Europe, he went on to fly B-24s and C-54s transporting personnel and supplies into Japan when the armistice was signed.

"When I came back from Europe, I wanted to wipe that all out of my mind," Smith said. "I lost some very dear friends in flight. So, they put me in a cargo aircraft, and I loved every minute I was flying."

After transferring to the USAF Reserve, Smith was assigned to a Wisconsin reserve unit in 1946, and reactivated in 1951 to fly C-54s to deliver personnel and supplies into Korea.

Smith then became an instructor pilot and squadron maintenance officer while he was assigned to Donaldson Air Force Base in South Carolina. He flew C-124 Globemasters for a total of 6,600 hours in the early 1950s.

In 1965, as a major, Smith began work with the 403rd Wing 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron located at Keesler AFB in Biloxi, Miss. He flew missions that allowed scientists to collect data that would help them to predict weather patterns indicative of hurricanes on the coast of the United States.

Smith was assigned to Phan Rang Air Base in Vietnam in 1970 as the 14th Field Maintenance Wing Special Operations Wing chief of maintenance. His next destination would be to Dover AFB, Del. with the 436th Military Aircraft Wing as control staff officer, where he retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1974.

Smith, now a resident of Black Hawk, S.D., spends his time volunteering at Ellsworth and in the surrounding community.

"I've done everything from build houses to help in the pharmacy at Ellsworth," Smith said. "There's not much I haven't done."

During his career as an aviator, Smith received the Bronze Star, Air Force Commendation Medal, Air Force Air Medal with six oak leaf clusters and the Meritorious Service Medal with one oak leaf cluster. He will be recognized again next month in Sturgis, S.D, during Military Appreciation Day as part of the 72nd Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and Race.

On Aug. 7, the Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter in Sturgis will honor Smith, at the conclusion of the annual Ellsworth Dakota Thunder Run. Smith will be presented a U.S. flag that was flown over Kabul, Afghanistan, to mark the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on 9/11 housed in a very special case. Included in the case with the flag is a piece of the 88mm shell that blew Smith's left rudder pedal off during one of his missions over Germany.

Adams commented that many people who are selected by the Sturgis VFW and the city of Sturgis to be recognized during the event or to receive an award for their service may not understand why they were chosen instead of other veterans.

"He is being recognized because he represents someone who has served his country and was repeatedly in harm's way," Adams said. "He has seen and been through it all."

Smith said he believes the day in Sturgis will be an emotional one for him and his family.
"I'm afraid having my children there with me is going to overwhelm me," Smith said. "I know my family is going to be overjoyed."

Smith also commented that he is thankful to have made it - relatively unharmed - through three wars, 32 years of military service and tallying 9,000 flying hours.

"I've played cards with the guys for the last 30 years, and they always say, `You're the luckiest guy there is'," Smith said. "I am lucky, I know that. They're referring to the card game, but I know that's not where I'm really lucky. I made it back without a scratch. How you do that, I don't know."

For more information about the Sturgis Rally Military Appreciation Day, call (605) 642-8166 or send an e-mail to info@blackhills.com.